A Visit to the World's Newest Country (September 1, 2012)

Written by Karen Stiller

Published by Faith Today on Saturday, September 1, 2012

Even from 5,000 feet above, I could see I had it all wrong. The Yida Refugee Camp in South Sudan sprawled like a vast village below our Cessna aircraft - just 18 kilometres away from one of the newest international borders in the world dividing Sudan from South Sudan. I had not expected a refugee camp to look like a small and growing town, but in many ways that is exactly what it has become. A town by nobody's choice.

From the air it is a barren and brown landscape broken up by scattered trees and scrub brush - and now also by straw huts that serve as temporary homes to the 37 000+ (and growing daily) refugees who have made their way to this unlikely place of refuge. "It is a very, very difficult place," says David Philips, country director, Samaritan's Purse, South Sudan. "But as bad as a refugee camp can be, it's not a war zone."

Sky-blue tarps dominate the landscape, tied down over the roofs of the straw huts to protect them from dry wind and torrential rain. Most of them are printed with the logo and name of Samaritan's Purse, the Canadian evangelical ministry based in Calgary that has brought our team of journalists here, the first stop on our journey to visit two refugee camps. They are the lead non-governmental organization (NGO) in the Yida camp. (Several other EFC affiliates also work in South Sudan.)

Samaritan's Purse - better known to me, at least, for their Operation Christmas Child shoebox campaign - is one of few NGOs present in the Yida camp. It was Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan's Purse International, who prompted this trip in the first place. Concerned that Canadians might not fully understand the tragedy still unfolding in this long-troubled part of northeastern Africa, he suggested Jeff Adams, communications director for Samaritan's Purse Canada, find a way to let Canada know what is happening here. I am part of a team that includes Kevin, a Calgary-based CTV photojournalist and Tina, a freelance radio journalist who works primarily with CBC and who will become a good friend by trip's end.

Our journey to Yida was a two-and-a-half-hour flight from the tiny dim airport in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, the world's newest nation. But for the refugees who make their way to Yida, it is usually a trek from two to 10 days, almost always on foot, carrying children and whatever possessions, food and water they can manage to bring. This is in landlocked Africa in May. The day before we landed in Yida it was 48.9 degrees Celsius.

In and around the Juba airport, signs still hang that say, "Countdown to Southern Sudan Referendum." They feature a sketch of a hand ramrod straight above a large inked thumbprint in a circle and the word "Separation." Heat, time and dust have made the posters look older than they must actually be, because the vote took place just over a year ago in January 2011, and the dream of independence became reality on July 9, 2011.

The dream itself of a Sudan free of war - and particularly a South free of routine and devastating attacks - is also looking a little battered by now. If the international community is disappointed, they are probably not terribly surprised. Pre-separated Sudan, after all, was home to Africa's longest-running civil war. It claimed the lives of an estimated two million people during its 22-year run. Darfur became a Hollywood cause and a household name, and the word "genocide" was heard again in Africa.

Peace plans have come and gone before. Promises broken. Oil lying rich and dark under the dry red ground of South Sudan - with the pipeline that takes it to market laid across the North - muddies the waters even more. So does the new border line that separates Sudan into two different countries. The new line has locked members of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, who fought alongside Southern Sudan for the long disputed South Kordorfan and Blue Nile states, into what is literally the enemy territory of the North. The lines may have changed, but the war (now unofficial) picked up again pretty quickly from where it had briefly ended.

The Nuba Mountains, former home of many of the refugees in Yida, is routinely bombed. Not even the refugee camps are completely safe. Sudan's armed forces dropped bombs on Yida last November. No one died, but refugees heard the dreaded growl of Russian Antonov aircraft flying into their world once again.

When reporters ask refugees why they fled their homes, the women, men and youth almost always say it was the Antonovs, the bombardment and, increasingly, the hunger resulting from planting and harvest times that are war's less obvious casualties. It is known as the hunger gap. "Farmers couldn't plant last year because of the bombing," explains Philips. "In the early days when we asked people 'Why did you flee?' they would say it was the Antonov bombs. Now, they are also driven out by the hunger caused by violence."

And the hunger is bound to increase, and with it the number of refugees who turn up at the registration centre just outside the camp's constantly widening boundaries, every morning. "We're planning for a larger influx," says Philips, "but we're praying it won't happen."

When Hussein Algumbulla, head of Yida's refugee community council, is asked what would make him feel safe enough to return home, he says, "A no-fly zone." His voice is soft, almost a whisper in the darkness of the grass hut where we meet with him and some members of his council.

