The only words she could say to the humanitarian workers getting her four children on the aircraft was a simple: “God bless you.”
Nyabang and her children had arrived a week earlier in Akobo, a remote town in eastern South Sudan on the border with Ethiopia. About 34,000 South Sudanese refugees, fleeing conflict in their country since December, have arrived at Akobo in Ethiopia. Most, like Nyabang carry little with them as they are intent on just getting their children to safety.
To add to her problems, her youngest child, Nerek, suffers from severe hydrocephaly – an abnormal accumulation of brain fluids that causes pressure inside the skull and progressive enlargement of the head, as well as convulsions, tunnel vision, and mental disability.
Nyabang has her own physical difficulties as well. She sustained a bullet wound to her ankle during fighting between government forces and rebel fighters in South Sudan and suffers severe discomfort, though the wound has healed.
Most of the South Sudanese who have arrived in Akobo since December, had no choice but to take a 15-hour boat ride along the Baro River to relative safety. They arrive in Burubiey in Ethiopia, where they spend the night in a makeshift camp and the next day are bused to a new UNHCR-run refugee camp in Kule II.
But now the most vulnerable can avoid this arduous trip aboard the helicopter, chartered by UNHCR with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), from Akobo to the emergency hospital at Leitchuor refugee camp – and eventually to Kule II.
All South Sudanese arriving in Akobo are registered by UNHCR and Ethiopia’s national Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and receive assistance. After that, they are screened and those identified as unable to take the boat trip are put on the flight. Priority is given to pregnant and lactating women, older people, children aged under one year, the injured and people with mobility problems and their relatives.
Soon after Nyabang and her family left aboard the helicopter from Akobo, another group of refugees arrived. Among them was 23-year-old Nyamach Lual, who approached the improvised UNHCR airstrip with her aunt, 54-year-old Cicilena Peter. The older woman could barely walk and yet had made the difficult journey in South Sudan to Akobo, where they arrived two weeks before.
Nyamach has taken care of her aunt since the beginning of the conflict, as her uncle was killed. They fled from Malakal, the capital of South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, which borders western Ethiopia’s Gambella state.
In Malakal, they were sheltered at a base for the UN Mission for South Sudan, along with thousands of civilians, but were forced to flee because of the attacks against the base. But Nyamach, as well as her five-year-old child and a number of relatives, had to make their way on foot, a journey that took eight days.
As she prepared to board the UNHCR helicopter, Nyamach said: “We feel good and relieved, as we are not fleeing again. We feel secure.”
The UNHCR-chartered helicopters are also used to deliver food, medicine and technical equipment to support protection and registration needs. A significant amount of cargo has been transported, including telecommunications equipment to set up a UNHCR office in the city of Nyinyang, which covers the Leitchuor camp.
This helicopter operation started at the end of March and will continue at least for two months. There are five flights a week. UNHCR is seeking authorization from the Ethiopian authorities to expand the operation to other locations, in a region where refugees are arriving in very remote areas with little if no infrastructure. Many are suffering from ill health and lack of nutrition from their days and weeks on the road in search of a safer immediate future for them and their families.
By Luiz Fernando Godinho in Akobo, Ethiopia