I am sitting across from a woman named Mende* who recently fled from Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. Mende arrived in Juba, South Sudan earlier this month shortly after bombs fell near her village. She is slightly nervous as I begin to ask her about her experience. She still has family in the Nuba Mountains.
“I used to make soap,” Mende tells me, her features visibly relaxing as she begins to describe how she would squeeze oils out of fruits in the Nuba Mountains and combine them with other materials to make unique types of food or soap. But her eyes drop as she recounts the reason why she could no longer carry out her work. It’s the same reason that farmers could not plant crops ahead of the crucial rainy season, a fact that some experts warn could soon lead to a full blown famine. “Antanovs”, she tells me, referencing the planes that the Sudanese Armed Forces use to drop bombs indiscriminately in civilian areas of the Nuba Mountains. The word and the haunting sounds that accompany it have clearly traumatized her.
“When I first arrive somewhere,” she tells me, “my first question is, ‘where do I hide if they start bombing?’.” Mende speaks of the intricacies of a fear that only someone who has experienced such terror can understand. “It is always in your mind,” she says, “When you hear the planes, even when you take a shower, you are thinking about needing to run out to hide.”
Back in the Nuba Mountains she and all others in her village would instantly scatter at the sound of distant planes, scurrying into caves even in the dead of night. “We would run in without torches, not knowing if there were snakes or something else.”
She laughs recounting how, even hundreds of miles away, refugee children from the Nuba Mountains would dive to the ground at the sound of a United Nations plane, or how one time back in the mountains a dog scurried ahead of all the women and children to hide in the cave. “Everything is ringing in your mind,” she says, “you are feeling like you are just going to die now.”
Even more lethal than the bombing is the specter of mass hunger and disease that now looms in the Nuba Mountains. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been blocking humanitarian access to the area. Mende tells me about the shortage of food, the need for mosquito nets, and the growing threat of disease. She pleas for the international community to take notice, to do whatever it can to stop the terrifying aerial bombardments, and to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those in need.
For her part, Mende wishes desperately to return to the Nuba Mountains, but not until she has collected some key materials that she describes to me in detail. Having seen first hand disease spreading and how prevailing conditions are making the situation worse, Mende provides a remedy much closer to home. “Hygiene is very bad,” she tells me, then, perhaps more tellingly than she realizes, adds with a smile, “There is no soap.”
*Mende’s name has been changed to protect her family still living in the Nuba Mountains.