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Refugees in Upper Nile State South Sudan

We did not want to leave but we could not stay

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More than 170,000 people who have fled violence in Sudan are living in refugee camps in South Sudan. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been assisting the refugees since November 2011, running field hospitals and providing safe drinking water.

Now that the flooding caused by the rainy season is subsiding, people are starting to cross the border again. In December 2012, around 370 refugees arrived at the border village of El-Fuj, travelling in two groups and arriving a few days apart. The numbers are small compared with the previous year, when 35,000 people crossed the border in just three weeks. Time will tell if the numbers will increase.

“We were not happy to leave our homes,” said a 35-year-old woman, whose youngest child died soon after arriving at MSF’s hospital in Jamam refugee camp. “But every day we heard gunshots and fighting nearby. Some people died; we could not stay any longer.”

The newly arrived refugees bring stories of life in their home villages, the agony of having to leave loved ones behind, and their difficult and dangerous journeys to the border. They also speak of hope, and of the relief they felt at reaching safety and finding healthcare, shelter and food.  “We were not happy to leave our homes, but when we arrived at El-Fuj we received food and help, and now we are happy.” said a 36-year-old mother of nine.

While the camps offer relative safety, the refugees have to endure dire living conditions. There are still shortages of safe water – at times, 40 per cent of medical consultations carried out by MSF were related to diarrhoea – and there are regular cases of Hepatitis E. In Batil camp, which hosts around 35,000 refugees, mortality rates were more than double the emergency thresholds in mid-2012, and more than a quarter of children under the age of five were malnourished. Since September 2012, conditions have improved and mortality rates have dropped, but food security and nutrition remain serious concerns.

Fleeing violence and insecurity

The newly arrived refugees are from the Ingessana ethnic group. A group of men said that they had left because of violence and insecurity. In their home villages, they said, they could be “killed at any time of the day or night, for no reason at all”.

“We have been bombed,” they said, “and our houses, crops and cattle burnt down by soldiers. Our women have been raped and sexually abused.”  When we asked how frequently rape had occurred, they answered “almost every time”.

Fear of attack meant the villagers could neither tend their crops, nor easily gather food or collect water. They have not had access to healthcare for a very long time.

“Villages were burnt down,” recalled a 22-year-old woman who fled with her husband and four children, the youngest of whom is one month old. “It was not safe anymore; we lived in fear. We did not want to leave but we could not stay. We travelled with our families; we had to leave some people behind who were not able to travel.”

The men told us they travelled ahead of the rest of the group, looking for a safe route under cover of darkness before sending for the women and children.

An 18-year-old woman, who joined her husband with her child, became tearful when she recalled having to leave her elderly parents behind, saying she did not know what would happen to them or who would be able to help them.

A 36-year-old mother of nine said: “We left because of war. For the last one and a half years we have been bombed by planes every day.  We lived in the forest; there was no chance for school for the children, no healthcare or medicine. We got food from the ground, but not corn. We would collect water in the early mornings. This has happened all seasons.” 

One woman told us how her 15-year-old son had died from a gunshot wound just before they left. Her youngest child, a baby girl, became sick on the journey. She died within 12 hours of arriving at MSF’s hospital in Jamam. MSF had been held up at the border for two days, and was unable to deliver medical treatment in time.

Days walking with no food

The refugees travelled for around eight days to reach El-Fuj, mostly on foot and occasionally by tractor. They had some water, but no food. One group told us how five of them were too weak from hunger to complete the journey.

“We lost people along the way. Amuna’s uncle died from hunger and thirst on the journey.” said one woman. On the journey, some refugees suffered from malaria; others reported body pains, headaches, stomach pains, “hunger pains” and infections. “It was tiring carrying our possessions and the young children. We walked at night for safety, but still had to walk during the day as well.” said another woman.

Some sanctuary at Jamam camp
The refugees expressed their relief at finding food, water, shelter, and healthcare in Jamam camp, one of the four refugee camps in South Sudan’s Maban county. A group of women related their anxieties about the journey and their fear about what would happen when they reached South Sudan. Now, they said, they felt very safe, and were happy because their children were healthier: “Once we got to the border we met you. Now we have food and medicine and we are grateful for that. We were sick and tired, now we are stronger.”

The future

The refugees expect that more people from their villages will join them in South Sudan as soon as they can find a way to escape the violence.

“There are many people still there and they should come here to Maban – everyone there should come here,” said one 36-year-old woman  “More are coming. If there is no war, we can go back, but while there is war, no – we will stay here. But a time without war will not come.”