Cover Story

In the shadow of war

"In the shadow of war" Continued...

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

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) has been supplying food rations for the camp using international standards for refugee supplies. The Christian aid group Samaritan's Purse maintains a small compound and staff on site and distributes the food rations according to a distribution schedule dictated by WFP. Each 30-day food ration includes a supply of sorghum, beans, oil, and salt for each member of the family. (UN workers don't stay at the camp, citing safety concerns over recent violence in nearby cities, including the oil town of Bentiu.)

The program includes extra food supplements for nursing and pregnant mothers, and Samaritan's Purse operates a nutrition compound for malnourished children under age 5.

Some children have additional problems that often mirror the most common maladies experienced by adults in Yida: vomiting and diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria.

Another aid organization, Doctors Without Borders, operates a small field hospital in Yida and an outpatient clinic that has seen as many as 700 patients a week. Two other relief groups, CARE and the International Rescue Committee, have also assisted with medical care and treatment for incidents of rape or violence in the camp.

But the most vulnerable patients remain malnourished children with weakened immune systems and little strength to fight infections and diseases. On a wooden cot near the front of a large white tent, a baby girl lies listlessly in the afternoon heat. She's 2 years old but weighs a little over 10 pounds. After a series of nutrition supplements, she's sitting up and eating a small piece of bread by the next morning, but significant challenges remain.

Good nutrition is critical to staving off a host of illnesses in both babies and adults, and refugees in the camp would like to improve their chances by doing something they're accustomed to doing at home in the Nuba Mountains: grow their own food.

Hussein Algumbulla is head of the camp's refugee council and meets with aid organizations and UN workers on behalf of the refugees. Algumbulla says he has been communicating with UN workers for weeks, asking them to bring seeds for planting crops. On the corners of the camp, refugees are clearing plots of land, hoping to plant small crops ahead of the rains to ensure they have more food next year.

The UN has resisted offering agricultural assistance, saying that Yida is too close to the north-south border. UN workers say the refugees should move to a pair of camps farther south (Pariang and Nyeel), saying they've set up agricultural and educational programs at both sites.

Though some refugees have relocated, most Yida refugees have balked at the request to move. Algumbulla gives a list of reasons: The refugees want to remain closer, not farther away, from their homeland in the Nuba Mountains in case a return is possible. Also, after visiting the sites, they say the land in the camps farther south isn't suitable for crops.

But there's another reason they think uprooting is unnecessary: The other camps aren't that far away. Pariang lies about 22 miles south of Yida. Nyeel is about 44 miles south. Aid workers estimate it would take Antonov bombers about 15 minutes to reach the camps from Yida. That makes a mass move less compelling, says Algumbulla: "There is no safe place."

UN officials say they haven't withheld critical emergency supplies from the refugees in Yida, but they do prefer they move south. Last year, Mireille Gerard, head of operations for the UN refugee agency in South Sudan, said the agency was trying to create "a pull factor" by offering better resources in the other camps.

In an email interview in April, Vivian Tan, a UN spokeswoman in Africa, emphasized Yida's close proximity to a volatile border and the bombings the camp has already endured. Tan said the organization doesn't want to encourage refugees-especially children-to stay in a dangerous spot. She said the UN hasn't asked the refugees to move farther south than the two alternative camps because they're already reluctant to move.

Meanwhile, seeds and school supplies aren't the only resources running low in Yida. Aid workers say that there isn't enough soap or latrine slabs in the camp-a deficit that could cause major health problems during the rainy season. Refugees also need mosquito nets to fight malaria in rainy months. Algumbulla says the timing for such supplies is critical before rain closes most transportation routes: "It's the final months for us."

In the meantime, the refugees in Yida are trying to carve normalcy out of upheaval. They've organized to appoint council members to address issues like health, education, food, and camp layout. (For example, a camp engineer helps refugees determine how far apart to build their homes in order to prevent fires from spreading from one thatched roof to the next.)

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