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Fleeing South Sudan

April 15, 2017

Manuela is on the run. She left the war and famine of her native South Sudan behind. However, a heavy drought is also threatening the existence of many people in her new Northern Kenyan refuge.

Manuela - Flucht aus dem Südsudan in die Dürre
Image: DW/S. Petersmann

Manuela's story

The world's youngest country is losing its children: Manuela sits in a dusty no-man's-land on the border between South Sudan and Kenya. The 17-year-old has been waiting for the next United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) convoy to arrive here at Nadapal for four days. Manuela has no idea what awaits her in Kenya.

"School is the most important thing for me. Almost all of the world's presidents are men like our Salva Kiir. There are no high-ranking women politicians in South Sudan. That is why I want to study," she says. After a long pause, she adds: "Men are more powerful when it comes to war, but women are stronger when it comes to peace."

Manuela - Flucht aus dem Südsudan in die Dürre
Manuela Nyoka at the gate of the transit campe at the Nadapal border crossing between Kenya and South SudanImage: DW/S. Petersmann

Fear, hunger, gunfire and empty schools

Manuela is from Torit, in the southeast of South Sudan. Her father, a policeman, died during the heavy fighting in the capital, Juba, last July. The war between President Kiir and his rival, ex-Vice President Riek Machar, for control of South Sudan reached Torit long ago - and law and order have broken down as a result of this power struggle between two men. "When they fight, and the rebels shoot people, everyone flees. And the teachers never return to the schools, even though the governor tells them to do so in radio addresses."

Manuela recalls fear and gunshots, dead bodies, nights on which she had to hide. She recalls the rising price of food and the gnawing feeling of hunger - and the way "it hurt a little less when there was enough to drink." Eventually, people began to flee Torit in an attempt to escape war and the spreading drought. In late March, Manuela and her older sister Joyce (18) decided to flee, too, taking their younger sisters Agnes (5) and Faith (4) with them.

Manuela - Flucht aus dem Südsudan in die Dürre
Manuela with her little sisters, Agnes (5, L.) and Faith (4, R.)Image: DW/S. Petersmann

Four girls on the run

First, the four girls took the bus to the border town of Nadapal. From there, they had to travel the last few kilometers on foot through a desolate and dusty plain full of scrubby underbrush to the border. Manuela repeatedly avoids the question of her mother's whereabouts. "My mother is a nurse in Torit," she whispers, as her eyes scan the horizon.

"If my mother comes, then we will all live together. If she doesn't, then we will live on our own." Manuela sounds defiant. A young man named Bosco Juma suddenly appears, claiming to be the brother of the girls' fallen father. He reports that Manuela's mother has found a new partner and no longer wants to care for the four girls. Bosco wants to accompany his four nieces to the refugee camp, though he does not want to take custody of them. He says he has three children of his own to care for, and that his wife arrived in Kenya with the youngest child two months ago.

Yellow fever vaccinations before departing for the refugee camp

Suddenly, a jolt of excitement rushes through the 500-odd refugees waiting at the transit camp at the border. Four big UNHCR transport trucks roll into camp in the searing midday sun. They are here to transport refugees to Camp Kakuma, the second largest refugee camp in Kenya.

"Kakuma is only for refugees. I will finally be able to go back to school there," says Manuela, who wants to be minister of education one day. School is a subject that she repeatedly speaks about - even when asked about something entirely unrelated. Her favorite subject at school is social studies. She doesn't wince when the needle pierces the skin of her upper arm as she receives a vaccination against yellow fever. The vaccination is required for all those who want to travel to the refugee camp. Manuela's little sisters cling to her legs. Then tumult breaks loose. Everyone wants to be the first to climb aboard the white UNHCR trucks. Refugees carrying water canisters, mattresses, pots, bundles of clothing - even chickens - all squeeze onto the truck beds. Manuela is one of the last to get on. She is euphoric.

Manuela - Flucht aus dem Südsudan in die Dürre
The UNHCR convoy about to leave the transit camp at the Nadapal border crossingImage: DW/S. Petersmann

Journey into the unknown

"I am happy - even though everything in Kakuma will be unfamiliar and I have no idea what will happen to me," Manuela yells down from the truck. Then the convoy lurches forward. The journey will last four grueling hours, along roads full of deep potholes. There are also a few flat tires along the 100 kilometer-long route (62 miles). It is dark by the time the trucks arrive at the reception center at Kakuma. Kakuma used to be a tiny, unimportant settlement in the dry Turkana region of northwestern Kenya. It was a stopover for livestock herders and their animals. Today, it is home to some 180,000 refugees. Most, like Manuela, are from South Sudan. The reception center is overfilled. Manuela and her sisters have to sleep outside on the ground. She is disillusioned.

Manuela - Flucht aus dem Südsudan in die Dürre
Manuela sitting exhausted in the UN's Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana County, KenyaImage: DW/S. Petersmann

"Everybody just sits around here like we did at the border. I am scared. I don't know what will happen next. I miss school." Manuela is tired of waiting: waiting for the next registration, for the next meal - just waiting for who knows what.

Separate worlds under the same drought

Manuela barely has the energy to take in her new surroundings, but the Turkana people living outside the camp are facing disaster. The East African drought has thoroughly taken hold of the region. Grazing pastures and springs are no longer to be found. People are losing their livestock - their most important possession. Should these nomadic herders lose all their animals, their livelihood will be fundamentally threatened. 

Manuela - Flucht aus dem Südsudan in die Dürre
A Turkana herdswoman with a dead goat near the Kakuma campImage: DW/S. Petersmann

Manuela can see the round huts of a tiny Turkana village from the edge of the refugee camp. "The Turkana are not nice; they steal our things." The girl, it seems, has already begun to believe the rumors spreading around the camp. Refugees and locals have very little contact with one another. They live in separate worlds - Manuela and the other refugees are taken care of by the UNHCR, and the local population is mainly cared for by the Kenyan government.

Read: On the Kenya-Sudan border, refugees and locals vie for limited resources

Dreams in the dust

The Kakuma camp is overfilled. In nearby Kalobeyei, a new settlement, to be shared by locals and refugees, is rising among the dry bushland. Manuela and her sisters are supposed to live there, too. The project is designed to aid integration and development. It is anyone's guess as to whether it will be a success. At the moment, the Kalobeyei settlement is mainly populated with refugees. Currently there are some 30,000 of them here, and numbers are rising, as another 2,000 people cross the border each month. The UNHCR, however, lacks the funding to push forward with the pilot project.

"If we get a good stone house there, we won't have to think about our parents all of the time," says Manuela optimistically. "Then we could live in peace. We could invite other kids over and read to them from our books."

Manuela - Flucht aus dem Südsudan in die Dürre
Manuela, caught between hope and fear in the Kakuma campImage: DW/S. Petersmann

There is already a school in the Kalobeyei settlement, but most of the houses are made of plastic tarps, not stone. Manuela and her sisters escaped the war in South Sudan. But they have begun their new lives as refugees in Kenya in the middle of a drought that is destroying the lives and dreams of many here as well.