HOVERING AT AROUND 40C every day, the heat is barely tolerable. Yet there are people all around me, more than 36,000 of them, who walked for weeks, sometimes months, in similar temperatures to reach this place. Their arduous journeys were not without cost. There is barely a family at Kule refugee camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, that did not lose a child, and sometimes two or three, during the flight from South Sudan.
So urgent was their need to escape the tribal-based violence that has been ravaging large parts of South Sudan since last December – and has thus far cost tens of thousands of lives – most people ran with only the clothes they stood up in. These now hang as sweat-stained rags on many of the women, and have long ago largely perished and almost completely disappeared from the youngest children, most of whom are garbed only in a single piece of underwear.
Few of the men have been heard from
Ninety per cent of the inhabitants of Kule refugee camp are women, children and youths. The husbands and fathers stayed behind in South Sudan to defend their properties against attack. Few of the men have been heard from since. Occasionally a wailing will erupt soon after the arrival of a new contingent of refugees, signalling that someone has brought news from home of the death of a loved one.
Given what they have already been through, it’s hardly surprising that when the South Sudanese refugees first arrive at Kule camp (often as many as 2,000 a day) they are in very poor physical condition. Close to 50 per cent of the children are suffering to some degree from malnutrition. More than 20 per cent are severely malnourished, and nearly 10 per cent have severe acute malnutrition. Malaria is commonplace, and measles, diarrhoea, and respiratory problems are prevalent. Without immediate medical attention, a child can easily die from such an illness. Sometimes even the best of medical care is not enough to save them.
GOAL registers the refugees as they arrive and checks their health status. This is a vital early intervention, as the organisation is also responsible for providing the nutrition and medical programmes at Kule camp. There are two refugee camps in the Gambella region, and another two under construction. Our organisation will deliver similar programmes to the population of at least one of the new camps.
Kule may provide a safe refuge from the violence in South Sudan, but it is far from comfortable and contains other, less overt, threats to life.
Latrine facilities are communal
It is not uncommon to find two or three families sharing one of the swelteringly hot, fly-infested white UNHCR tents that now serve as homes for the refugees. Latrine facilities are communal, and drinking water has to be brought to the camp each day in tanker-lorries. In such conditions, illnesses and disease are a constant, and can spread like wildfire through the population.
The situation will become even more fraught in a few weeks’ time when the rainy season begins. The rains will bring mosquitos and, consequently, a rise in the incidence of malaria. Heavy rainfall may cause latrines to overflow, and some tents will be swamped, substantially increasing the risk of cholera and other deadly diseases.
What began early last year as a political falling out between the president of South Sudan, Salva Kir, and his deputy, Riek Machar (respectively members of the largest and second-largest tribes) degenerated last December into tribal-based violence that quickly spread across many parts of the country. To date, aside from the thousands of deaths, more than one million people have been displaced from their homes, and over 250,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Ethiopia is currently hosting close to 100,000 South Sudanese refugees, and this is predicted to rise to 200,000 by the end of 2014.
Famine is coming
The situation in South Sudan already represents a major humanitarian crisis, and is set to get even worse. Famine is now virtually a certainty, as farmers have been unable to plant crops because of the conflict. They need to do so before the rains come in a few weeks, but the chances of the violence ceasing any time soon appear close to nil.
When famine does take a hold, the current crisis will escalate into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. UNICEF in South Sudan is already predicting that 50,000 children under five-years-of-age could die of hunger before the year is out.
South Sudan’s prospects seemed bright less than three years ago, when, after decades of conflict, it finally gained its independence from Sudan. How different the future looks for the world’s newest country now.
The lesson of Ethiopia
But there is always hope. After all, a mere 30 years ago, at the height of the 1984/85 famine in Ethiopia, when GOAL first established a presence there, not many would have given much for its future. Yet today Ethiopia is able to host one million refugees that have fled from other, neighbouring countries.
The lesson of Ethiopia is that we should be very wary of declaring any country a “failed state”. There is a finality to that judgement which is seldom (if ever) warranted. History has shown that there are really only nations that need help to progress.
At the moment, South Sudan is one such nation, and its people need all the help we can give them.
David Adams is a media officer with GOAL. To donate to GOAL, please visit www.goal.ie, or telephone 01-2809 779.
Uploaded by GOAL Humanitarian Organisation