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A Grim Exile in South Sudan

July 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News reports from the border of South Sudan on a flood of refugees who fled to escaped the violence, only to encounter grim conditions in camps on the Sudanese border.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, on a very different note: A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in a remote corner of South Sudan.

It’s the world’s newest nation, just a year-old, after gaining its independence from Sudan. But tensions between the two countries have continued, and the Sudanese government in Khartoum has attacked African tribal groups who got trapped on the wrong side when the two countries split last July. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the fighting.

Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News reports from the border between the two countries.

JONATHAN MILLER: The lumbering trucks look empty as they navigate the mud and the ruts. But they carry a hidden cargo.

The people of Sudan’s Blue Nile state are on the run from yet another deadly cleansing campaign waged by their president, Omar al-Bashir, already indicted on charges of war crimes and genocide. Deja vu.

For months, these survivors have hidden from al-Bashir’s bombs and bullets in forests and caves, often with nothing to eat except leaves. Many have reportedly died, these the latest of 120,000 who’ve fled into South Sudan, now nearing the end of their perilous journey, a refugee camp called Jamam.

DR. ERNA RIJNIERSE, Doctors Without Borders: These people are in a fragile state. They don’t have much reserves. Even if you look at the adults, most of them are skinny. They have been walking for six weeks, four weeks, six weeks. They don’t have food, no shelter, no proper drinking water for quite some time. So it is a very vulnerable group. And, of course, it is always the little kids and the elderly that are the ones that suffer the most.

JONATHAN MILLER: Excitement, relief mixed with exhaustion, anxiety and confusion, this grim exile their punishment for ending up on the wrong side of a line of a map when South Sudan split with the Khartoum last July.

But their tribulation doesn’t end here, for Jamam is a dangerous sanctuary. Aid workers here say this is the worst place imaginable for a refugee camp to be, 40,000 desperate people dumped in a malarial swamp, where it floods when it rains, but there’s not enough water to drink.

Among relief groups, there’s now growing certainty that Jamam is on the brink of catastrophe. The mortality rate is double the threshold of what constitutes an emergency. Nine children die in Jamam every day, most from diarrheal disease. With more heavy rain expected, medics are preparing for the worst.

What a place to end up when you’re 90. Senem Adam left her mountain village for the first time in her life when two of her sons were shot dead and her house burned down by Sudanese forces. She’s blind and can hardly walk, but she has walked for two months to get here.

“It’s good you tell my story,” Senem said, “so other people can know what they have done to us.” She knows she will probably never see home again, no nice U.N. tents for new arrivals, just plastic sheets handed out by Medecins Sans Frontieres. Without those, they’d have nothing.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, wants to move these people on again. But they cannot go yet. The U.N. can’t put up tents fast enough in the new camp, so they’re stuck in the mud in Jamam. The UNHCR is now scrambling to get thousands of new arrivals out of here, but, even when they’re all gone, there will still be 35,000 people camped in Jamam’s toxic mud lake.

PETER STRUIJF, Oxfam: I think it is absolutely a top priority that large numbers of people are evacuated, I would say out, of Jamam. This is not a safe place for them to be. We are very worried about disease outbreaks.

We need someone at a higher level to make a strategic decision to solve this problem once and for all. And that probably means moving most people out of Jamam, if not all.

TARA NEWELL, Doctors Without Borders: These people are living in a very unlivable environment, in that their health is gravely affected because of it. But the question of why and how this happened is something you’re going to have to ask the UNHCR.

JONATHAN MILLER: The head of the agency’s field office said he’d meet us at a new camp 40 miles away. I wanted to ask about Jamam and why it was a good idea to put a refugee camp in a swamp.

FREDERIC CUSSIGH, UNHCR: Well, obviously, that wasn’t a good idea. That wasn’t — unlike here, it wasn’t a planned camp. It was a self-created camp, where refugees settled. And that’s — so, de facto — it was a camp de facto, rather than an organized camp.

JONATHAN MILLER: But surely you had a chance earlier to move when it was predicted that it was very easily flooded and there wouldn’t be enough water to sustain a population there?

FREDERIC CUSSIGH: That’s correct. And we started to move people. Unfortunately, we had another influx, and those people needed to be prioritized, because in the events of movement, the most vulnerable arrive the last.

JONATHAN MILLER: But now they’re all vulnerable. The chief of the Ingessena tribe, which makes up Jamam’s population, is a refugee himself. He’s bitter, but not at the U.N.

EFENDI BADI EL-TOM, Ingessena Tribe Chief: (through translator): I don’t blame the UNHCR. I blame Omar al-Bashir, because if he hadn’t shot and bombed us, we would have avoided all this. We are mountain people. The Ingessena people want to go home and find peace, to finish this terrible war. Our hearts are broken.

JONATHAN MILLER: At a fly-blown spot on the road towards the frontier, a new group has just crossed into South Sudan. On the other side, Omar al-Bashir’s forces are still bombing, and these people say more refugees are heading this way.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can find out more about the desperate plight of refugees in the camps on our World page.