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South Sudan's refugees

Coletta Wanjohi /shApril 11, 2014

The conflict in South Sudan has displaced thousands of people. Many have crossed the border into Ethiopia only to find themselves in overcrowded refugee camps. The rainy season adds to their woes.

Refugees stand outside their tents. There are puddles on the ground
Image: DW/Coletta Wanjoyi

Every day some 1,200 refugees from South Sudan arrive in Ethiopia, most of them women and children. They sleep in tents, often on wet ground. The refugees are fleeing from the conflict in South Sudan that erupted in December 2013. The conflict is between the government of President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, now rebel leader, Riek Machar.

A cry of pain is heard from one of the tents in the Kule refugee camp. A South Sudanese family has just witnessed the death of their six month-old baby. They had walked for 25 days to escape the conflict in their home country. Now their child is dead.

The refugees are living in appalling conditions in the camps. Overcrowded tents are filled mostly with women, children and old men. Most wear tattered clothes and have no shoes. All they have is what they managed to carry on their long walk to to escape the violence in the world's youngest nation.

Tents provide little shelter

On arrival, refugees are usually allocated individual tents that have a roof but are otherwise exposed to the open air. To keep away the cold, especially at night, they fasten blankets and pieces of cloth to the main tent. They sleep on the ground. Since the onset of the rainy season, the ground is constantly wet and muddy.

Refugees crowded together in a camp
More people arrive every day in the overcrowded campsImage: DW/Coletta Wanjoyi

Bol Gadcoth says this is the second time he's become a refugee. The first time, he spent close to 10 years in a camp during the civil war between North and South Sudan. He hopes this time will be shorter.

"I don't want to be in refugee camps for two years or even one year. I don't like it , I want to go back within a few months," he said.

Peter Jiech Ruach was a local politician in Malakal, one of the regional states of South Sudan. Together with five family members, he also fled. They walked for nine days to the refugee camp. Ruach used to live abroad and had only just returned to his native land. "I came from America where I was for 19 years. It's better to live in your own country, that's why I came back," he said.

Peace in South Sudan 'is a must'

Ethiopia is now hosting over 80,000 refugees from South Sudan. The numbers are steadily increasing. Kule camp was built to accommodate 25,000 refugees, it now has 40,000. Antonio Guterres, the High Commissioner of the UN refugee agency UNHCR recently visited the camps in Ethiopia. He said the situation in South Sudan was dire and that a long term solution was needed.

Refugees share a meal
Refugees share a meal in Kule campImage: DW/Coletta Wanjoyi

"Even if we provide the best possible assistance, this is not the solution. We don't want to see the South Sudanese again remaining in exile in these countries for many years. Peace is an absolute must," Guterres said.

But until peace returns to South Sudan, these camps, despite their harsh conditions, will remain home for the many thousands of refugees.