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In the shadow of war

After over two decades of civil war, six years of tentative peace, and a year since the independence of South Sudan, new refugees from Sudan's embattled Nuba Mountains, including a large population of Christians, give evidence of an unfolding...

In the shadow of war

(Photo by Hannah McNeish/AFP/Getty Images)

YIDA, South Sudan-When Ali Harun Saliman fled relentless bombing and looming famine in Sudan's Nuba Mountains seven months ago, the Episcopal pastor left nearly all his possessions but took the two things most dear: his family and most of his congregation.

For nearly five days, the pastor and 34 families from his local church trekked on foot through sweltering heat and torrential downpours to cross the border into South Sudan and settle here in Yida, a remote refugee camp just a few miles away from the volatile north-south border.

Less than two months after arriving, a familiar affliction followed. An Antonov bomber approached from northern Sudan and circled Yida three times before dropping its payload: four bombs that landed near the camp, and one that landed next to a thatched-roof school in the middle of camp.

Thankfully, the bomb didn't explode, but terror did: Refugees fled into the woods and the bush, some staying for hours. These days, foxholes dot the landscape of the camp's hot sand and red dirt-a constant reminder that danger lurks just beyond the horizon.

As many as 20,000 refugees live here in Yida, facing the harsh reality of starting over with few supplies and wondering if they'll ever return home. Most have fled here from the Nuba Mountains in the state of South Kordofan, a region just over the border in northern Sudan, after South Sudan declared its independence from Sudan in 2011.

The situation in the Nuba Mountains is reminiscent of the catastrophe in Darfur, where the Sudanese government executed an ethnic cleansing campaign against opposition forces and civilians during a conflict that began in 2003.

These days, local residents and outside observers say the government is conducting another campaign in the Nuba Mountains against forces who are sympathetic to South Sudan and who are demanding greater control of their own territory. The region is also home to many Christians-an open target for an Islamic government in the north that persecuted and killed Christians in South Sudan for decades.

That campaign has ensnared hundreds of thousands of civilians in pockets of the Nuba Mountains, forcing them to endure bombings, burned villages, rape, torture, and starvation. It's not the first time: During a similar campaign in the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s, as many as a half million residents died.

But while they've lived with bombardments and violence for decades, they can't live without food. More than a dozen refugees in Yida told me they fled the region mostly because they feared starvation. Constant bombings have kept farmers inside their homes or hiding in caves, leaving crops unattended and harvests ruined. In some areas, food isn't available. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, an organization that tracks food supply in vulnerable regions, estimated conditions would reach "near-famine" in the Nuba Mountains by this month.

Similar bombardments in Sudan's Blue Nile state have forced residents from their homes as well. Overall, the UN estimates that violence or hunger has displaced or severely affected some 350,000 residents in Blue Nile and South Kordofan since last year. As many as 150,000 live in refugee camps in South Sudan and neighboring Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the situation is worsening under the pressure of separate conflicts over oil fields and borderlines between Sudan and South Sudan that have grown violent in recent weeks.

On April 12, South Sudanese troops seized Heglig, a major oil installation in South Kordofan state, saying they were trying to defend against ongoing attacks from the north. Southern army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said northern forces retaliated by dropping "many bombs" over Heglig. The spokesman said the bombing and clashes represent a "terrible escalation" in the north-south conflict. By April 16, the northern military had branded South Sudan "an enemy" and a spokesman for the northern government, Rabie Abdelaty, said Sudanese troops would take back Heglig by force: "This is war."

The worsening conflict stokes fears of a wider war that would endanger vulnerable civilians in both nations, especially along the border near the Nuba Mountains.

Mukesh Kapila, a former UN official who was outspoken about ethnic cleansing in Darfur, visited South Kordofan in March and offered a grim assessment to Reuters: "Sudan hosted the first genocide of the century in Darfur, and the second one is unfolding in Nuba."

Whether other international observers call the campaign genocide, the ongoing violence and starvation in the Nuba Mountains is a certain catastrophe that threatens worse casualties if the Sudanese government doesn't relent or allow humanitarian aid to flow to the region. In mid-April, Sudanese officials claimed that South Kordofan doesn't need food aid, but USAID estimated 200,000 to 250,000 residents are close to running out of food.

It's also a tragedy for the thousands flowing over the border into refugee camps with few resources. Here in Yida, refugees say they are low on critical supplies just weeks ahead of a rainy season set to begin by this month. Those rains will cut off supply routes to the camp. And while the United States has committed some $26 million to the UN to help refugees in the region, some say they aren't getting the resources they need to help themselves.

That's one of the striking dynamics in Yida: Though the refugees can't survive in the barren region without outside assistance (the nearest town is nearly three hours away by car), they long to work hard and care for themselves. Since coming here, they've built homes, a school, a market, and seven churches with materials they gathered in the surrounding bush-all while surviving on 30-day food rations that run low fast.

Saliman, after coming here with his congregation last September, is busier than ever in his work as a minister, writing sermons without the study materials he left behind and helping church members cope with loss and deprivation.

