Surviving in South Sudan
A blog by Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand's Mark Mitchell on 05 January 2018
It’s always challenging to walk into a camp for displaced people or refugees. I’ve been to various camps, formal and informal, around the world in my years as an aid worker. Even before I hear the individual stories I start to imagine what the people in the camp must have gone through. What trauma must they have faced to leave everything and run?
The Don Bosco compound at Gumbo, just outside Juba, South Sudan is run by dedicated Salesians. It was never meant to be a displacement camp. It was established as a training centre and to provide medical care from a small clinic. But when the conflict started again in 2016 it became a place of refuge; a safe haven for increasing numbers of people who were driven from their homes by soldiers and militia, their houses and crops burnt and family members murdered and brutalised amid the evil horrors of another senseless war.
I was in the camp last year with colleagues from the local diocese and Caritas South Sudan. We were there to conduct a needs assessment which would guide the planning for the Caritas response. How many women, men and children were in the camp? What were their needs for food, shelter, water and sanitation? Which other NGOs were working in the camp and what were they providing? Are there gaps that Caritas is able to fill? As we met with women and leaders in the camp we started to hear their individual stories. Some had travelled ninety to one hundred kilometres, often at night for fear of further attacks. Most had nothing with them and many of the children were painfully thin having had nothing to eat other than a few leaves and bitter fruit that they may have been able to gather en route.
We’ve all heard these stories and others like them many times before. It’s easy to become immune and hardened to the suffering that people are facing but one story in particular, stands out to me from that afternoon in the camp. It’s the story of Regina Pita (56) who had recently arrived at the camp. Her story echoed many of those I’d already heard but as I was walking through the camp she insisted on showing me the shelter she’d constructed on her own and asked me to hear her story. The striking difference with Regina is that she has epilepsy; a scary condition which in her case, without access to medication, results in uncontrolled seizures.
The conflict meant she was unable to access the drugs she needed and consequently has frequent seizures. Whoever had supported her previously was long gone, dead or forced to find shelter in a different direction, and so she was alone with no friends or family and no one to support her. Somehow, I’m not sure how, she managed to find some coffee beans which she chewed on which she said made her feel a bit better. Even so, while I was with her she had another seizure.
Others in the camp were scared of the convulsions and so were keeping their distance from her. As a result, with no one to help, the construction of her shelter was the worst in the camp. Being as resourceful as she was she had managed to find some scraps of plastic sheeting which were loosely tied together but they didn’t provide much protection from the weather. Equally, going to the toilet or to collect water was a punishing ordeal.
It’s people like Regina that Caritas seek out most of all in an emergency, whether in a conflict or following a natural disaster. It’s often difficult to help everyone as resources are limited and so we seek out the most vulnerable - the elderly, mothers and young children and people living with a disability - and in a situation like this we work with those in the camp to help strengthen community so that Regina and others like her aren’t left out and unsupported but have the encouragement and resources they need to live with dignity.
We left the camp determined to be back with the assistance that was needed but before leaving I met with the Salesian priest overseeing the compound. I passed on Reginas’s details and requested that he help rebuild a better shelter for her.
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