I have an expectation in my head of what a refugee camp in Africa should look like. Most of us do. It’s not a pretty picture: dense rows of white tents on hard, infertile ground; little babies with distended bellies, too hungry to cry; long lines of listless people queuing for the little food and water that is never enough to go around. It’s an image that’s been built up over decades of news broadcasts and funding drives, and it is rarely accurate.
Yida does not conform to the stereotype. If any camp should, it is this one, designated by the UN as the most challenging in the world. Located in South Sudan, just across the new and inexact border with Sudan proper, it is inaccessible by road for most of the year and far too close to the continuing fighting over the border for comfort.
Photo: Two new arrivals at Yida refugee camp build their new house, using straw and branches culled from nearby trees.
But from the air, Yida looks almost idyllic: an African pastoral fantasy of straw huts and large trees casting their shade over hard, rust-coloured earth. Here, a day’s walk from the Sudanese border, live 66,000 people, all of whom have fled from the fighting and near-constant aerial bombardment of the Nuba Mountains which has made their normal lives untenable; all of whom have been forced to rely on the largesse of the international community for their basic survival.
Not that you could tell from the bustling market in the centre of the camp. Crammed on both sides of a long dirt road are dozens of makeshift shops, selling all kinds of weird and wonderful things: sugar from Thailand, Bafana Bafana shirts circa-2010, delicious-smelling roast goat intestines, hair products. A boy offers a quick shoe polish. There’s even Coca-Cola, which is a new arrival, although no one’s quite sure how it got here given the camp’s almost complete isolation from the rest of South Sudan.
Children play noisily on the road, interrupting their games to stare at the strange white man with the camera and shout and point: “Khawaja! Foreigner!” They’re playing with ingenious toys they’ve made themselves: a ball made of old socks, a kite that’s nothing but a bit of bin bag on a string, a car fashioned out of scrap metal. In the tea shops, the men sit around and put too much sugar in their brew, like in any other Sudanese town. The women bargain over little piles of tomato or garlic, and fetch water from one of the communal pumps. In all likelihood, their walk to a water source is shorter here than it would be at home.
Photo: Three women carry water from the communal pump. In all likelihood, they are closer in the refugee camp to a water source than they would be at home.
The normalcy of the scene belies the exceptionally abnormal circumstances in which everyone here is caught. These are refugees from the Nuba Mountains, an area considered a rebel stronghold by the government in Khartoum. As such, it has been relentlessly targeted through both ground assault and constant aerial bombardment, with little distinction between military and civilian positions. For the most part, civilians have retreated into caves to protect themselves. Farmers have been reduced to tending their crops at night. For many, the situation became unbearable: so bad that they left everything behind to seek safety in the south, in Yida.
Photo: Four young boys play on a termite mound.
The day I arrive, an unfortunate coincidence causes a flutter of unease in the camp. A cargo plane bringing supplies has overshot the runway and crashed. No people were hurt, although one donkey became perhaps the first of his species to be run over by an aircraft (the owner was compensated. Donkeys are a valuable commodity). The aircraft is a Antonov, and the unfortunate coincidence is that this is exactly the same plane used by the Sudanese Air Force to bomb the Nuba Mountains. Before its arrival, NGOs conducted an awareness campaign to warn everyone that this was a friendly Antonov, just in case people were frightened. Now the plane is lying on its side with a broken wing, and unlikely to go anywhere for the foreseeable future; a grisly reminder of the fear that most refugees thought they had left behind.
Photo: Pallets are prepared for the general food distribution outside the World Food Program tents.
For the international humanitarian organisations operating in the camp, the plane symbolises something different: the increasing desperation to get more supplies in. Yida really is cut off during the rainy season. For eight months of every year, rains make the road to the only major South Sudanese town nearby completely impassable. The only way in is by air, which is expensive and not all that efficient. Compounding the problem is Yida’s small dirt airstrip, which can only accommodate small fixed-wing planes and helicopters. The Antonov was an experiment to see if a larger plane could stick the landing. It failed, spectacularly.
