Mother of three Mary Nyalok believes she is no different from the other 120,000 internally displaced people living in an UN-protected camp in Bentiu in South Sudan when she says that “if the guns are silent, I will go home.”
She has been living in the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site since December 2013, when fighting erupted between government SPLA forces and opposition fighters.
“I saw two people who were killed outside my house in Bentiu town and fled for the camp after I lost my 37 cattle and my house which was looted and destroyed.”
In a camp that was originally designed to accommodate 60,000 people, the living conditions are cramped and rudimentary. Some 27 humanitarian organizations provide life-saving assistance there with more than 19,000 children under the age of five enrolled in supplementary feeding programmes. Despite the harsh circumstances, around 16,000 children are getting an education.
Now expecting her fourth child, Mary Nyalok is hoping the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) can help to bring peace and a normal life.
“I pray that the UN can work with the government of my country and help to bring peace. I will know it is safe to go home when there are no more soldiers in the streets,” she said.
UNMISS and its partners have been working to build confidence amongst people like Mary Nyalok, whose former house is just 7 miles from the camp where she now lives. In 2016, UNMISS launched a campaign it called Beyond Bentiu, which aimed to reach people with humanitarian assistance outside the major towns and build the confidence of others to go home.
A combination of the political will of the local authorities, increased patrols by UN peacekeepers and humanitarian aid provided by the UN and other agencies was enough to persuade 36,000 people to leave the camp by June 2016 and restart their lives at home. However, the resumption of hostilities between government and opposition forces in the capital Juba, some 300 miles away, in July of that year made people go back into the protection of civilians site even though there was no fighting in Bentiu itself. The number of people at the PoC site has again reached 120,000.
On his first visit to Bentiu, the new head of UNMISS, David Shearer, toured the site to get an idea of the challenges facing humanitarians and peacekeepers.
He praised the cooperation between UNMISS and the local government following his meeting with the Governor of Northern Liech State, Joseph Monytuil and said:
“We looked at how we can try to encourage people, give them the sense of physical security and economic security to start moving to their homes. For that to happen, the guns must be silenced and the government must do its part to provide security to all the citizens of the region.”
The UN can be a partner in this endeavor. An intensification of patrols by UN peacekeepers outside Bentiu is one possibility to build that confidence.
The state authorities have been working to reconcile communities which have been torn apart by the combination of war and violent theft of property, including cattle raiding. That reconciliation process has enabled some people to feel more confident about leaving the protection of civilians site and resuming a normal life at home.
One logistical challenge facing the authorities is the poor state of the road infrastructure, especially the secondary roads which are critical to the delivery of aid outside Bentiu, and ultimately as a driver of economic development.
“Road maintenance is crucial,” said State Governor Joseph Monytuil, adding:
“We will continue to work closely with UNMISS to give freer access for NGOs to reach needy people wherever they are.”