Living In A Camp By A Ruined City, They're Strangers In Their Own Land

Feb 26, 2016
Originally published on February 26, 2016 7:45 pm

Nyalion Gutyua fed her children water lilies. And some fruit. Because that's pretty much all there was. When the dry season came and the water lilies stopped flourishing, Nyalion Gutyua and her children joined a group of about a dozen women and children and walked to Bentiu, South Sudan's second largest city. It took them four days.

"We came here because of hunger," she says. She'd heard she could get food in Bentiu from the U.N.

They arrived at a city that is now a wasteland. Almost every building was destroyed in 2014, as fighting raged among troops loyal to the government, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and soldiers from the SPLA In Opposition.

Round traditional houses made of reed walls and thatched roofs were burned to the ground. Shops were looted and torched. Government offices were strafed with automatic weapons fire.

Bentiu is now a barren dusty plain dotted with burnt-out, overturned Land Cruisers.

The destruction of Bentiu is part of the new phase of South Sudan's 2-year-old civil war. Most of the direct fighting has stopped. But in this country of roughly 10 million, the war forced an estimated 2.5 million South Sudanese from their homes. Crops were destroyed. Cattle stolen and slaughtered. Farmers driven from their land. Now the country faces an acute food shortage.

Many of the people who used to live in Bentiu now live down the road, in a massive U.N. Protection of Civilians (POC) camp. The site houses 120,000 people behind a cordon of dirt berms, razor wire and U.N. peacekeepers.

The POC is like a big square city on a desolate plain. Residents rely on international aid groups for water, schools, sanitation and a monthly ration of sorghum, lentils, cooking oil and salt.

Food from the U.N. is distributed in what used to be a Doctors Without Borders tuberculosis hospital. One day this past week, several hundred people, including Gutyua, were waiting to register for food aid.

Jorike Schmal, who heads the Doctors Without Borders clinic that reopened in November in Bentiu, says everyone in the town is now dependent on international food aid to survive.

Tavitha Nyaluak, 26, lives with her two kids and extended family in a reed and tarp shack in the Bentiu POC. Before the civil war, she was living comfortably in her own home. Now she's in a place that doesn't even feel like it's a part of her country.

She and the children go outside the camp every day to collect firewood to sell. She says it's dangerous and women are often raped while out searching for wood.

Both sides in South Sudan's civil war have been accused of brutal human rights violations during the conflict, including raping civilians, conscripting child soldiers and even cannibalism.

U.N. officials and aid workers say it is not clear when the people living in the camp will be able to return home. Both humanitarians and residents themselves are talking about this camp being here for years rather than months.

This week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited South Sudan to prod both sides in the civil war to finally resolve their differences and form a government of national unity.

"I was here in 2011 as the flag of the new South Sudan flew high and proudly for the first time of this independent state," he said. "I saw in the faces of the people of this country all that the flag represented. The pride. The spirit. The hope. And, yet, tragically, that hope has been betrayed. It has been betrayed by those who put power and profit over people."

Ban visited one of the six POCs in south Sudan and denounced an attack last week on the camp in Malakal that left at least 18 people dead and forced nearly 30,000 from their shelters.

"The protection camps are not a long-term solution," he said. "As important as it is, humanitarian action can never be a substitute for political solutions. The government of South Sudan must step up to its responsibility and protect its population."

Until that happens, camp residents like Nyaluak are caught in a limbo. She came to the Bentiu POC because she feared she'd be killed by soldiers. Now she stays because she fears her kids could die of starvation if she leaves.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We are going now to South Sudan. A civil war has displaced millions of people in the country, forcing them to leave their homes. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been reporting from South Sudan along with our Kelly McEvers.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: And we start in a place that used to be the country's second-largest city, Bentiu. Now, it's a wasteland.

We just drove by there and on the other side of the road and down there a little bit. I mean, there's just, like, entire graveyards full of burnt out cars.

This is not how things were supposed to go for South Sudan. Back in 2011, there was huge hope for this place. Mostly Christian South Sudan had broken away from the predominantly Arab/Muslim North and became the newest country in the world. But then, in 2013, civil war broke out inside South Sudan. Since then, tens of thousands of people have been killed, and more than 2 million people have had to leave their homes. NPR's Jason Beaubien and I have been reporting in South Sudan, and we found that, now, many people here are either living in massive refugee camps or they're on the move, looking for food. Here's Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: There's trash everywhere, and there's shipping containers that look like they were sort of burned out over there.

