Seeking refuge from widespread violence, 40,000 South Sudanese people are living in horrific conditions in a U.N. compound in Bentiu. Medecins Sans Frontieres reported difficult conditions since the camp’s opening nearly four months ago, but the onset of the rainy season in July caused massive flooding throughout the area. Over one thousand makeshift shelters have been flooded, but camp residents are too afraid of the raging civil war to leave. Instead they remain knee-deep in sewage-contaminated water, even going so far as to sleep standing up with infants in their arms.
“Outside we have been destroyed by war. We come here, we have been destroyed by water,” said Mary, an 18-year-old refugee living in the South Sudanese U.N. camp. “We don’t know what to do.” Some have tried to scoop water out of their shelters with cooking pots, or build mud barriers across doorways to prevent flooding—but to no avail.
Due to the sewage-contaminated floodwater, as well as a lack of clean drinking water and latrines, there is a constant risk of infection. This risk is exacerbated by the growing rates of poverty and malnutrition among refugees. More than 200 residents of the camp have died since May, most of them children. And although mortality rates have lowered in the last few weeks, at least one child still dies every day.
Ivan Gayton, emergency coordinator of MSF called for urgent drainage efforts: “It’s difficult to drain here—it’s a large grass swamp—but nevertheless it’s possible.” He added, “There are excavators here, there is machinery here, there are a lot of assets that could actually be deployed to improve conditions within this protection-of-civilians zone.” With a committed and well-planned effort, existing MSF resources could make a profound impact on the state of living conditions for Bentiu residents. In addition, unused dry land in the area immediately outside the camp could be portioned out to those impacted the most by flooding. “There are bits of dry land that can be allocated…. They need to be allocated without delay to the people who are trying to make their lives in this absolutely terrible flooded condition,” said Gayton.
As of yet, little effort has been made toward drainage of the camp. But what is obvious is that the current situation is unjustifiable without immediate efforts to improve conditions. The residents are unable to leave Bentiu because they fear being killed once outside the relative safety of the camp. Most fled ethnically-charged fighting between government forces and rebels under opposition leader Riek Machar in December, and there is no end to the conflict in sight. But the deplorable conditions in the compound are not much better: according to MSF, people should be protected and safe from disease as well as from violence.
Gayton said, “Protection is not really meaningful if the conditions under which you can be protected aren’t even fit for human life, let alone dignity.”
– Mari LeGagnoux