As a teenager, she survived Sudan’s 22-year civil conflict by fleeing with her family into the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan province. So when Antonov planes droned overhead and armed soldiers entered her village in June last year, her instincts kicked in.
Now 42 and a mother of six, she says of the renewed fighting in her village, Dalama: “People were running and looting and shooting. My relative was shot. Whether you are a soldier or a civilian, once they catch you they kill you, even children.”
First they hid in the bush, surviving on wild fruits and sometimes sneaking home for food. They heard the fighting spread to other villages and after two months they decided to flee further.
“In the previous war, the community left together,” she says. “This time we didn’t flee in a big group because if they get you, you will all be killed. If we separate, our chances of surviving are better.”
They walked mostly at night, stopping often to find water and feed the children dried beans and vegetables. One child was stung by a scorpion, another’s leg swelled up after being pricked by a thorn. Eventually they reached Kosti port in Sudan, boarded a barge and sailed down the river Nile to Juba, capital of South Sudan.
Since last September, Helen and her family have been living under a makeshift shelter in Lologo, a dusty local settlement in Juba. Together with 11 other Nuban refugee families, they have received clothing, plastic sheets and bamboo poles from UNHCR, as well as food rations from a local church. They are among the more than 1,700 refugees from South Kordofan who are registered in Juba.
To make ends meet, Helen cooks mandazi (fried doughballs) and sells them for breakfast. Her neighbour Mubarak*, 46, spends his day looking for stones to hammer into smaller pieces for gravel. He then scouts construction sites and tries to sell his gravel, which is mixed with cement to produce foundation slabs. It’s hard work in the Juba heat but he has to keep working to support his wife and five children.
His bigger worry is back home, where he has another wife and four children. He bursts into tears recounting his last phone call with them. They lost phone contact some weeks ago and he doesn’t know how they are doing.
“Many people are still trapped in South Kordofan,” he says. “The roads are closed. You can’t move on foot. Some people ran out of money for transport. They are just waiting for their death to come.”
Helen, too, loses sleep thinking about her family in the Nuba Mountains. She worries every time she hears about renewed fighting in the areas bordering South Kordofan and South Sudan. More than 20,000 refugees are living in South Sudan’s Unity state, the majority encamped in Yida settlement just 25 kilometres from the volatile border.
Mubarak expressed concern about refugees staying so close to the fighting: “How can we live there if there is fighting there?”
For security reasons, the UN refugee agency has relocated 2,300 refugees – most of them students – from Yida to two safer sites in South Sudan’s Unity state since January. UNHCR continues to encourage the refugees at Yida to move to safety. The agency is also negotiating with the authorities in Juba to provide some land in the capital for the small group of Nuban refugees who are already here.
While these actions may provide temporary respite for the refugees, it does not solve the fundamental problem. “I appeal to the world to look into the war in our homes,” says Mubarak. “Families are locked up and they can’t run to another country. I hope the fighting can stop so we can go back and see if our families are dead or alive.”
*Name changed for protection reasons
By Vivian Tan, in Juba, South Sudan