South Sudan - Fleeing violence and returning home

10/27/2011 03:49 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011

Women from Blue Nile State struggle to survive

By Surendrini Wijeyaratne of Oxfam International

Juba: Arriving in Mina transit camp in South Sudan's Upper Nile state, I am surrounded by hundreds of women and men who'd just arrived from Khartoum and were now busily off-loading packed buses of household items onto donkey-pulled carts. These are "returnees", South Sudanese who left the region during Sudan's north-south civil war and have now come back. The 2005 north-south peace deal that ended the civil war provided for the south to gain its independence in July, making South Sudan the world's newest nation as well these people's homeland.

People hurry to beat the rain and prepare makeshift homes built of branches and plastic sheeting. They pile up chairs, beds, and suitcases overfilled with clothes into any space they can find and squeeze their families into the few feet of shelter the plastic sheeting provides. A privileged few have even brought satellite TV dishes and laptops. Mina is just the first stop in what will be a long process of returning home.

Among the hustle and bustle of some 2,000 new arrivals, I see a small group of women speaking with one of Oxfam's community health volunteers. Unlike nearly everyone else in the camp, these women have nothing. No suitcases, no trunks, no household belongings.

Our volunteer explains the women had arrived 10 days earlier from Blue Nile State, just over the world's newest international border with the north, and are trying to register in Mina camp. Unlike the others, these women did not come here with UN support; they fled fighting that erupted Blue Nile State.

Abuk, one of the women, told me about her experiences while breastfeeding her baby.
"There was terrible fighting in Damazine [Blue Nile State's capital] between the army and the SPLM-N. I grabbed my baby and ran. I had to leave my other children behind because I could not carry them all. People fled in all directions. I don't know where my family is now. Many people died."

Abuk left behind six other children and her husband. "When fighting started, when I heard bullets, I didn't stop to ask who is shooting or to think. I just grabbed my child and ran," she continued, perhaps reacting to the surprise on my face that she left behind her children. I struggle but cannot imagine the fear she must have felt as a mother in that situation.

The women escaped on foot, getting occasional help from passing trucks that would take them to the next town. During their three day journey from Damazine to Upper Nile, the women say they survived by drinking rain water and through the generosity of people on the way who gave them food.

The irony is that like the returnees in Mina who came bringing all their worldly possessions, Abuk and the women with her are also originally from South Sudan. They fled to Blue Nile State during the north-south war looking for safety. Once again forced to flee violence, they are now back in their own country, looking for the kind of help refugees of war often need. They want plastic sheeting to build a simple shelter against the rain. They have been sleeping in the open air and are afraid their children are getting sick.

Most of the estimated 50,000 people forced to flee the fighting in Blue Nile have become refugees in neighboring Ethiopia. Abuk is part of a much smaller group of a few thousand who now find themselves in a very difficult situation pushed by fighting into a strange new 'home' they have been away from for years, where they do not fit into assistance programs for returnees or for refugees.

The women said that overall life was hard in Sudan's Blue Nile State because they were often mistreated, and because their children were seen as foreigners and not allowed into local schools. They had wanted to return back to South Sudan. But not like this. Not forced out again by conflict.
When I met them, the women were largely fending for themselves while others, many in better situations, were provided with assistance.

"I don't know when war will stop. There is no going back now. We came with our children, this has to be their new home," another woman, Awida, said.

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