Conflict in southern Sudan drives people from Abyei

Andy Schaefer, CRS (Catholic Relied Services is a Caritas member) technical adviser  for emergency coordination, is in Agok, Sudan working to assist some of the more than 90,000 people displaced by recent violence in the contested border area of Abyei, Sudan. After an eleven hour journey by plane and car, the CRS team arrives in Agok.

As we drove we passed blossoming trees, cattle, goats, and sometimes people walking along the road and carrying whatever belongings they could salvage. Some carried mattresses while others escaped only with the clothes they had on their backs. The closer we got to Agok, on the second leg of our trip, the more people we saw on the roads. Makeshift camps covered the town. Every available space was filled with people. Storefront verandas teemed with sleeping children and women nursing babies. There was no privacy. Whatever items they owned lay at their feet: a plastic sleeping mat, a piece of fabric to towel off, or a cooking pot.

The market was teeming with people. The stalls were fairly barren and what was available was marked up at least 50 percent from what you would pay in Juba or Wau. But the market has become more than a place for stocking up on needed supplies, it is now the social focal point where people gather to search for lost loved ones or swap plans on what to do next.

One of our concerns is about the safety of women and children. As is usually the case in any emergency, we’re finding that many children were separated from their families. Aid agencies are working together to help reunite children with their parents.

I spoke to a group of women who fled Abyei with only what they had on. They can’t even wash their clothes because they have nothing to wear. There is no privacy in the camps. For me what is most striking is how difficult it is for people to maintain a modicum of dignity when they’re sleeping under trees. It’s raining. There is no shelter.

When I say people are sleeping under trees I mean literally sleeping in the mud. The rains also increase the mosquito population and the risk of malaria. For those who are stronger it’s okay, but for anyone who is sick or facing post-traumatic stress these are trying times. They’ve lost everything. In addition to their homes and belongings, many of the displaced had food stocks they had saved up for summer or seeds to plant for the harvest, all of that was most likely lost. Tools and wheelbarrows or shovels and hoes are valuable assets. For a subsistence farmer, losing these items is like losing your life savings.

Catholic Relief Services’ first steps will be to provide immediate emergency services in coordination with the Caritas Network. We will distribute plastic buckets for collecting water and bathing, plastic sheeting for shelter, rope to tie that sheeting to trees, mosquito nets for malaria prevention, khangas (traditional cloth worn by East African women) for privacy walls or to serve as clothing for women, and hand soap to help with disease prevention. There are no toilets and people are relieving themselves in open areas. This could become a huge health problem after heavier rains.

While there are some hand pumps for people to access water, they don’t meet general humanitarian standards of filling up a 20-litre container in in less than a minute. This leads to long lines and even longer waits. Women are waiting for hours under the hot sun. I saw two of them begin fighting over whose turn it was when they finally reached the pump.

There are so many stresses: a lost child, lost homes, no privacy. They are accumulating and causing outbursts. As a humanitarian aid agency we have to do all that we can to help alleviate this suffering and help improve living conditions for all the displaced.

Despite all this suffering and challenges the people of southern Sudan are resilient and will overcome these hardships again. The courage and strength of these people, despite all these life threatening situations, is inspiring. Their hope and vision of looking to the future encourages our team to find community based solutions to help those in need.

This post has been edited by Caritas Internationalis. To see the original article please visit CRS Voices

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