Report from war-torn South Sudan

$320. When you compare purchasing power globally, that is the average price for a plate of food in South Sudan, according to a calculation of the World Food Program (WFP). Imagine what it would cost a single mother of five to keep her children alive. Then add up a war and a merciless drought and you’ll have an impression of daily reality in South Sudan. Read this story by our colleague Frank van Lierde out of a war-torn South Sudanese village, where Cordaid is helping displaced families, with the support of Giro555.

Aburoc, a village in the semi-arid savannah, high in the north of South Sudan. When the war escalated this year in Upper Nile State and chased people away like wildfire, thousands of Shilluk families fled to this remote area, where the sun gobbles up rivers until they’re dry and the rain will turn the ground underneath your feet into fluid clay in a matter of minutes. Behind the horizon lays the desert. Not a place where you’d seek refuge. Right?

A two-week walk

Christina Thomas, 24, was at the end of her pregnancy when she reached Aburoc River, a sidestream of the Nile, seven months ago, with her three children and her husband. “We had to walk two weeks to reach this camp. Finding food and water along the way was very difficult,” she says.

A two-week walk. Even with a hat on and enough sunscreen, I wouldn’t be able to stand the blistering South Sudanese heat for more than an hour. I’m thinking of the scorpions, snakes and all the insects that come out at night. Then I notice the legs of one of her sons are deformed. He doesn’t have a toe left on his feet. “It happened in a fire,” Christina explains. “When he was a toddler, he was playing with goats in a shed when it went up in flames.” Who’d carried the boy when they had to flee? “Oh, but he walked by himself,” she replies. The 7-year old boy is laying against his mother and he is giving me an investigative stare.

People tried to stay alive by eating leaves and drinking heavily polluted surface water.

Alisa John (38) lives next to Christina, a few shelters away. She has a similar story, except that she is on her own because her husband died years ago. Now she’s taking care of eight children. “I built this cabin myself when I arrived here. I work on a small piece of land and collect firewood in the area.”

Escape route

When the first groups of displaced people started arriving in Aburoc in March and April, the river was still dry. Why did they seek refuge here, coming from Malakal, Kodok and other villages? “Because of three reasons,” one of the newcomers explains. “This village is very remote. People hope the war will not reach this place anytime soon. There is a river that would start flowing again during the rainy season. And after 6 hours of walking in northern direction, you will find the road that leads to Sudan. If the war would reach us here, then that could be our escape route.”

The humanitarian crisis became acute when in a short period in March and April of this year, nearly 30,000 people sought refuge in the dry river bend at Aburoc. The remoteness of the area may offer some safety at first, but how would they survive over time? The inhabitants of Aburoc – about 2,000 – share what they have uncomplainingly. But outside of their land, they don’t have a whole lot to offer. Extreme drought has destroyed most of the already meager harvests. Just after their arrival, people like Christina, Alisa and their children, tried to stay alive by eating leaves and drinking heavily polluted surface water on the shallow swamplands.

Logistical nightmare

Meanwhile, organizations like Cordaid were racing against time. In the midst of war and violence, in a logistical nightmare, we were looking for the fastest and smartest way to help Aburoc with the funds from generous Giro555 donors. Enkas Chau coordinated the relief efforts from Juba, the capital of South Sudan. “We already had staff in Kodok. When the violence started, they went along with the stream of people that fled in the direction of Aburoc. We knew that was the place where everything had to happen.”

Jojo Clement, South Sudanese himself, is Cordaid’s man on the ground. In April, he took his tent and backpack and traveled from Kodok to Aburoc. Without electricity, computers or any regular means of communication – except a satellite phone – he started working. Cordaid’s main target group: mothers with young children, pregnant women, single parents and the elderly.

