As the war in South Sudan moves swiftly north, refugees along the border are fleeing back to their homes in Sudan’s equally war-torn regions.
Residents of Unity State’s refugee camps are increasingly vulnerable as the conflict spreads to supply routes and paths into the camp. On Sunday, December 22, the United Nations and all other humanitarian organizations evacuated their international staff from the camp due to the growing instability, leaving only South Sudanese staff and those from the refugee community.
Yida – home to 70,000 refugees – sits near the Sudanese border with Unity State, one of South Sudan’s two main oil-producing states. South Sudan announced earlier its forces had lost control of Unity State capital Bentiu, which serves as a regional hub for many of the NGOs operating in Yida.
The UN refugee agency – UNHCR – had last week evacuated its Bentiu staff to Yida due to fears the ongoing conflict between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar would spread there.
Now that NGOs have fled the camp, many refugees are afraid. “It is so bad, people have reacted badly and they want to return [to Sudan]. It is only that we are telling them not to. We don’t know what will happen,” said one member of the refugee community working with an NGO in Yida.
Humanitarian sources in Yida confirmed to Nuba Reports that food and supplies to last through February had been prepositioned in the camp before the fighting broke out in Juba. As the clashes began December 12, camp residents say the World Food Program was completing a routine food distribution. Families in Yida have food to last them through the end of January, but many worry about what will happen if the fighting does not stop.
“If this continues people will not have enough food to survive,” said another refugee and NGO employee named Komi. “No one here knows about any plan by the NGOs to continue food distribution,” he added.
SURROUNDED BY THE CONFLICT
As conflict spreads around the country, Yida’s refugees are being caught in the middle of the warring sides. Refugees at the camp have reported seeing an increase in South Sudanese troops in Jau after fighting broke out in the Unity State capital, Bentiu. Residents say some Nuer soldiers left the mostly Dinka contingent while many Dinka soldiers from Bentiu fled to Jau. Jau sits north along the road from Yida to the border of Sudan and is the main entry and exit point from the camps into Sudan’s war-torn South Kordofan state.
Meanwhile, fighting between armed Nuer and Dinka in Panyang – to the south of Yida – has driven some civilians into the refugee camps. Residents of Panyang in Yida said didn’t know how many fled or whether the attackers were army-members because they were too busy fleeing.
Panyang sits next to Pariang, a major way station along the road linking Bentiu to Yida. The road serves as the main supply route for the camp in the dry season.
On December 22, international humanitarian organization Solidarites announced one of its local staff was killed in what the group called a “probable assassination” in Unity State’s Ajuong Thock. Ajuong Thock was opened earlier this year to relocate refugees from the crowded Yida camp nearby. More than 5,000 refugees live there.
With reports of fresh fighting in Malakal in Upper Nile State – South Sudan’s largest oil producing state – more than 100,000 refugees in nearby Maban county are also at risk.
FROM ONE WAR ZONE TO THE NEXT
With soldiers to the north and fighting just south, many residents are trying to leave South Sudan for the active war-zone of South Kordofan. For the past two years the rebel SPLA-North has been fighting Sudanese troops in a region known as the Nuba Mountains. In response, Sudan has dropped bombs on a near-daily basis in civilian areas.
But the road home goes through Jau, and many in the camp are scared fighting could break out along that road. According to Komi, many refugees left the camp before the fighting broke out in Juba. Though he doesn’t know how many fled, he says he’s been in communication with several families who returned safely to South Kordofan. Now, he says, people aren’t sure if the road is secure.
Despite this, many feel it will be safer for them in South Kordofan, away from the frontlines of the fighting. “It’s definitely better to go back to Nuba because people are more scared of the bullets here than they are of the bombs back home.”