Azize at Yusuf Batil Refugee Camp in South Sudan

Jeezire is a mother of several small children who used to farm before bombs began falling on her fields. Toma used to bake cassava, a traditional Sudanese bread, to sell in the market, before she was forced to flee her home. Azize was attending secondary school before the fighting broke out, but now has no access to education. Abdbage, a former farmer and woodcutter, traveled 25 days on foot to reach the place where they all now find themselves — the Yusuf Batil refugee camp in South Sudan.

What they have in common is that they are all from Sudan’s Blue Nile State. They are seen by the Sudanese regime as an unwanted people. The government sees their existence as a threat to power and thus they are targets. They now live in emergency conditions, struggling to survive miles from their homes.

“The militias came and they dropped bombs,” Jeezire tells me with a defensive scowl as she clutches her young child, Faize, to her chest. Surrounded by young children, she finds it difficult to describe much more.

As I am speaking to Jeezire, a boy, perhaps in his late teens, approaches us with a young face but a protective presence beyond his years. Abdbage is from the same village as Jeezire. He describes his 25 day journey on foot and elaborates on the reasons for their departure. “There is war in Blue Nile,” he says, “and the SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] side does not distinguish between civilians and soldiers.”

On the other side of the sprawling camp, Azize, the student, tells a similar story. “I escaped my house to the bush,” she tells me. “Then I ran to the mountains in western Blue Nile before coming to South Sudan. Because the situation generally in Blue Nile, the war and still the SAF side, they kill the civilians and still the Antonov is bombing.”

With a striking red and black floral headscarf gently blowing in the breeze, Azize tells me how she studied history and geography before the attacks. Children look on from makeshift shelters in the background, filling the air with an occasional laugh or cry. Azize arrived in this camp just eight days ago from a transition point where she described people dying along the road. Like many others, she fell ill dealing with a scarcity of water and medicine.

As difficult as the conditions in the camp are, it’s still better here than it is in Blue Nile. Toma, the baker, describes the conditions with a shy, distant look on her face, but with hands animated as though they had a life of their own.  “It is better in the camps,” she tells me softly, “because here we are getting food and medicine. In Blue Nile, there is still war.”

The camp is riddled with grey and white tarps lashed to hastily chopped sticks and logs. All of the interviews took place amid the backdrop of mud and puddled water. It is nearing the height of the rainy season, and when it rains the conditions in the camp can become much worse.

“Rain brings many problems,” Azize tells me, “The mosquito. The malaria.” She points to the children behind her indicating that one is already sick. According to aid workers, the threat of cholera is a serious risk as well.

The rain also makes it near impossible to deliver food and medicine along the muddy roads to the camp or even to move around inside the camp. When it rains, Jeezire tells me, pointing to her loosely flapping tarp structure, still surrounded by hints of the rain from a few days before, “We just stay here. We cannot go anywhere.”

Jeezire the mother, Toma the baker, Azize the student, and Abdbage the farmer and woodcutter are four people with different character and passions, but with a shared homeland that they were forced to flee and a shared fate as a persecuted people.

Their aspirations are summarized in a final message from Toma. When I ask what she wants to tell the international community, she states simply, “We need the war to finish. When the war is finished we can return home.”

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  • Marie Fitzsimmons

    Why can’t the World Criminal Court stop genocide?