By Bismarck Swangin
RENK, South Sudan, 2 November 2011 – Three months after South Sudan separated from Sudan, becoming an independent nation, many South Sudanese are struggling to return home.
Since June, almost 20,000 returnees have streamed into Renk, a rural town near the Sudan-South Sudan border. Most say they could only afford transportation to Renk and don’t have the means to continue on to their final destinations. In addition, roads are non-existent in this part of South Sudan, where most of the land is submerged in flood waters during the rainy season. Traveling farther south by Nile River barge can take weeks.
A camp has sprouted up to accommodate the stranded, who live in shelters of plastic sheeting or simply out in the open, defenceless against the seasonal rains.
Under heavy clouds, camp residents were busy reinforcing their shelters, heaping soil around their tents and binding the structures with rope. One boy watched the sky, mumbling in his local dialect. Asked what he had said, the boy translated, “God, please take away the rains.”
Risk of disease and malnutrition
Residents in this makeshift camp, particularly the children, are vulnerable to disease and malnutrition.
“We have a lot of problems associated with sanitation and health, food and shelter,” said Deng Akuei Kak, the Renk County commissioner.
Health workers at a UNICEF-supported paediatric clinic estimate that two out of every five children brought to the clinic are severely malnourished. Medical workers also say they see an average of 200 children per day, most showing signs of malaria or respiratory infections.
Working toward a better future
UNICEF is working with NGO and government partners to support a range of interventions on child survival, education and protection, at multiple returnee camps and in returnees’ final destinations.
Here in Renk, UNICEF is supporting the treatment of malnourished children with therapeutic food and vitamin A supplements, and is assisting the camp with safe drinking water and latrines. A temporary learning centre and child-friendly space – where children can play or receive psycho-social support from social workers – are also supported by UNICEF.
The pace of returnees arriving in Renk has slowed in recent weeks, and despite the difficult living conditions, camp residents say they are happy to be in South Sudan. Still, additional efforts and resources will be required to help all returnees finally feel at home.