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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.