This pressure on the supply chain creates all kinds of dilemmas: what’s more important, the box of malaria medication or the water sanitation kit? Who should get the last seat on the plane, the doctor or the social worker? These are the kinds of difficult questions that the international staff running the camp grapple with on a daily basis, and try to answer as best they can.
The team at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), for example, are facing a particularly unusual and delicate problem: there aren’t enough dead people. At the height of the humanitarian emergency in July this year, 25% of those admitted to the MSF hospital in the camp were dying. Since then, as MSF and others have ramped up their operations, this rate has fallen dramatically. Too dramatically; while MSF was expecting an improvement, one this steep suggests something different. It suggests that people are not reporting deaths, probably so they can continue to claim the dead person’s food ration. In their place, I would do the same. But the camp as a whole can’t afford to be feeding dead people, and it certainly can’t afford to have dead bodies lying around somewhere – with so many people crammed into this space, infections can spread easily. It is vital, therefore, that corpses are disposed of safely.
Photo: A family prepares dinner. The sorghum is being pounded into a fine paste.
Despite superficial appearances, Yida is definitely not normal. If I was in any doubt, then witnessing the general food distribution quickly dispelled it. This happens once a month, and it is when the rations are handed out. Long lines of people queue outside the warehouses, waiting to take their family’s share: a bag each of sorghum and pulses; some salt; a few cups of cooking oil. It’s all worked out so there’s exactly the right amount of food per family member, so that – managed carefully – there’s enough nutrition to get everyone through the month. It’s not much, though, and it’s the blandest of diets.
Photo: Yida refugee camp from the air. The aircraft in view is an Antonov that crash-landed on the small runway attempting to bring in supplies.
The people in Yida would much rather be at home, but there’s little chance of that happening this year. As the dry season approaches, so the Sudanese army and the rebels are gearing up for the inevitable dry season offensive, which will see the fighting intensify. In anticipation, thousands more refugees are descending on Yida. Last week the registration team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) logged 352 new arrivals; this week, the number was a staggering 2,909. UNHCR coordinates the international presence in the camp, and is worried that it is already overcrowded, and too close to the Sudanese border for safety. This inhibits any long-term projects like agriculture development.
Photo: The thriving, busy market at the heart of Yida refugee camp is livelier than markets in many other Sudanese towns.
With the government of South Sudan, UNHCR is looking at alternative sites for the camp. This would involve being further away from the border, and probably a dramatic change of environment. But they don’t have the final say: the refugees themselves have an elected council, and their approval will be vital. The council’s leader, Hussein Agumbolo, is supportive of the move, but worried about what a new site will look like. Yida is popular among the refugees precisely because of its proximity to home and the familiarity of its environment. A new camp would be much further away, and probably in the marshy area of the Nile Basin: completely unfamiliar terrain.
It’s a remarkable place, Yida. Just 18 months ago, it was a tiny village of 400 people. You can still see the bright blue walls of the old village building, if you look hard enough; it’s the only permanent structure in the entire camp. Today it is a sprawling city, filled in equal measure with energy, hope, despair and impatience; and with thousands of people who are still alive to feel those emotions. For that, the international community must get plenty of credit – especially the UNHCR, the World Food Program, MSF and smaller partners like Care International, Solidarity International, International Rescue Committee, Non-violent Peace Force and Samaritan’s Purse. The international community doesn’t get much right, but it does emergency humanitarian responses better than anyone else (when it does actually do them). Conspicuously, there is no African Union involvement the camp.
This is of scant comfort to the refugees, however. They are grateful for the assistance, but they would far rather they didn’t need it. Like refugees everywhere, they are just waiting to go home, and wishing they never had to leave in the first place. DM
Main photo: This family has just arrived, travelling on foot from the Nuba Mountains. They are being registered as refugees by the UNHCR. Photos by Simon Allison
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.