Sanitation is critical in refugee camp (June 10, 2012)

Written by Jeff Adams

Published by Calgary Herald on Sunday, June 10, 2012

They are thirsty, starving and exhausted - and more of them are arriving here every day.

They are refugees from Sudan - black Africans whose government in Khartoum is systematically trying to kill them off or drive them out in an apparent bid to create an all-Arab nation.

When I visited the remote camp at Yida last December - arriving on a dirt airstrip - there were 20,000 refugees. By April, that number had grown to 24,000. Now, only a few weeks later, I arrive to learn the population has grown to 37,000 - with experts fearing it could reach 60,000 by midsummer.

Why such rapid growth in recent months? Because the Sudan army's relentless bombing raids and ground artillery attacks - including burning entire villages - on their black countrymen in Sudan's Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile region made it impossible last fall to plant crops. Now is the time the Nuba people should be harvesting. Instead, they are trying to survive by eating insects and tree roots.

"There was no food or water anymore," recalls Fatina Mohammed, who fled the Nuba Mountains with her young child a few weeks ago, after trying to live in a filthy cave for a while. "We were hunted (by the military forces from Khartoum)," she says. Mohamed lost track of her husband during their flight for survival: "I don't know if he is alive or dead anymore."

"They are victims of warfare, and they have no choice but to flee," says David Philips, director of Samaritan's Purse's operations in South Sudan.

When they flee, they go south across the border into South Sudan. Those from the Nuba Mountains are arriving in the camp at Yida, where Samaritan's Purse is the lead aid organization, while many of those from the Blue Nile area are arriving at three camps (Doro, Jamam and Batil) near the city of Maban.

In all four camps, Samaritan's Purse is airlifting and distributing food provided by the World Food Pro-gram, drilling water wells and establishing water storage and distribution systems, treating malnourished infants, building latrines, providing medical aid, offering health and hygiene training, and caring for children who lost contact with their parents during the flight to safety.

Samaritan's Purse is also operating a hospital - including surgery - in the Doro camp. The next nearest surgical facility is an eight-hour drive away. On the day I visited the hospital, Dr. Atar Evan Adaha's patients included several people with broken bones, including one with a broken femur, others with internal injuries (including a young man with a ruptured abdomen) and a South Sudanese soldier whose injuries from an explosion included the loss of both eyes and part of his lips.

Despite the efforts, and those of other aid organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, the rising number of new arrivals in the camps is threatening to outstrip the ability to respond to demand.

"We're fighting, as the population grows, to meet people's basic needs," Philips confirms.

One of those basic needs is sanitation. There aren't enough latrines or toilets here. And so diarrhea rates are rising rapidly, which in turn is increasing the risk of diseases such as dysentery and cholera. Samaritan's Purse, with support from

Canadian donors, will be building dozens of additional latrines during the next few weeks.

Contamination of the refugees' plastic water containers is another likely cause of the rising diarrhea rates. The red dirt on which the camp has been established is easily visible on most refugees' containers. What is not visible is the fecal contamination that results from poor hand-washing practices and improper latrine usage.

In response, Samaritan's Purse will distribute sanitized jerry cans and offer sanitation and hygiene training so refugees know how to help prevent disease in their increasingly crowded surroundings.

Meanwhile, the number of malnourished children requiring urgent supple-mental feeding (through a tube inserted into their stomach through their nostrils) has quadrupled during the past two weeks in Yida, says Tiffany Young, Samaritan's Purse's infant nutrition co-ordinator.

Young says the physical challenges of abandoning your home and walking for several days with little or no food or water, then arriving at a refugee camp where crowding and unsanitary conditions combine to dramatically raise the risk of infection or disease, take their biggest toll not on adults, but on infants.

"We are suffering," says Mohammed, 29, back at the Yida camp. "Our children are suffering. Help us."

Jeff Adams is director of Samaritan's Purse Canada's communications department and a member of the Calgary-based non-profit Christian organization's senior management team. If you wish to support the work of Samaritan's Purse, call 1-800-663-6500 or go to