Since fighting erupted in Juba in 2013 and a major rebel faction returned to war, rebel groups have proliferated in most parts of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation.
With the conflict now in its fifth year, nearly 2.5 million South Sudanese have fled and become refugees in other countries.
Kenya is the third country after Uganda and Ethiopia hosting the largest number of South Sudanese refugees. These refugees walk for long distances without food to reach the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana.
A visit to the camp revealed a depressing state of affairs for women and children.
Athieng ker Anyieth sits on the floor with her newborn baby at the Kakuma reception centre. Her two other children mingle with fellow refugee kids, all of them barefooted, captivated by their self-made games.
Athieng is lost in thought as she stares at her newest family members. She is just a week old in the camp. Athieng left her warring village in Jongei state of South Sudan on December 22 last year.
With her two children and an eight-month pregnancy, the family walked for two days without eating before someone came to their rescue. “We had to move and move fast. My four- and six-year-old children, who I could not carry, suffered a lot along the way. On the second day, we were too tired to move, and we were lying by the roadside, when a Good Samaritan stopped and offered to drop us at Nedapar. He even gave us bus fare from there to here,” she said.
“We had many problems and food wasn’t one of them. We needed to flee or die. I did not realise we were starving until we got here,” she said.
She left behind her old, ailing husband, who could not walk. “He might have been killed already,” Athieng said.
Their journey from Jongei to Kakuma took them four days, arriving on December 26. The family is among hundreds of South Sudanese refugees waiting to be registered at the camp.
She hopes the South Sudanese leaders will reconcile. “I would like them to know that war will not help us. We women and children are the ones suffering. Let them find peace. We love our country but cannot live there anymore,” she said.
Athieng, however, has no intentions of going back to her motherland. “I have surrendered myself and my children to the UN to do what they want to do with us, it’s that bad. I cannot go back there,” she said.
Martha Bok sits in the corner of her room, her chin in her hand. Her eight children are running around, some too young to understand what could be happening. Martha and her children walked from Juba to Kakuma, a journey which took them six days.
“The war got to our neighbourhood and I knew I had to act,” she said. The family, with a group of other neighbours, left their hometown on January 6 and arrived in Kakuma on the 11th.
“We walked each day until it was dark. Sometimes we even walked in the dark if it fell on us while in the forest,” she said. “Children annoyed us with their cries due to hunger and sore feet, since we were barefoot.”
She says it was the toughest thing she has ever encountered in life. “It was tough. Our husbands went to war and we knew we were on our own. We feel safe here.”
Susan Aki fled Juba in 2016. Her father and brothers went to war. “We were 11 siblings but I only managed to flee with six,” she says. She said she hates to even dream of going back to South Sudan. “People are being killed there day and night, it’s very sad,” she said.
The South Sudan conflict has now forcibly displaced one in three of the country’s population, either within South Sudan or across its borders. Inside the country, seven million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The number of refugees is projected to cross the 3 million mark by the end of this year, making South Sudan Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide.
The UN says nearly 90 per cent of the forcibly displaced are women and children, and nearly 65 per cent are under 18. “The human cost of the South Sudan conflict has reached epic proportions,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said during a visit to the camp.
He compared the South Sudan crisis to the ones in Syria and Yemen. “This is a human tragedy of major proportions, and it’s urgent that we make peace. That is the only way we can stop the war,” he said.
He said it’s a hard decision for those refugees to leave the country and everything they owned there. “I have seen people here and in Uganda traumatised by the violence they have seen in their country. This is really what conflict does to people.”
Wary of conflicts that drag on and on without conclusion, Filippo called for sense to prevail. “We hope the leaders of South Sudan remember what this conflict is causing to its own people, and that they will allow the country to be rebuilt so that most of these people can go back to their country whenever they choose to do so,” he said.
According to the UNHCR, funding for the South Sudan refugee crisis remains dismally low, with only 33 per cent of the required funds received in 2017.
“The conflict in South Sudan has taken a brutal and deadly toll. Many millions have fled in fear for their lives. They now require our support,” emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock said.
Thanking Kenyan authorities for their support, he said it is in the interest of everyone to keep helping people affected by the crisis inside and outside the country.
“We have appealed for a lot of money for humanitarian needs inside South Sudan, and, for now, 2.4 million refugees in neighbouring countries, including Kenya,” Filippo said.
He said if the war doesn’t stop, refugee numbers will rise from 2.5 million to 3 million this year. “The conflict is purging South Sudan of the people who should be the greatest resource of a young nation. They should be building the country, not fleeing it. For as long as the people of South Sudan await peace, the world must come to their aid,” he said.
Lowcock and Filippo launched a funding appeal for Sh150 billion to support refugees fleeing the worsening humanitarian situation in South Sudan, and for Sh170 billion for people in need inside the country this year.
Turkana Governor Josphat Nanok said the county is pleased to host the refugees, while urging the international community to ensure peace is restored South Sudan. He called for a scale-up of the camp in the meantime.
“The refugees have integrated well with the community, but I am certain that there is no better place to call home than your country,” Nanok said.
First Published by Star Nairobi