"We need activities for the kids, we need additional primary health care," he says. He and the rest of his council are elected by their fellow refugees to run the camp. Back home he was also in government as a commissioner in the Nuba Mountains.

Nikda, the only female council member present at our meeting this day, is in charge of overseeing activities for children and youth. Her portfolio is called "social affairs." She arrived at the camp on July 21, 12 days after independence. "I wish to end this war soon," Nikda says. "Our problem is very big."

Nikda also worked for the government in the Nuba Mountains before fleeing to Yida and finding herself governing once again, this time in a refugee camp. Hers is a life violently uprooted and then tentatively transplanted in much thinner soil.

Vendors are selling goods just a brief walk from the room where we share scalding tea from small juice glasses with the community council. There's a limited variety for sure, but commerce has arisen out of the potential chaos of a refugee existence. Conner Lucas-Roberts, Samaritan's Purse's area director from Walla Walla, Washington, says there is a nightclub of sorts here and a matinée that have "formed spontaneously." The NGOs working here "provide what they cannot do themselves. We bring in the outside assistance," he explains.

At Yida this means water, food, materials to build basic shelters, basic medical care and, most heartbreaking to see, therapeutic feeding for malnourished children, identified as such when they first registered at the camp.

The nutrition compound for these children is a set of large white tents with beds both inside and out. A tiny girl sits on her mother's lap, sipping from a metal cup. Another mom sits on a green plastic mattress on a bed frame with peeling white paint. Her baby's shirt slides off one tiny shoulder, making her appear even more vulnerable, if that's possible.

It's all mothers and children here, some returning to health and the world of plump cheeks and bright eyes - how children are designed to be - and others still walking in the valley of the shadow, close to death. It is like a wispy shadow of a maternity ward, actually, where the happiest moments and the most tragic co-exist on some kind of ever-tilting scale. There is joy. Then, there is sadness beyond sadness.

On this day the centre is treating 20 children categorized as stable, four who are critical. Tiffany Young, Samaritan's Purse nutrition co-ordinator from Raleigh, North Carolina, answers questions for the CTV camera. Kevin, the photojournalist who has been around the world and back, tells her that in all the troubled area he has visited, it always seems to be the people of faith he is doing the stories on. "Why are you here?" he asks her. Young responds in a clear and strong voice: "For those who have received much, much is required, for the glory of Him."

God is about to get even more glory as our team climbs back into the Cessna and flies to another refugee camp in the Maban district of Southern Sudan. This camp is older, bigger, muddier and more fully recognized by the United Nations as a permanent camp, so there is more funding available for more programs to help the refugees.

Samaritan's Purse is the food partner on the ground here, distributing World Food Programme supplies to the refugees: 500 g per person per day of cereal, 50 g per day of pulses, 5 g per day of salt, and oil to cook with. The organization, as at Yida, is also providing water through boreholes and water storage systems they are always trying to improve and expand to meet the growing demands of camps. Maban could reach 80,000 refugees if the political situation does not stabilize. At an estimated 20 litres of water for each refugee a day, that is a lot. More boreholes will need to be dug, and soon.

Our host here is Peter Wright, a 26-year old Ambrose University graduate from Belleville, Ont. He is a logistics manager, the guy who solves problems such as where to buy the beans for the feeding program now that the local market no longer sells them. Logistics, according to Wright, "is figuring out the details." It is a development specialty, and it's essential to the work of NGOs.

But Wright is also figuring out big issues of God and suffering and faith - this is a refugee theology being worked out on the muddy ground of this camp. "I've seen a lot of faith out here that doesn't need big buildings," he says. "People are suffering and still trusting and believing." Wright says he is not a guy of "grand calling. I just said 'Yes.' God is here right now working in this place with these people."

"What better place to come and learn about God than where I think His heart is beating the most? For the marginalized and the poor." Wright never comes right out and says it, but I wonder if he doesn't feel a little sorry for us, just flying in and out of this camp so quickly where he has asked to be part of what God is doing, where he is learning so much.

"God is a mystery always unfolding," says Wright. "I'm a lot stronger now than I have ever been. I don't think people back home understand the need or the conflict here. If we can tell them what is going on, that they have a choice to do what is right or what is wrong."

Outside the gates of this camp Moca Mohan is one of the hundreds of newly arrived refugees waiting to register. He is from the Blue Nile district and tells of a day when seven bombs fell. "They killed many people. My two sisters were killed by an Antonov." He is a student of agriculture, about to join the long packed line with his wife. Surely speaking for almost everyone lining up in the growing heat of a Sudanese morning, he says: "I'm sad. I came here for help."