MABAN COUNTY, SOUTH SUDAN—Thick mud claws at the bare feet of those trudging to the nearby market.
Overhead, heavy clouds threaten rain as hundreds of men and women in iridescent shawls follow the dirt road that weaves its way through lush grassland dotted with pools of standing water, pit latrines and tents emblazoned with UNHCR in blue lettering.
This is Yusuf Batil refugee camp in the remote northeastern corner of the world’s newest nation.
Colleen Laginskie, a 29-year-old nurse from Toronto’s west end, visits with young mother Karima Musa in the camp’s in-patient therapeutic feeding centre.
Musa cradles her baby daughter in her arms.
A hand-drawn poster adorns the tent wall illustrating why it’s unsafe to drink the surface water in the flooded camp — the same water that many of the camp’s residents defecate or urinate in. A recent hepatitis E outbreak suggests the campaign is not enough.
The children in the feeding centre — just one tent in the muddy matrix of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) field hospital — are so malnourished their faces collapse in on themselves and their arms, toothpick-thin, hang limp by their sides.
“Seven days ago I lost my son to sickness,” Musa says. “We walked for three weeks without food, only eating tree leaves and lalock berries, and that’s why he died.”
Musa says her remaining child is now sick. “I am so tired and weak. I’m trying to breastfeed my daughter, but I just don’t have enough milk because I haven’t been eating.”
The babies in the centre are fed only a weak powdered milk solution, their small bodies unable digest anything more substantial.
Laginskie says up to five children a day die from malnutrition — twice the rate internationally recognized as the emergency threshold. In a “regular” emergency scenario, the number of daily deaths would be one to two for every 10,000 children.
But recent MSF figures show this high mortality rate isn’t isolated to vulnerable children. While approximately 58 per cent of the reported deaths in Batil have been children under 5, an alarming 25 per cent have been adults over the age of 50.
But life in Batil is still a vast improvement over the conditions the refugees faced in their villages, says Laginskie.
“We’ve heard lots of stories from the refugees of what they’ve endured to even get here. A lot of people haven’t had food and some apparently just collapsed on the way here, too tired to walk, too tired to carry on.”
She says it took many refugees up to two months to reach the camp. Along the way, they had no choice but to eat leaves and shrubs, or drink dirty surface water.
“People are literally dying trying to get here.”
Yusuf Batil is just one of four camps in South Sudan’s Maban county, now home to more than 110,000 refugees.
Some 37,000 of them currently inhabit Batil — a population one-third larger than Orangeville — living in the thousands of white tents that are crammed into six square kilometres. Most of the refugees are from the Ingessana tribe, the same ethnic group as Malik Agar, the rebel leader who is heading the SPLM-North’s fight against the Khartoum government.
The conflict started as a dispute over the oil-rich region of Abyei in the months leading up to South Sudan’s secession in July 2011. It has since spilled over into the northern Sudanese states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, where many fought for the South Sudan’s independence.
But when a peace agreement was signed in 2005, ending more than 21 years of civil war, these two states remained part of northern Sudan, leaving many feeling betrayed and isolated.
The rebel group, banned by Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir, has accused the president of wanting to turn Sudan into an Arab Islamist state where religious and ethnic minorities are persecuted.
The refugees in Yusuf Batil camp say they fled the Sudanese state of Blue Nile after government planes pounded their homes with bombs daily for two months. The Sudanese government denies targeting civilians with bombs.
It is now the rainy season in South Sudan and Yusuf Batil has become an island.
All the roads are flooded or have been washed out. The camp is only reachable by plane or river barge.
There is simply no budget to airlift out refugees requiring more serious operations.
But the camp is also home to stories of resilience and optimism.
There’s 10-year-old Iklas Bashir, who says she is not sad about her village being bombed, or having to leave her friends.
“I was sad I didn’t have time to gather my school books before we had to flee our home,” she says.
Iklas wants to be a teacher when she grows up. She has started attending school in the camp so she can learn English. She counts haltingly up to 25, missing an occasional number.
“I’m happy here. I feel safe and when the bombing stops we will go home.”
Abdullah Aladi Primary School is one of the makeshift schools established by Save the Children in Yusuf Batil.
For a few hours each day, more than 300 children come to this large tent to learn rudimentary English and arithmetic.
They have also been taught songs that drive home important messages.
One stresses the importance of personal hygiene in the crowded camp. The teacher leads the song and the children clap, belting the lyrics back at him.
“Every day, every day / I clean my nose / Every single morning / OK, good, OK / Every day, every day / I wash my hands / Every single morning / OK, OK, OK.”
A second song — this time in Ingessana — has an equally important message.
“Now that we’ve been displaced / Let’s go back to school and study.”
The boys stamp their feet while they sing, raising clouds of dust in the dimly lit tent.
Everywhere you look in Batil, there are similar signs of hope.
There is the young boy who has refashioned a UNHCR tarp into a pair of trousers.
There is the man in the market whose trade was farming, yet he now has a successful business selling soap, batteries and sorghum.
There are the women chattering and laughing as they pump water into jerry cans at the borehole, and the men who joke and cajole one another as they play mancala at roadside.
Frederic Cussigh, head of the UNHCR field office in Maban, says 99 per cent of the refugees want to go home, but an immediate return is unlikely given the continuing conflict.
But he recounts a remarkable anecdote.
Before the refugees arrived, thousands of UNHCR tents were set up in regimented, orderly rows. The refugees re-pitched the tents seemingly at random
“They were reorganizing the placement of the tents to mimic the layout of their villages back home,” Cussigh says.
The refugees even named their compounds after their villages.
“This is a very positive thing,” says Cussigh. “It means they see Batil as their new home, not just a refugee camp.”
For her part, Laginskie’s three-month mission in Yusuf Batil has come to an end. But she hopes to return.
The briefest of moments make the work worthwhile, says the 2005 York University graduate.
“I love when one day you have this child that’s all grumpy,” she says. “And then the next day you come in and the medicine has kicked in and they give you a half smile.
“It reminds you that things are working, that we are seeing improvements and that it’s not all glum.”
Marc Ellison is a Vancouver-based photojournalist. He travelled to South Sudan to train local reporters in photography. His work can be found at www.marcellison.com.
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