THE BLOG

From Antonovs to Frisbees

08/09/2012 10:55 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2012

"When the Antonovs came we had to run."

Sitting under the shade of a tree, 20-year-old Gisma recounts her terrifying ordeal, fleeing bombings in her village of Kukur in Sudan's Blue Nile State. She is cradling her 2-year-old daughter, Amna, who's been battling a cold and fever. Amna slowly drifts to sleep as Gisma continues her story.

"They bombed my home and my neighbor's home. We had to leave right away. We took nothing with us except our livestock." Gisma, her husband and only child, along with their parents and neighbors, began the long journey in search of safety.

For seven days they walked, sleeping outside at night, foraging for any food they could find in the trees, on the ground. Her daughter fell ill, but survived. She was lucky. "We saw many children die," she says.

Gisma's story is frighteningly similar to so many others who fled across the border into Maban County, in South Sudan's Upper Nile State: bombings of their home villages; a many days-long journey by foot; carrying little more than the clothes on their backs; witnessing sickness and death along the way.

Today, more than 100,000 refugees from Sudan have settled here in Maban. It's been just over a year since South Sudan became the world's newest nation. Yet hostilities in many areas in the north -- the result of decades-old disputes over land, sovereignty, oil rights, race, and religion -- continue to drive civilians out of their homes.

They flee a violent region for another that, while comparatively safer, is equally resource-poor and in the throes of a rainy season that turns land into mud, makes proper hygiene and sanitation near impossible, and is a breeding ground for disease. Gisma, like thousands of others, settled in one refugee camp, Jamman, only to see it flooded. Now they are being bused to Gendrassa camp, which topographically is better suited to handle the rains.

These refugees arrive at International Medical Corps' clinic weak and malnourished. Dr. Sol Kuah, who has worked with us in Haiti and Libya and now is medical director here in Maban, says when the children die, it is difficult to know the root cause. "Is it the malaria or the pneumonia or the malnutrition? I think the malnutrition underlies all of it. It makes them so weak that they are susceptible to any number of illnesses."

It is sobering to watch hundreds and hundreds of malnourished, sick, coughing, weak, crying children, file through our clinic. Their needs are immense.

And yet... as I walk through Gendrassa camp amid the thousands of UN Refugee Agency tents, pondering the dire statistics, the horrific tales, the rain and mud and illness, I also notice that the camp is teeming with children laughing and playing, parents cooking and cleaning clothes with their families and neighbors, smiling and coping and rebuilding some sort of new life.

The world "resilience" is used a lot in humanitarian parlance, but looking around there is no doubt these people of Gendrassa camp are strikingly resilient, despite facing the most devastating of life circumstances.

Dahbaya is one. Eight months pregnant, she and her husband decided to leave the relentless violence in their village in Blue Nile State after a man was shot and killed before their eyes, in front of their home. They trekked eight days by foot from Sudan to here, their three young children in tow. Dahbaya should be -- probably often is -- despondent with worry and fear. She left her family behind and has no way of knowing if they're alright. But when I first come upon her outside her tent she is laughing with her children, cooking porridge over the fire. If she has problems -- and I know she does -- she is not showing it. She is eager to tell me her story, what she has experienced, eager to show off her baby for my camera, quick to flash her super-wattage smile.

At a nearby tent, two young women are lounging in the sun, chatting, giggling, one braiding the other's hair.

A few steps further I come upon a group of about 20 children, playing with a rope-swing hanging from an enormous baobab tree, taking turns pushing each other to peals of laughter. They're having a blast.

Late in the day, after all the patients have been seen, some of our doctors and nurses strike up an ad hoc Frisbee game (thanks to the plastic top of a water jug) with refugees and members of the host community in a makeshift market in the camp. With just a few throws, these new players are transformed into near-experts. Round and round the Frisbee flies: 12-year-old refugee boy throws to 50-year-old sheik, throws to 16-year-old South Sudanese schoolgirl, throws to one of our nurses from Boston. Our little multi-cultural, multi-generational, mini-Olympics.

It almost makes you forget this is a refugee camp and its inhabitants have endured -- and will continue to endure -- a tremendous amount of suffering.

How long will they remain here? No doubt years.

I remember Gisma's words, reflecting on the past, the current, and the someday: "There were a lot of people shooting guns in my village. It feels peaceful here. I don't hear the guns anymore. When the war stops I hope to go home."