Cover Story

In the shadow of war

"In the shadow of war" Continued...

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

It's also a tragedy for the thousands flowing over the border into refugee camps with few resources. Here in Yida, refugees say they are low on critical supplies just weeks ahead of a rainy season set to begin by this month. Those rains will cut off supply routes to the camp. And while the United States has committed some $26 million to the UN to help refugees in the region, some say they aren't getting the resources they need to help themselves.

That's one of the striking dynamics in Yida: Though the refugees can't survive in the barren region without outside assistance (the nearest town is nearly three hours away by car), they long to work hard and care for themselves. Since coming here, they've built homes, a school, a market, and seven churches with materials they gathered in the surrounding bush-all while surviving on 30-day food rations that run low fast.

Saliman, after coming here with his congregation last September, is busier than ever in his work as a minister, writing sermons without the study materials he left behind and helping church members cope with loss and deprivation.

During an early morning meeting with six other pastors living in Yida, the ministers prayed for their churches and meditated on Jesus' words in Matthew 26: "The poor you will always have with you." Saliman talked about his own poverty-stricken congregation: "I encourage them to forget what is back in the mountains. Maybe the Lord will help them with the things they lost."

In many cases, the losses are overwhelming. Near the north side of the camp, Zara Tutu crouches under a tree and points to the small thatched hut she's trying to build for her eight young children. For now, she sits in a tiny patch of shade during the heat of the day when temperatures soar above 110 degrees.

The young mother says she and her children arrived here 20 days ago after walking 10 days to reach the camp. (She says her husband will join them soon.) Tutu describes constant shelling and aerial bombardment of her village in the Nuba Mountains by northern Sudanese troops. After months of aggression, she says food ran out: "I decided to bring my children here instead of allowing them to starve."

It wasn't an easy decision. Saving her children meant leaving behind her elderly father who wasn't strong enough for the trek. He insisted she take the children. "So I went and collected water, cooked food for him, and left," she says. "That's the grave for him. There's no way out."

Nearby, another recent arrival in Yida mourns the family she left behind. Crouching on the ground outside a hut, the elderly woman says she lost her daughter-in-law and a grandchild during a bombardment in the Nuba Mountains that destroyed her home. Her son said his remaining children wouldn't endure a long journey, so he sent his mother with another group of refugees. The group walked five days. She believes she won't see her family again: "It's not possible."

Some refugees manage to buy passage to the camp in a car or truck, but many say they can't afford a trip back to check on family. Hawa Haran and her five children came here by car three weeks ago but doubts they'll be able to return to visit the mother and brother she left behind. Haran already lost her husband last June when ground troops killed him during a village raid.

Hunched on a low stump outside a small hut, Haran's face bears the marks of loss. She stares into the distance when she speaks. Her eyes carry a mixture of shock, sadness, and resignation.

And the young widow is facing difficulties in the camp. She arrived a few days after aid organizations had distributed the latest 30-day food ration for each family. That means she's waited nearly a month for her own food supply. Neighbors are sharing their own small rations. It's not much, but Haran says supplies here are more plentiful than in Nuba: "I want to stay here so I can care for my children."

Children abound in the camp, including some who have come on their own. Refugee churches and aid organizations are struggling to make arrangements for a growing number of orphans and other unaccompanied minors. One refugee widow is caring for eight children who arrived without parents.

During the hottest part of the day, a group of children playing under one of the few trees in the camp seem resilient against the heat and deprivation of Yida. One little boy in a torn blue T-shirt can't remember how long he's lived here with his family, but he knows they walked three days before arriving. He also knows how much he's had to eat today: one cup of boiled sorghum. When asked if he'll eat dinner, he replies: "No, that's all for today."

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