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The Refugee Camp That Lives on in Limbo

The U.N. deadline to close the controversial Yida refugee camp near the border between the Sudans has passed – but its 70,000 residents are refusing to leave.

Written by Roopa Gogineni Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Every month, the World Food Program distributes sorghum, lentils, corn oil and salt to Nuban refugees in the Yida Refugee Camp. The U.N. stopped issuing ration cards in 2013 to discourage refugees from settling in Yida, but this has not entirely deterred new arrivals.Roopa Gogineni

Mornings at the Yousif Kuwa primary school in Yida refugee camp begin with 2,000 students singing a national anthem of sorts. Their song celebrates the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, a region that’s been under siege by its own government for the last five years.

The school is not in Sudan; it is just across the border in South Sudan, which became the world’s newest country in 2011. The school took its name from a famous commander of the rebel movement that now controls large swathes of the Nuba Mountains and is fighting the forces of the government in Khartoum.

The same government says Yida is a rear base for the rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). Fears that this could make it a target have prompted the U.N. to try and dismantle Yida by an end-of-June deadline and move its 70,000 residents some 43 miles (69 km) away to a new camp.

The deadline has come and gone, the rains have arrived and the residents of Yida show few signs of being willing to leave. While the tug of war over Nuba refugees continues, no U.N. status for the camp means no educational support. The teachers at Yousif Kuwa are volunteers. Students carry empty tins of corn oil from food distributions to use as seats in class. When rainy season began, several classrooms were knocked down in the storm. There was a scramble to reassemble the sticks and tarp.

Nawal Abdulrahman is an aspiring doctor. Like many of the students here, she is angry with the U.N. for doing so little.

“Bring one person of the U.N. here,” she asks of me. “If this person comes, I will give them a chair. I’ll take my chair and sit in front of them. I’ll ask them face to face. Why did you not help us? Let them come.”

A short walk from the Yousif Kuwa school, behind a high cement wall, is the compound of the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR. Staff there have been busy moving out of offices made from converted shipping containers. Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba heads the operations in Yida, which, she explains, have been limited to the so-called life-saving activities of providing water, basic healthcare and food.

Students at the Yousif Kuwa primary school in the Yida refugee camp reassemble their classrooms made of sticks and tarp, knocked down in a recent storm.

Students at the Yousif Kuwa primary school in the Yida refugee camp reassemble their classrooms made of sticks and tarp, knocked down in a recent storm. (Roopa Gogineni)

“Yida is not a refugee camp,” says Lejeune-Kaba. “It’s a refugee settlement because refugees have settled here. You just never settle refugees in a militarized zone. Period. But, of course, nobody settled them, they came.”

Nuba refugees first arrived in Yida in 2011, when the Sudanese government began a bombing campaign targeting rebels and civilians alike. Thousands abandoned their villages and fled south across the border. In the five years since, Yida has grown to be the largest Nuba city, albeit 17 miles inside the border of another country, South Sudan.

The complicated reality is that many families in Yida have fathers, brothers or sons who fight for the rebels. For years, the U.N. has claimed the camp is too militarized.

“With the presence of armed elements who are openly occupying schools and recruiting children, we just decided this is not going to work,” says Lejeune-Kaba. “The government [of South Sudan] is responsible for the safety of the refugees and they want to make sure that refugees are assisted where it’s safer.”

But residents in Yida deny the claims that rebels recruit in their schools. They also dispute whether the two new camps the U.N. has built an hour’s drive away, Ajuong Thok and Pamir, are actually safer. The camps are near a border area controlled by hostile Sudanese government forces, the very army whose attacks they fled. Even so, some residents have moved, because the U.N. no longer issues ration cards in Yida. Some are also leaving because they think the U.N.-funded schools are better. Many families have sent their children on their own.

That’s what happened with high school student Teresa Osman. She lives in the Ajuong Thok camp with her two brothers.

“It’s good for me to stay here because I can study,” Teresa says. But her parents refuse to come. “They hear the situation is not good. This place has no security. They rape people here. If you go outside on this road, you will be raped immediately. That’s why we stay inside. We go to school and come and stay inside.”

There are no numbers to show that rape is a bigger problem here than in Yida, but it is clear that Teresa fears both South Sudanese locals and the South Sudanese police who patrol the camp. On one occasion, Teresa went to the police to report stolen money. Instead of investigating her claim, they arrested Teresa, beat her, and kept her in a crowded cell overnight.

In the market in Ajuong Thok, a group of women chat and drink boon: traditional Nuba coffee infused with ginger, cardamom and cinnamon.

Amna Hamdan has lived in Ajuong Thok for three years. When she fled the Nuba Mountains, she chose not to go Yida but to go straight to the new camp so that her children could attend U.N. school and get rations. She feels OK inside the camp, but it’s scary to leave.

Teresa Osman moved to Ajuong Thok, the U.N. built camp, so she could attend school. Last year Teresa reported stolen money to the South Sudanese police in the camp. Instead of investigating her claim, they beat her and held her overnight.

Teresa Osman moved to Ajuong Thok, the U.N. built camp, so she could attend school. Last year Teresa reported stolen money to the South Sudanese police in the camp. Instead of investigating her claim, they beat her and held her overnight. (Roopa Gogineni)

“The host community is very harsh with us,” Amna explains. “One time, my children went to the bush to collect firewood. Members of the host community approached them with guns and told them to stop. They chased them and chased them until they got back to the camp.”

Amna and her children do not leave the confines of the camp anymore. Unlike in Yida, where refugees have cultivated farmland and developed trade routes, Amna depends entirely on humanitarian organizations for food and services.

Back in Yida on a Sunday morning, church songs spill out on to the red dirt roads. Inside a Lutheran church, people dance and make music with instruments made from the same repurposed corn oil tins.

When the pastor was asked whether he thought the congregation would move, he says they probably wouldn’t.

“Here, people have already built,” he says. “They have settled. You have your house. If you go there, they will give you one tent. You have eight children and a wife and husband. One tent cannot carry this number. To leave and go and suffer again is hard.”

It’s not just about houses, though. There’s also more freedom of movement in Yida. And with armed groups nearby, that freedom of movement makes authorities nervous. Leaders in the Nuba community suspect the Sudan government, via the U.N. and South Sudan, is the driving force behind the decision to close Yida. Khartoum claims the rebels get supplies from Yida.

The pervasive distrust of the U.N. in Yida stems back to events in Sudan. When war first broke out in June 2011, thousands sought protection at a U.N. base in the state capital Kadugli. Outside the base, in full view, Sudan security agents walked among the crowds, shooting people suspected of supporting the rebels: U.N. peacekeepers did not intervene.

Many of the initial refugees that arrived in Yida came from Kadugli. They brought with them firsthand accounts of the killings. As South Sudan has sunk from independence straight into its own civil war, similar atrocities have recently occurred on U.N. bases. They have made it even more difficult for the refugees to put their fate in the hands of the U.N.

Meanwhile, some families in Yida are packing up to go home to the Nuba Mountains. They would rather live in a war zone again than feel they are being moved around like pawns on a chess board.

A version of this article originally appeared on PRI.

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