South Sudan aid
Jojo Clement and Frank van Lierde. Photo: Frank van Lierde

“There has already been a Cholera outbreak,” says Jojo. “So latrines, clean drinking water, and hygiene were high on our list of priorities. And food aid. Because we arrived on time, the famine was not acute at that moment and food distribution was not a point of discussion yet. Farmers wanted to grow vegetables. Fishermen wanted to fish. Others indicated that they wanted to herd goats. So we had to provide tools, seeds, and fishing nets. And we had to negotiate with goat herders in the region. Many of the young mothers wanted oil, rice, beans, sugar and other basic foods to feed their children. That’s why we wanted to work with vouchers, which they could trade for food on the local market. This encourages local production and trade, and reduces your shipping costs, which can get very high in these areas.”

A miracle

The market in Aburoc is a miracle in itself. You will find it on the main street of the settlement. Drivers from Sudan perform crazy maneuvers to get there, especially during the rainy season. With a bit of luck, if the muddy roads allow it, they drive on for a week in their rusty tractors.

And then there is the housing situation. Jojo: “People had to protect their shelters better from the rain, heat, and dust.”

Via satphone, Jojo communicates with Juba. Enkas himself constantly tries to keep in touch with the Cordaid head office in The Hague. We divide the activities among the other aid organizations that are brave enough to keep working in Aburoc. The security situation is closely monitored. After all, this is rebel area. How long will it take for the fighting to break out here too? We took our chances and in April we started an emergency relief operation for 25,000 people who were trapped between the war and the desert.

Lootings and robberies

The risk of looting and armed robberies is too big when traveling over land. That’s why Enkas organized the transportation of materials by air: shovels, fishing nets, hooks, buckets, soap, water filters, thousands of kilos of seeds and many square kilometers of sturdy tarpaulins are being unloaded on a dusty, improvised runway, along with backpacks full of South Sudanese pounds.

South Sudan aid
Air transport of aid materials. Photo: Frank van Lierde

We have contracts, price agreements and quality guarantees with the shops and goat herders where displaced people can spend their food vouchers. Cash is crucial, especially when it comes to food aid. And cash in South Sudan means a lot of paper money. Just a few hundred dollars worth of South Sudanese pounds will fill up an entire grocery bag.

Clean water

Jojo is getting started with the workers from the settlement, who are being paid at the UN’s standard daily rates. “We were the first to restore water resources in the dry riverbed. We have dug meters deep. And thousands were standing in line waiting for clean drinking water, during those first months when the river was still dry.”

Meanwhile, the rainy season has well advanced. The river is flowing and there are water purification points that pump up clean water from the Aburoc. In the first months however, when the lack of drinking water was most acute, Cordaid was the first to restore water wells in the dry river bed, providing safe water for thousands of families. And when the river dries up again – possibly in a month already, they fear – we can restore our water wells much easier than before.

Everything that rustles and dances in the wind here, is grown from the seeds that Cordaid supplied.

In a short period of time, Jojo’s team has also built 104 latrines. Proudly, he shows them at the edge of the camp. Each latrine is four meters deep, a solid zinc shaft and sturdy housing of wood and tarps. With sufficient privacy.

Ever tried digging 4 meters deep in clay soil, in 40 degrees Celsius, on an empty stomach?

Cholera

“But the latrine is only half the job,” says Jojo. “Getting people to actually start using it, is an even bigger task. Our teams continuously provide information on the risks of open defecation and the need for hygiene. Fortunately, many people are using our toilets now. That is why we managed to contain the cholera outbreak. But not everyone is using them yet.”

In seven months time, Cordaid has helped 500 farmers in Aburoc to grow tomatoes, sorghum, eggplants and corn and provided them with 3 kilos of seeds per person per crop, with agricultural equipment and, if needed, with training to improve farming techniques.

Farmers like John Babur, who doesn’t know his own age (some estimate 90). The sorghum towers high above him and his tomatoes are small, but they are plenty.

Like Sara Ajak, farmer and mother (51), weeding around her shiny eggplants on her knees next to her shelter, in the shadow of high-risen sorghum puffs.

Like Bol Ajak (not Sara’s husband) who is throwing hands full of dry earth over his crops, while making hissing sounds to chase away the birds. Everything that rustles and dances in the wind here, is grown from the seeds that Cordaid supplied.