During an early morning meeting with six other pastors living in Yida, the ministers prayed for their churches and meditated on Jesus' words in Matthew 26: "The poor you will always have with you." Saliman talked about his own poverty-stricken congregation: "I encourage them to forget what is back in the mountains. Maybe the Lord will help them with the things they lost."

In many cases, the losses are overwhelming. Near the north side of the camp, Zara Tutu crouches under a tree and points to the small thatched hut she's trying to build for her eight young children. For now, she sits in a tiny patch of shade during the heat of the day when temperatures soar above 110 degrees.

The young mother says she and her children arrived here 20 days ago after walking 10 days to reach the camp. (She says her husband will join them soon.) Tutu describes constant shelling and aerial bombardment of her village in the Nuba Mountains by northern Sudanese troops. After months of aggression, she says food ran out: "I decided to bring my children here instead of allowing them to starve."

It wasn't an easy decision. Saving her children meant leaving behind her elderly father who wasn't strong enough for the trek. He insisted she take the children. "So I went and collected water, cooked food for him, and left," she says. "That's the grave for him. There's no way out."

Nearby, another recent arrival in Yida mourns the family she left behind. Crouching on the ground outside a hut, the elderly woman says she lost her daughter-in-law and a grandchild during a bombardment in the Nuba Mountains that destroyed her home. Her son said his remaining children wouldn't endure a long journey, so he sent his mother with another group of refugees. The group walked five days. She believes she won't see her family again: "It's not possible."

Some refugees manage to buy passage to the camp in a car or truck, but many say they can't afford a trip back to check on family. Hawa Haran and her five children came here by car three weeks ago but doubts they'll be able to return to visit the mother and brother she left behind. Haran already lost her husband last June when ground troops killed him during a village raid.

Hunched on a low stump outside a small hut, Haran's face bears the marks of loss. She stares into the distance when she speaks. Her eyes carry a mixture of shock, sadness, and resignation.

And the young widow is facing difficulties in the camp. She arrived a few days after aid organizations had distributed the latest 30-day food ration for each family. That means she's waited nearly a month for her own food supply. Neighbors are sharing their own small rations. It's not much, but Haran says supplies here are more plentiful than in Nuba: "I want to stay here so I can care for my children."

Children abound in the camp, including some who have come on their own. Refugee churches and aid organizations are struggling to make arrangements for a growing number of orphans and other unaccompanied minors. One refugee widow is caring for eight children who arrived without parents.

During the hottest part of the day, a group of children playing under one of the few trees in the camp seem resilient against the heat and deprivation of Yida. One little boy in a torn blue T-shirt can't remember how long he's lived here with his family, but he knows they walked three days before arriving. He also knows how much he's had to eat today: one cup of boiled sorghum. When asked if he'll eat dinner, he replies: "No, that's all for today."

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) has been supplying food rations for the camp using international standards for refugee supplies. The Christian aid group Samaritan's Purse maintains a small compound and staff on site and distributes the food rations according to a distribution schedule dictated by WFP. Each 30-day food ration includes a supply of sorghum, beans, oil, and salt for each member of the family. (UN workers don't stay at the camp, citing safety concerns over recent violence in nearby cities, including the oil town of Bentiu.)

The program includes extra food supplements for nursing and pregnant mothers, and Samaritan's Purse operates a nutrition compound for malnourished children under age 5.

Some children have additional problems that often mirror the most common maladies experienced by adults in Yida: vomiting and diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria.

Another aid organization, Doctors Without Borders, operates a small field hospital in Yida and an outpatient clinic that has seen as many as 700 patients a week. Two other relief groups, CARE and the International Rescue Committee, have also assisted with medical care and treatment for incidents of rape or violence in the camp.

But the most vulnerable patients remain malnourished children with weakened immune systems and little strength to fight infections and diseases. On a wooden cot near the front of a large white tent, a baby girl lies listlessly in the afternoon heat. She's 2 years old but weighs a little over 10 pounds. After a series of nutrition supplements, she's sitting up and eating a small piece of bread by the next morning, but significant challenges remain.

Good nutrition is critical to staving off a host of illnesses in both babies and adults, and refugees in the camp would like to improve their chances by doing something they're accustomed to doing at home in the Nuba Mountains: grow their own food.

Hussein Algumbulla is head of the camp's refugee council and meets with aid organizations and UN workers on behalf of the refugees. Algumbulla says he has been communicating with UN workers for weeks, asking them to bring seeds for planting crops. On the corners of the camp, refugees are clearing plots of land, hoping to plant small crops ahead of the rains to ensure they have more food next year.

The UN has resisted offering agricultural assistance, saying that Yida is too close to the north-south border. UN workers say the refugees should move to a pair of camps farther south (Pariang and Nyeel), saying they've set up agricultural and educational programs at both sites.

Though some refugees have relocated, most Yida refugees have balked at the request to move. Algumbulla gives a list of reasons: The refugees want to remain closer, not farther away, from their homeland in the Nuba Mountains in case a return is possible. Also, after visiting the sites, they say the land in the camps farther south isn't suitable for crops.

