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Refugees from Blue Nile Are ‘Reluctant Guests’ in Maban

Following the influx of refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile into Maban, South Sudan, the new arrivals and their host communities are struggling to live together amid strained political relations and an extreme dearth of resources.

Written by Amanda Sperber Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Blue Nile is resource-rich, with minerals, fertile soil, untapped oil reserves and water from the Blue Nile river. Yet the state has long been neglected and subjugated by the central government, its indigenous people repeatedly displaced by conflict, forced relocation and land grabbing.Ashley Hamer

From One Conflict to Another

MABAN, South Sudan – Mustra Mohammed had no idea she was crossing into another war zone when she left her home in rebel-held territory in Sudan’s Blue Nile region for South Sudan. She walked for 10 months with her husband and 11 children dodging bombs and bullets to get across the border.

“We lost all our livelihood. Life became very difficult. There was no food, no clean water, no health services. That’s why we just decided to come and take refuge in South Sudan,” she said.

The refugee settlement sprang up from nothing, with aid groups scrambling to meet their needs. Women and children make up the vast majority of the refugees.

The refugee settlement sprang up from nothing, with aid groups scrambling to meet their needs. Women and children make up the vast majority of the refugees. (Ashley Hamer)

Mustra’s home is in Sudan’s Blue Nile state, which sits at the bottom of north Sudan, once the biggest country in Africa. A splitting of the southern part from the rest of the country in July 2011 created South Sudan, the world’s newest nation. Along with those of the Nuba Mountains in the southwest, the people of Blue Nile sided with the southern Sudanese independence movement. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought for more representation and support from their government.

Conflict is ongoing in Blue Nile, with aerial bombardments and shelling by the Sudanese government a continuous threat. Not all bombs explode on impact, but with no disposal experts to destroy them, they remain active where they fall.

Conflict is ongoing in Blue Nile, with aerial bombardments and shelling by the Sudanese government a continuous threat. Not all bombs explode on impact, but with no disposal experts to destroy them, they remain active where they fall. (Ashley Hamer)

After more than 50 years of fighting, followed by five years of somewhat peaceful negotiations, national and international diplomacy allocated Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains to the north. A significant portion of the residents in these regions felt stuck on the wrong side of the border, given the mismatch between the line and loyalties. War returned to Sudan in 2011. The conflict broke out again in September of 2011 just two months after South Sudan celebrated its independence.

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More than 133,000 refugees from the Blue Nile conflict live in limbo in a cluster of camps in Maban County, in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state. It is the largest single concentration of displaced people in the country. (Ashley Hamer)

Today, Blue Nile is ravaged. The explosives raining from above and dry earth have kept people from cultivating their lands. Every grain of rice is precious. There are no medical clinics or schools. A decree from Sudan’s president, the International Criminal Court-indicted Omar al-Bashir, has barred international NGOs and journalists from entering Blue Nile. A majority of the population has deserted the region; more than 130,000 have gone to Maban, and another 40,000 people are in refugee camps in Ethiopia. Today there are more people outside of Blue Nile than inside. Those who have remained have intentionally scattered because clusters of homes and people provide a more clear and lethal target for the Antonov bombers that prowl the sky.

Mustra is among the thousands of refugees who arrived in Doro in late January, five years after the fighting kicked off in her homeland, and two years after civil war broke out in South Sudan. Doro is the biggest and oldest of the four refugee camps in Maban.

In the soaring temperatures of eastern Upper Nile, heavily pregnant women at theDoctors Without Borders (MSF) refugee camp clinic prefer to sit outside than inside the stuffy wards. The Khartoum government forbids all humanitarian aid from entering rebel-controlled Blue Nile, meaning that the nearest medical facilities are several days' walk away in the Maban camps.

In the soaring temperatures of eastern Upper Nile, heavily pregnant women at the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) refugee camp clinic prefer to sit outside than inside the stuffy wards. The Khartoum government forbids all humanitarian aid from entering rebel-controlled Blue Nile, meaning that the nearest medical facilities are several days’ walk away in the Maban camps. (Ashley Hamer)

The journey was marked by death and loss, and then life and new love. Her husband was killed in a shoot-out between the government and rebel troops and four of her elder children went missing in the bloody chaos. She has not seen them since, and she worries. When she arrived in South Sudan she gave birth to twins.

In the camps on the South Sudan side, refugees rely on international aid to surviive in overcrowded, stressful and often unsanitary conditions. Groups like MSF run clinics geared towards mothers and children, who make up the majority of the refugee population.

In the camps on the South Sudan side, refugees rely on international aid to survive in overcrowded, stressful and often unsanitary conditions. Groups such as MSF run clinics geared toward mothers and children, who make up the majority of the refugee population. (Ashley Hamer)

Once she arrived, she was dismayed to learn she was no safer in Maban than she was in Blue Nile. The hunger pangs also remained. “I felt very bad when I heard there is also conflict in South Sudan. I heard that the host community, they’re also armed and they are killing refugees in the forest,” she said.

Maban is a heavily militarized county in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, with four camps hosting 130,000 desperate refugees. They live in a war zone along with 60,000 frustrated Mabanese, about 17,000 IDPs, at least six armed militias and not nearly enough food. Remaining allegiances between the South Sudanese army and Sudan’s rebels allow for weapons, soldiers and supplies to cross over with ease. The real threat of violence is between the Mabanese and refugees.

Part two of this story will follow soon.

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