Renk, in Upper Nile State, is just 280 miles south of Khartoum, where on 15 April a conflicted ignited between generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the armed forces and his deputy and leader of the RSF, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The fighting triggering a humanitarian crisis which has displaced 1.4 million people so far.
Every day, around 2,000 people cross South Sudan’s northern borders seeking refuge. 70% of refugees are entering through the border point of Renk, arriving on trucks after a gruelling two-day journey. With the total number of arrivals now reaching 100,000, Concern, South Sudan’s Dr Paul Gal Atem, brought a team from Juba to assess the situation on the ground and see what can be done for the refugees.
A Dry and Weary Land
The team disembark in Renk after a three-hour flight from Juba that replaces a road journey of more than 600 miles. The landscape is barren and parched with few trees to give shelter from the mid-day sun. They are whisked into cars for the drive into Renk Town, where a crisis is unfolding, mostly unseen, by the outside world.
‘We went there as a group to see and assess the situation of the returnees, the South Sudanese citizens who were in Sudan,’ explains Paul Gal Atem, the Managing Director of Concern South Sudan, the charity organization of the First Lady of the Republic of South Sudan, Mama Mary Ellen Mayardit. ‘Our organisation does a lot of work with women, children, and people with disabilities. We were interested to go to Renk because we heard about the number of women, children in dire need of support.’
Paul explains that over 90% of the new arrivals are South Sudanese nationals who have fled previous conflicts and made lives for themselves in Sudan. ‘Those who managed to come to the border of Sudan and South Sudan are the people who are now in Renk, Paloich, and Malakal. Some were studying, some were living there for their children to go to school, others were there for the medical reasons. When war started, of course, it did not differentiate. All now have to escape the danger,’ he says.
Help to Get Home
The new arrivals are received at the border point, where they are registered, before they are taken to the transit centre in Renk. They are put on a waiting list to be taken to their place/places of origin.
‘The idea of bringing them to transit centre is because they are not going to stay in Renk. They’re only waiting there while we respond. They need the government, the NGOs and so forth to help them reach their places of origin. We need to get them out of Renk,’ Paul says.
The distance to Juba (620 miles), the challenging wet season road conditions and the sheer number of new arrivals, make relocating them difficult. Some can travel onwards by barge, but not everyone will be able to reach their final destination by boat or by road.
‘The road, it is very limited and it’s going to be raining soon making it difficult to go by road. Where transportation by land is not possible, we want to make sure that these people are taken to the places of origin by air,’ Paul explains.
Sheets For Shelter
In the transit camp, Paul’s team witnessed desperate conditions as people arrive faster than the services can be put in place to support them. ‘The number is big. People were not expected to arrive in such a high number, and what was given is not enough even for those who have come,’ he continues.
‘The majority of the refuges are women and children. And what touched me a lot is the fact that these women are staying in a very dry, open place where there are few trees and no latrines or basic services. Everything is just barren,’ he reflects.
‘We found women and children that are in dire need of support with no basic shelter. Some have been given some basic communal shelter (tents) which is not enough. Others have missed out on getting tents or plastic sheets and are sitting in the sun, using the bedsheets to cover their head from the heat.’
In response, the team distributed 1,000 plastic sheets. ‘We give them some plastic sheets to cover themselves from rain and some food items.
Paul shares how they spent time in the community, listening to the stories of the refugees.
‘People told us that the journey to reach Renk was difficult. They were harassed as they were escaping from Khartoum. Some reported seeing girls and women being raped.’
The team visited the small common kitchen serving the returnees. ‘We wanted to see what the facilities were, and what they were cooking. We found that the kitchen was very small, most of the food stuff is raw because they have grain but no mill to grind the sorghum into flour. There is no food for the young children, they have to eat with the adults, and the food is not enough,’ he says sadly.
The lack of food and water was in evident as they walked around the camp. With the sun beating down, the conditions were too much for the exhausted refugees. ‘A lady collapsed right in front of us and we had to carry her although there was no hospital to take her to,’ Paul recalls. The hardest thing was watching as a young mother lose her infant child. ‘In front of me, a young lady, who recently gave birth, lost her firstborn baby, who was just 22 days old. Just as we walked in the baby passed away because she had no water in her body and her mother did not have enough milk to feed her, because she has not eaten in days.’
Rallying A Response
The return flight on Tuesday brought the team back to Juba, determined to act on the human tragedy they had witnessed. A timely and co-ordinated intervention will be key as the crisis deepens, With at least 800,000 refugees in Sudan according to UNHCR. Paul believes the real number may be closer to 2 million.
‘We have come back to Juba to mobilize resources to support them while they are coming from Sudan. We are meeting with the government and humanitarian agencies to make sure that these people are supported. We must come together as international organization, the government, individuals, business community to support our people.
With people continuing to cross the border in their hundreds, the needs are becoming more urgent by the day. ‘I’m passionate that we respond very quickly. People are in an appalling situation, and we need to respond to their need as human beings first and foremost. We are all interlinked regardless of where we’re from,’ he reflects.
‘Our prayer is that people will respond so we can support the refugees at the border. I hope that their hearts will be touched when they hear these stories. Whatever you can give, no matter how small it is, is helping people and making a difference,’ he says.
Flying with MAF
The MAF flights were appreciated by Concern South Sudan and the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission who were able to see the situation first-hand thanks to MAF and gave a warm commendation.
‘MAF services are really very useful to the people of South Sudan, especially those who are in need and those who are returning from Sudan as a result of the conflict that took place in April this year. MAF are flying to places like Renk, Paloich, Malakal where there are a lot of refugees that need to be supported.
‘For us to get support from Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) was really very good and appreciated by the team who went from Juba on Monday and came back on Tuesday. There was not any other way that we would have gone to Renk if it was not for MAF. We were really very happy with the pilots who were very friendly and made our flight enjoyable. We appreciate from the bottom of our hearts that we were assisted by MAF to go and see our people.’
Pilot Jonathan Pound, who flew the outbound flight, was happy to play a part in enabling the team.
‘I was glad to be involved, even in a small way, by flying the team up the Renk. The desperation on the people’s faces was evident. Everyone had a heart-breaking story and I wish I could have done more to help. I was thrilled to be able to relocate some women and an infant back to Juba on my return leg,’ he said.
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