500 fishermen are fishing in the Nile, with nets and hooks brought to them by Cordaid. Men – women don’t fish here, it’s night work – like Jockino James, Sebit Ayik and Amuj Francis. They all have a Nile boat made out of wicker. “In the early evening, we leave and we walk for six hours to our boat to go fish all night. Then we come back here to sell the fish.”


Fresh catch from the Nile. Photo: Frank van Lierde

Hippos

There they are, enormous river fish with large scales. They will have to find a buyer that same day, before they go bad. The fishermen are telling stories about the hippos they sometimes encounter in the water. “If you happen to see one, row your boat away quickly,” Sebit warns. About all the risks on the road and checkpoints by armed troops, they remain quiet.

400 men and women received enough cash to buy three goats. Goats are a true fortune around here. When you have to flee, they come along with you. And if you have a couple, you might end up having more. It is basically a multiplying food source.

Rebecca Pasquala (42) gathers her three goats after they’re done grazing and ties them on a leash next to her hut. She fled with only two of her 7 children from Malakal to Kodok and then later from Kodok to Aburoc. The five other children were sent to Khartoum, where they are safer. “It was impossible for all of us to go there. I had to come here with my youngest.”

Fleeing means to be torn apart.

Food vouchers

Hundreds of emergency shelters are covered in white tarps, delivered here by Cordaid. A thousand households have been handed out food vouchers to buy basic foods for the coming months. They can exchange the vouchers on the market.


Food voucher. Photo: Frank van Lierde

Cordaid’s relief efforts entail much more than I could possibly mention here. Aburoc has been under attack by armed troops for several times. People fled and new families took their place. We also had to temporarily evacuate our colleagues. Jojo had to run for his life. He was lucky to be able to escape by plane. But he came back as soon as he could.

“It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Rocky Balboa

Other organizations like World Vision, MSF and many South Sudanese aid workers are doing their part of the job. But the greatest and most phenomenal work is done by Sara, Alisa, John, Jockino and the thousands of others displaced people, together with Aburoc’s host community. Every day they make miracles happen. They not only feed their children, but also give them love, strength and dignity.

Escape through the desert

I’m waiting on the river bank for the boat to bring me to the other side. What if the river would dry up again completely in a month? All of the displaced fathers and mothers, and also the aid workers,  are continuously preoccupied with this question. They all know that this would recharge the conflict and the rebel fighters would try to reconquer the area. Would the time then come to escape to Sudan through the desert?

Dusk is setting in. A group of women waiting next to me starts singing and dancing. They’re practicing for the big celebration tomorrow. Their silhouettes shimmering in the last light of the evening. We’re stepping into the boat. A mother holds her child between her knees and hums a song.

Easy and happy as a little lamb that just drank its mother’s milk, the child looks at his mother and then towards the starry sky above her. A man keeps the bottom of the boat from leaking with his foot. Our almost 12-year old boatsman will bring us safely the other side. Without a doubt.

The paramount chief of Aburoc is a tall, sleek, old man. With a long cane in his hand, he is waiting for us on the other bank. His villagers have become a small minority since the influx of IDPs. But there aren’t any tensions here whatsoever.

Some of the shelters are even built directly up against the round clay house of the chief. “We are one Shilluk. We share what we have, like we share the sorrows of war,” he says. He knows Cordaid and thanks us for what we do for his community. Then he slowly moves on, the tall cane in hand. His robe waving in the evening breeze. This is how kings walk.

The ostrich

I walk back to the Cordaid shelter where I’m sleeping this week. On my left, an old woman is crawling out of a poorly built hut on hands and knees. Aburoc. And further down the road, there is an ostrich. The beast is huge and it’s looking at me with its prehistoric eyes. I know her story. She had to flee together with the people. Her male companion was killed by rebels. And eaten. Now she walks alone and won’t lay eggs anymore. Aburoc.


The ostrich that won’t lay eggs anymore. Photo: Frank van Lierde

‘It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.’ Who would’ve thought Rocky Balboa is inspiring me while I lay here in a tiny tent, under the South Sudanese sky.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

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