MCEVERS: People living under trees. It's kind of just a big, dirt yard with fires burning and trash and people.

MCEVERS: Fighting during the civil war flattened a lot of this city, Bentiu. The place where we're walking is one of the few places that still has some buildings standing. It used to be a tuberculosis hospital, and then it was used as a base for soldiers. And now, a few hundred civilians are camped out in the abandoned buildings and the big, open field.

And people obviously don't have very many belongings at all. Yeah, I think there are people who've been walking for quite a while with just the last few possessions they grabbed before they fled.

MCEVERS: Nyalion Gutyua fled here from a place called Mayom County. She says it took her and a group of about a dozen women and children four days to walk to this place.

BEAUBIEN: Can you ask her specifically, did she come here for food, or did she come here to get away from violence?

NYALION GUTYUA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They came here for hunger.

BEAUBIEN: How did they used to eat? What did they eat before?

GUTYUA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: They eat water lilies and fruit, Gatyua says, because that's all they could collect. After the civil war got underway, people's fields were burnt, and they couldn't plant crops. Once the water lilies ran out, she says, they were out of food completely, and so they came here.

Do they think they will go back home to Mayom sometime?

GUTYUA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If there's no food, we will not go back, and we will be staying here in Bentiu.

MCEVERS: They will stay here in Bentiu, she says. But the problem is, if they do say, they'll be living on someone else's land - the land of the people who already fled from this town and who might come back again. And they'll be living in a place that hardly has anything.

BEAUBIEN: There is now a health clinic in town. Doctors Without Borders shut down during the worst of the fighting and has recently reopened a bare-bones operation. Jorike Schmal heads that clinic, where they treat people with malaria and malnutrition. She says there are no latrines in Bentiu. We saw human waste all up and down the streets. And she says there's hardly any clean water.

JORIKE SCHMAL: There is some water some water points - some working water points, but a lot of people still collect water from the river. Yeah, and electricity - there's no electricity at all.

BEAUBIEN: Obviously you're dealing with health, but for food, where do most people get their food? Are most people dependent on food aid who are here?

SCHMAL: Yes, everybody is.

BEAUBIEN: And that's not just here in Bentiu, but in much of the rest of South Sudan, too. Humanitarian groups say 3 million South Sudanese, or roughly a third of the population, is now dependent on international food aid to survive.

MCEVERS: Many of the people who used to live in Bentiu now live down the road in a massive UN Protection of Civilians site. They're not officially called refugee camps here. The POC is like a big, square city on a desolate plain, surrounded by razor wire and guarded by UN troops. More than 120,000 people rely on international aid groups for water and monthly food rations - sorghum, lentils, cooking oil and iodized salt. They're hauled to people's shacks in wheelbarrows.

BEAUBIEN: Inside the camp, we meet 26-year-old Tavitha Nyaluak. She lives with her two kids and extended family in a reed and tarp shack.

TAVITHA NYALUAK: (Foreign language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: She says life is tough in the camp. In her view, this isn't even South Sudan. Before this, she says she was living comfortably in her own house. She says she and her children go out of the camp every day to collect firewood to sell. If they don't do that, she says, the children would starve.

MCEVERS: We take a tour of the main market in the camp, where there is some fish and meat for sale, but it's expensive. Little barbershops are clearly the cool place to hang out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We're walking around with Stefania Poggi, who heads the Doctors Without Borders hospital inside the camp. She and Jason say the place almost feels like a city, not a camp.

BEAUBIEN: It's amazing. It's just turned into, like, a regular African market in there, you know, like you'd see in a lot of places.

STEFANIA POGGI: Yes, but here we are in between four walls, and that's the main difference.

BEAUBIEN: Meaning people can't really leave the camp until there's food and security back at home and until the political situation in South Sudan is stable again.

MCEVERS: Some people say that will have to wait until a peace deal to end the civil war that was signed back in August is implemented. Other people say it will take even longer than that. In Bentiu, South Sudan, I'm Kelly McEvers.

BEAUBIEN: And I'm Jason Beaubien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.