Andy Schaefer, CRS technical adviser for emergency coordination, is in Agok, Sudan working to assist some of the more than 90,000 people displaced by recent violence in the contested border area of Abyei, Sudan. He shares with us his impressions from the field.
Getting to Agok was an odyssey in and of itself. We had to take a two-hour flight on a single engine aircraft from Juba to Wau, and then take another 5-hour, bone-jarring drive into Turalei, followed by an additional 4 hours to Agok. I’d estimate that there are only 50 miles between Wau and Turalei. Poor road conditions really hobble overland travel.
Five of us along with a driver rode in a white land cruiser along dusty cratered roads. The car was stocked with provisions. We’d been told that the markets in Turalei where barren and we needed to bring with us all the food and supplies we would need for the foreseeable future: lentils, rice, tea, foam mattresses, kitchen sets, water, and fuel. It is impossible to get diesel in Agok and Turalei where we are working, so we had to make sure that we brought enough with us for all the work we’d be doing and for the return trip back to Wau.
The ruts in the road caused by rain and large trucks meant we could drive no more than 15-20 miles an hour, but every now and again we’d get a smooth stretch that allowed us to cruise at speeds of 30-40 miles an hour. Whenever the pace picked up we’d get a heavenly breeze that would dry some of the sweat from our faces. It is easily over 90 degrees in Agok, but with gas prices skyrocketing in southern Sudan we chose to keep the air conditioning off in order to conserve fuel.
As we drove we passed blossoming trees, cattle, goats, and sometimes people walking along the road and carrying whatever belongings they could salvage. Some carried mattresses while others escaped only with the clothes they had on their backs. The closer we got to Agok, on the second leg of our trip, the more people we saw on the roads. Makeshift camps covered the town. Every available space was filled with people. Storefront verandas teemed with sleeping children and women nursing babies. There was no privacy. Whatever items they owned lay at their feet: a plastic sleeping mat, a piece of fabric to towel off, or a cooking pot.
The market was teeming with people. The stalls were fairly barren and what was available was marked up at least 50 percent from what you would pay in Juba or Wau. But the market has become more than a place for stocking up on needed supplies, it is now the social focal point where people gather to search for lost loved ones or swap plans on what to do next.
One of our concerns is about the safety of women and children. As is usually the case in any emergency, we’re finding that many children were separated from their families. Aid agencies are working together to help reunite children with their parents.
I spoke to a group of women who fled Abyei with only what they had on. They can’t even wash their clothes because they have nothing to wear. There is no privacy in the camps. For me what is most striking is how difficult it is for people to maintain a modicum of dignity when they’re sleeping under trees. It’s raining. There is no shelter.
When I say people are sleeping under trees I mean literally sleeping in the mud. The rains also increase the mosquito population and the risk of malaria. For those who are stronger it’s okay, but for anyone who is sick or facing post-traumatic stress these are trying times. They’ve lost everything. In addition to their homes and belongings, many of the displaced had food stocks they had saved up for summer or seeds to plant for the harvest, all of that was most likely lost. Tools and wheelbarrows or shovels and hoes are valuable assets. For a subsistence farmer, losing these items is like losing your life savings in the U.S.
Catholic Relief Services’ first steps will be to provide immediate emergency services in coordination with the Caritas Network. We will distribute plastic buckets for collecting water and bathing, plastic sheeting for shelter, rope to tie that sheeting to trees, mosquito nets for malaria prevention, khangas (traditional cloth worn by East African women) for privacy walls or to serve as clothing for women, and hand soap to help with disease prevention. There are no toilets and people are relieving themselves in open areas. This could become a huge health problem after heavier rains.
While there are some hand pumps for people to access water, they don’t meet general humanitarian standards of filling up a 20-liter container in in less than a minute. This leads to long lines and even longer waits. Women are waiting for hours under the hot sun. I saw two of them begin fighting over whose turn it was when they finally reached the pump.
There are so many stresses: a lost child, lost homes, no privacy. They are accumulating and causing outbursts. As a humanitarian aid agency we have to do all that we can to help alleviate this suffering and help improve living conditions for all the displaced.
Despite all this suffering and challenges the people of southern Sudan are resilient and will overcome these hardships again. The courage and strength of these people, despite all these life threatening situations, is inspiring. Their hope and vision of looking to the future encourages our team to find community based solutions to help those in need.
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