But there's another reason they think uprooting is unnecessary: The other camps aren't that far away. Pariang lies about 22 miles south of Yida. Nyeel is about 44 miles south. Aid workers estimate it would take Antonov bombers about 15 minutes to reach the camps from Yida. That makes a mass move less compelling, says Algumbulla: "There is no safe place."

UN officials say they haven't withheld critical emergency supplies from the refugees in Yida, but they do prefer they move south. Last year, Mireille Gerard, head of operations for the UN refugee agency in South Sudan, said the agency was trying to create "a pull factor" by offering better resources in the other camps.

In an email interview in April, Vivian Tan, a UN spokeswoman in Africa, emphasized Yida's close proximity to a volatile border and the bombings the camp has already endured. Tan said the organization doesn't want to encourage refugees-especially children-to stay in a dangerous spot. She said the UN hasn't asked the refugees to move farther south than the two alternative camps because they're already reluctant to move.

Meanwhile, seeds and school supplies aren't the only resources running low in Yida. Aid workers say that there isn't enough soap or latrine slabs in the camp-a deficit that could cause major health problems during the rainy season. Refugees also need mosquito nets to fight malaria in rainy months. Algumbulla says the timing for such supplies is critical before rain closes most transportation routes: "It's the final months for us."

In the meantime, the refugees in Yida are trying to carve normalcy out of upheaval. They've organized to appoint council members to address issues like health, education, food, and camp layout. (For example, a camp engineer helps refugees determine how far apart to build their homes in order to prevent fires from spreading from one thatched roof to the next.)

Though they have few supplies, refugees have built their own schools, and volunteers teach classes. A small chalkboard in the front of an open-air structure shows that the students have been learning basic addition and subtraction.

They've also built a rustic marketplace of small stalls with thatched roofs, and vendors sell a surprisingly wide array of products they've brought from home or purchased from trucks that pass through the area: wrenches and bolts, beans and other vegetables, hygiene products, cell phone batteries, and cups of hot tea. When nearly half of the market burned down in early April, other stalls remained open, and shopkeepers began planning new huts.

And then there are the churches: Refugee pastors have established seven churches in Yida representing four denominations (Episcopal, Sudan Church of Christ, Catholic, and Evangelical). Most pastors came with their church members, and quickly re-established their congregations, complete with meeting places for Sunday worship and sometimes daily prayer meetings.

On a mid-morning walk through the camp, Episcopal pastor Saliman gives a tour of his church's modest compound: As many as 300 people fill a large thatched hut with dirt floors on Sunday mornings, with more spilling from the back into the open air.

A smaller hut next door acts as a Sunday school room for children, where church members teach Bible lessons and sing songs with community children every afternoon. Saliman walks into an even smaller hut next to the church, and says: "This is the church office." The minister and church officers use the tiny room to hold meetings and pray for the congregation. Eventually, Saliman hopes to obtain a couple of chairs that the officers can share, but for now they sit in the dirt.

Saliman says the burdens of his ministry have grown in Yida. He grieves over being unable to do more to help orphans and widows in the camp: "We're just like them. We have nothing." He also misses some of the simple tools of ministry like books for study, a communion set, and supplies for the Lord's Supper. A crude table made of sticks and a used piece of canvas sits near the front of the church, waiting for the day the minister can serve communion again.

Still, Saliman is thankful to have a place to meet safely for now. In the Nuba Mountains, he says constant bombing made gathering in churches unsafe. "They didn't even give us time to pray," he says. "Sometimes we prayed in the mountains. Sometimes we didn't meet to pray at all."

These days, church members in Yida gather several times a week for prayer and worship, and during the week before Easter, Saliman delivered handmade invitations to other community members for a special Sunday service.

In a similar structure nearby, Ayub Hassan made Easter preparations as well. The pastor of the Sudanese Church of Christ fled here with his congregation after his village endured constant bombardment and a dwindling supply of food. On this morning, he's meeting with members of the youth group to plan music for the Easter service. One young man stands when visitors enter and asks about the possibility of obtaining Bibles for some of the teenagers.

Hassan says adjusting to camp life has been difficult for his church members. During their first weeks in Yida, he noticed many didn't come to Sunday services. He says he visited several absent members to check on them: "They said they didn't have enough soap to wash their clothes for church." It's a difficulty the pastor understands: "Sometimes you find you don't have the right clothes to stand in front of the people and speak to them."

The ministers are pressing forward, preaching, praying, visiting, and trying to share supplies with the most vulnerable members of the community. All the while, they think of the church members they left behind.

That's a burden that weighs heavily on Saliman: He says he wants to stay close to the border so he can return to visit church members still in the Nuba Mountains. He's already returned once, and is contemplating walking back again: "Now I've stayed here for a long time. That means there are many questions. They must wonder: Why did the pastor leave us?"

Even if the pastors are far away from their church members in Nuba, they continue to pray for them with devotion akin to the apostle Paul. That kind affection was obvious during the pastors' morning prayer meeting. Though they prayed for their churches and the needs in Yida, they spent even more time praying for those left behind. "We pray for the people of the Nuba Mountains," said one pastor. "Their life is very hard."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.