Part 1 of the story has been published here.
Born Amid Turmoil
After Mustra successfully crossed the border heavily pregnant, she gave birth in Maban to her twins, who just like their 11 older siblings born in the Blue Nile region entered the world amid chaos.
The civil war that erupted in South Sudan in 2013 gave rise to local militias across the country, including in Maban. The conflict also added to the scarcity of basic supplies, as ground battles kept the Mabanese from cultivating their land. Given that both government and opposition armies are infamous for looting aid delivery trucks and even killing the drivers, assistance is feasible only through air-drops, which cost up to $2 million per flight.
“The host community in Maban was vulnerable prior to the arrival of refugees from Sudan, with high levels of poverty preventing many from meeting their basic needs, including access to safe drinking water, sanitation and healthcare,” reads a 2015 report from UNHCR. “In addition, refugees arrived at a time when the host community was unable to produce enough food even for themselves.”
Those like Mustra fleeing hunger and conflict have found themselves in a land that is just as insecure. They are reluctant guests in communities that are equally reluctant to host them. The fractious relationships between the different armed groups have created a precarious situation for both the refugees and hosts.
Maban is governed by the SPLA, a former rebel group that now comprises South Sudan’s government forces. The forces have been accused of organized campaigns of rape, looting and torture as they barrel their way through a civil war that is allegedly ending but with little respite or stability for civilians.
Police and national security forces also roam the area, which has devolved into semi-autonomous fiefdoms with their own agendas.
The Maban Defense Force (MDF) is made up of 5,000 people armed by the government in 2014. It is charged with defending the local population from the perceived threat of the SPLA-IO, the opposition army fighting a civil war against the South Sudanese government, which is a mere 25 miles (40km) south of Bunj town, the center of Maban.
Though the MDF technically integrated into South Sudan’s government forces in 2015, according to Pau Vidal, the project director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Maban, there are indications the group still operates independently.
Finally, the Sudanese rebel army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N), formerly the SPLA – has a big presence, so much so that one of the training camps is less than 10 miles (16km) away. Many of the families of the soldiers reside in the camp, and many refugees came with their own guns for self-defense. It is widely known that the SPLA-N recruits young men from the camps in Maban and brings them over the penetrable border to fight for them. The SPLA-N says that they are demilitarizing the camp by taking armed deserters back to the war.
The refugees and the host community have a tense relationship because of the lack of resources.
“Life isn’t good because of the host community,” says Awad Citho, one of the local leaders of the refugees at Doro. The local Mabanese community has allegedly killed more than 100 people from Blue Nile in fights over resources, mainly over land that can be cultivated and firewood.
Citho acknowledges that both sides are to blame for the violence, which, he says, is often prompted by a grievous need for sustenance. He admits that his people do steal farm animals from the host community. But when he catches them in the act, he takes them to the police.
“Those people, they come with all their guns. All this camp is full of guns. And that is maybe what makes them bring bad things,” Isaiah Nagwara the leader of the Umdas (community heads) in Maban, says, referring to the refugees.
The levels of tension between the hosts and refugees exacerbated when the World Food Program (WFP) cut food rations last August by 30 percent, forcing the refugees to depend more on Mabanese resources to survive. Many refugees are so hungry they are eating leaves from trees. The WFP provides assistance to the refugees and the 17,000 displaced South Sudanese, but does not have the capacity also to assist the host population. This leaves the locals, who are equally desperate, feeling spurned by the international community. Given this equation, cultivatable land, firewood and food are all the more precious and access to them has caused further political and social strife between the two groups.
“We have a very complex situation that needs to be solved,” says Adan Ilmi, who heads the UNHCR’s operations in Maban.
But Ilmi does not expect help from Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Instead, he meets with leaders from the host and refugee communities. “We don’t see much decisions coming from Juba because the country is having lots of challenges within itself, so local [leadership] is better,” he explains.
Many of the Mabanese, even Umdas such as Nagwara, are no strangers to refugee life. Nagwara lived in Ethiopia from 1987 to 2005 when the first civil war in present-day southern Sudan was raging. He says the camp in Ethiopia where he stayed was nothing like the camps in Maban. Security was very tight. Here in Maban, everyone has guns, he points out.
Nagwara acknowledges that the influx of people from Blue Nile has brought jobs, a hospital and more schools. Yet he describes his life as “worse off” since the refugees arrived.
“If you kill my people, it doesn’t work. It’s better I would just send you away,” he contends. His sentiments echo through the host community that is fighting for its own survival and cannot shoulder the burden of the newcomers.