To mark World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, Nyika Musiyazwiriyo, our Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Horn and East Africa Region, reflects on a recent trip to a refugee camp in South Sudan.
“I have never seen so much death in my life,” said Abdullahi. “There are people and tents all over. There is overcrowding. There is no work, no money and no prospect of making money. Our biggest problems are illnesses – diarrhoea, malaria, eye diseases – a shortage of food, a lack of money and a lack of clothing.”
I met Abdullahi a few weeks ago in Jamam refugee camp in South Sudan, where I was carrying out an emergency needs assessment for CAFOD. Abdullahi and his family were forced to leave their village in Blue Nile State, Sudan, because of heavy fighting and the threat of being bombed. They walked for days, in fear of their lives, before getting a lift to the border with South Sudan.
The conditions they found in Jamam refugee camp were shocking. There is overcrowding, poor sanitation, flooding, and a lack of food and medicine. Diarrhoea and malaria are rife, and children are dying needlessly from these preventable illnesses.
More than 30,000 refugees are living in Jamam, and at least 70,000 are in other nearby camps. Many of the refugees were already malnourished when they arrived, having walked for weeks with virtually no food. The statistics are chilling: nine children are reported to be dying every day in Jamam alone.
I met Abdullahi’s wife Jamila, who had malaria – the medicine she’d received at the camp clinic didn’t seem to be working. Their five-year-old daughter, sharing the same tent, was even more seriously ill.
“The camp clinics are trying their best, but people are dying.” Abdullahi told me. “When someone goes to the clinic, they don’t return. Back at home people used to die, but not at the rate which we are witnessing here.”
Meeting Abdullahi made me reflect on what it means to be a humanitarian worker. It’s extraordinarily difficult for CAFOD or our local partners even to reach Jamam and other camps in the Maban region. Heavy rains have cut the area off from the rest of the world, so it is incredibly hard to bring in food, medicines and equipment to drill boreholes or build latrines. For the next few months, supplies will have to be airlifted in to reach what is now a swampy wasteland.
At times humanitarian agencies need to be very calculating and cautious, like chess players, debating and planning at great length before deciding what to do for maximum impact.
Whereas CAFOD will always find a way of reaching those in the greatest humanitarian need – usually through our church partners – some agencies like to base themselves in the most developed areas of a crisis-hit region – where there are good roads, where there are decent houses for their staff to stay, where there is TV and internet access, where there is somewhere you can order a pizza.
But what happens when there is no time to procrastinate, when the situation is a logistical nightmare, when there are no facilities that will make life easier?
Sunday 19 August is World Humanitarian Day, a day which commemorates the humanitarian work not just of aid agencies but of ordinary people in emergencies. The theme this year is “people helping people”. When I visit places like Jamam, I’m struck by the way people help each other: by the solidarity and compassion people living in dire circumstances show towards their neighbours.
I’m also struck by CAFOD’s commitment to respond to emergencies no matter how difficult it is. You could sum up our humanitarian mission as: “when disasters occur, we will be there.”
South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is one of the poorest places in the world. CAFOD is already working in many places across the country, providing food, water and essential household goods to people who’ve been displaced by fighting. But as I flew back to Nairobi, I was also determined that we should respond in the camps in Maban, near the border with Sudan.
Life wasn’t easy for Abdullahi and his family in their home village. But he cherished the memory of being able to determine his own future. “We used to grow our own food” he said. “I used to have my own goats. But life has changed so much for me.
“I would go home immediately if I could. I would not waste a day. I haven’t heard much about what’s happening back home, except that my brother, who stayed, was killed in the war. People are bombing our villages, but we are not soldiers. We want to live in peace.”
Despite the grim situation, Abdullahi said that he was able to keep going because of his inner strength and because of the solidarity in the camp: “My greatest strengths are my faith, prayer and the way the camp residents are helping each other,” he said.
We will do whatever it takes to respond in Maban, helping to improve the water supply and the dreadful sanitary conditions that are causing so much disease. My prayers are with Abullahi and his family, and I hope yours will be too.