In Sudan, the rainy season compounds fear and misery (May 22, 2012)

Written by Geoffrey York

Published by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, May 22, 2012

With hundreds of refugees fleeing from Sudanese bombing attacks, relief workers are rushing to get food supplies into refugee camps in South Sudan before the roads become impassable in the approaching rains.

The camps near the Sudan border are so isolated that they might need to be supplied by air drops after the rainy season begins in the next few weeks, relief agencies say.

Military clashes and the shutdown of oil production are threatening to create a humanitarian disaster in the region straddling the two countries. More than 120,000 refugees are already sheltering in several camps just south of the Sudan border, while thousands more have fled to neighbouring Ethiopia. Altogether more than 415,000 have been forced to abandon their homes in the border region.

Food shortages across South Sudan have been worsening this year, and more than half of its eight million people are at risk of hunger, the United Nations has warned.

The oil shutdown has damaged the economy of South Sudan, sparking a jump in food prices and raising fears of a collapse of its currency. The newly independent nation has feuded with Khartoum on dividing oil revenue, reviving a conflict that devastated Sudan for decades before a 2005 peace agreement.

As Sudan continues to launch crude bombing attacks, more than 30,000 people have trekked to the Yida camp in South Sudan, and hundreds more are still arriving.

"We're in a very precarious situation, and the outlook is even more worrying," said David Philips, country director in South Sudan for Samaritan's Purse, an international relief agency that is providing aid to the camps. "We're seeing more malnourished children. We're hearing stories of people collapsing and dying on the roads, on their way to the camps, because they don't have food or water."

After months of fighting along the border, most villagers have no food left, and thousands are so desperate that they have walked up to five days to Yida camp. About 15 per cent of the children who arrive at the camp are malnourished.

"People are scavenging for bugs and eating wild leaves," Mr. Philips said in an interview. "They're saying there is no food left in their homes."

Water is another major need, he said. "There's no water, or just surface water. It's mud puddles or worse."

Relief workers are drilling boreholes to provide water in the camps, but poor sanitation in some is provoking concerns of a potential cholera outbreak.

With the roads to Yida likely to be impassable because of heavy rains by early July, and its airstrip also vulnerable to the rain, relief workers are trying to stockpile a six-month supply of food for 30,000 people. "But 60,000 people could show up," Mr. Philips said. "If people keep flooding in, we'll have to appeal to donors to support air drops."

The UN wants to move the refugees further south, saying that Yida camp is too close to the border - just 18 kilometres away. The refugees don't want to leave, and Mr. Philips supports them: "Moving to another place doesn't solve the problem. Where is there a safe place? The whole country is on the brink of war."

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