Warrap State in Southern Sudan is becoming the focus of efforts to assist thousands of people fleeing the disputed central-southern region of Abyei after it was attacked on 21 May by the northern Sudanese army, aid workers say.
But the obstacles are considerable: it is the rainy season, many roads are impassable, soldiers have harassed aid workers, fuel is in short supply and it is sometimes difficult to identify who is displaced.
"This operation is facing logistical challenges. In the weeks to come, with the advance of the rainy season, the challenges will become greater," said Margherita Coco, who was responsible for the World Food Programme (WFP) sub-office in Abyei until the attack forced WFP to abandon its work there. She now works from Wunrok in Warrap State.
On 1 June WFP put the number of registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) at more than 45,000; unofficial estimates indicate there are another 36,000 people on the road still trying to head for safety.
WFP has provided more than 25,000 food rations to IDPs arriving mainly on foot in Warrap. Some 18,000 people have received food aid in Abyei region. Another 2,800 IDPs who managed to obtain transport have received food rations in Bahr al-Ghazal State.
Rations consist of 13.5kg of cereals, 3kg of pulses (lentils and beans), about a litre of cooking oil and 0.15kg of salt per person, and are designed to last a month.
Despite access difficulties, IRIN saw food trucks arriving at three separate northern locations in Warrap State - Mayen Abum, Turalei and Wunrok - to which most of the displaced have fled.
But Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan, warned of the situation in Turalei, where the population doubled within the space of 10 days: “You can already tell that stocks are not sufficient. We have to face the fact that if there is another influx we will not have enough stocks.”
The rainy season means that in a few months some areas will no longer be accessible by road, particularly around Agok in Bahr al-Ghazal State. In view of this, WFP began distributing three months’ worth of food rations to Agok-Anet, 35km from the frontline between the armies of South and Northern Sudan on 30 May.
|Chai Adjak Atem’s story|
Chai Adjak Atem, 14, and her siblings were among 9,000 people to flee to the Warrrap State town of Mayem Abum after fleeing her home in a district of Abyei town called Bongo.
“On the first day of the attack [on 21 May] I was at home. I heard the planes and then the bombs. I ran to my mother. She was dead. My little brother was next to her. He was dead too.
“Then I left on foot with my brothers and sisters. The youngest is five years old. We walked for three days. We took nothing with us. When we got here [Mayem Abum], by chance I found my uncle and his wife and their baby daughter. Since then, we have lived under a tree.”
The initial destination for those fleeing Abyei, mostly in great haste and with few provisions or spare clothing, was Agok-Anet, where they believed they would be safe until Sudanese army bombing forced them out.
"I was having a rest when I heard the planes,” said Nyandur Deng, a resident of Agok-Anet. “Then I saw people running away so I took my six children and I left. My husband works in Khartoum. "
Most of those fleeing Agok-Anet were women and children, the men staying behind to guard their homes or join the Southern army.
IDPs in Warrap State are sleeping outside, without shelter, despite it being the rainy season. "We need plastic sheeting before food,” said Nunja, 15, translating for her mother. “We’ve been sleeping under a tree since we arrived. We walked for three days. We need rest."
Albino Deng, who works for Southern Sudan’s Health Ministry in Agok-Anet, said: "The government cannot afford to provide tarpaulins to the public. The government should focus first on getting the displaced back home.”
"Because of poor roads, we have not been able to reach all those on the move,” said Samuel Keuchkelian of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “Those who have not yet arrived at the different assembly points are the most vulnerable."
Several NGO 4WD vehicles have got stuck, forcing passengers to camp in the bush and slowing down the provision of assistance.
According to OCHA, Warrap is also among several states in Southern Sudan where, in the first quarter of 2011, humanitarian transportation was hindered by “repeated demands for illegal fees, intimidation, demands by soldiers for humanitarians to transport soldiers and weapons and, in at least three locations, a total block on the passage of relief convoys.”
“Changes and inconsistencies in government rules, regulations and demands also imposed further challenges on operations, particularly in Warrap and Western Bahr el Ghazal states,” OCHA stated in a report issued shortly before the Abyei exodus.
Another obstacle is the acute shortage of fuel. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), two of the main roads between north and south have been blocked. Petrol is imported from the north.
Photo: Maryline Dumas/IRIN
|Aid workers fear food supplies may not meet demand|
"We had 200l of extra fuel when we arrived on site,” explained Oyukutu Valente, an official with Save the Children. “We have just ordered an additional 400l from the International Organization for Migration [IOM], due to arrive by convoy from Juba."
Agok Hospital, managed by the Swiss branch of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is treating some of the displaced who were unable to keep up. "Most are children and the elderly, often abandoned by their families during their flight," said Ines Hake, head of an MSF medical team. Patients mainly had dehydration symptoms, diarrhoea or lung infections after spending nights in the rain. Hake expects up to 200 patients a day at the hospital.
"People first try to [find] shelter and then food,” explained Raphael Gorge with MSF in Agok. “It is only after that that they come in for treatment. On 24 May we only had one patient here. Everyone had fled, even our local staff. Now people are starting to come back. "
UN services are resuming in Agok-Anet, which previously was out of bounds for security reasons. For the first time on 1 June, an IOM team was able to begin counting the displaced in Abyei town. They counted 5,000 on the first day.
“On [1 June], three Southern Sudan government vehicles were made available to bring the displaced back to Agok-Anet," said Deng of the health ministry.
On [2 June], IRIN saw UN blue helmets on the road to Wau heading for Agok-Anet to restore calm and help the displaced.
Registration of IDPs is also proving problematic. "For us, the main problem we face is that of identification,” said Ampeilia Gabriel of WFP. “We have nobody from Abyei to tell us if the people we are seeing are from there or not.”
An even bigger problem in Turalei is that the displaced have gathered south of the town in a spot where some southern Sudanese, who had settled in the north after the Civil War (1983-2005), have built their homes in the expectation of returning to their native village.
IRIN was able to see that some of these Southern Sudanese were pretending to be refugees from Abyei to benefit from food aid. "Some Turalei residents are also stealing WFP handouts from refugees too weak to defend themselves," said one aid worker.
To be as accurate as possible in their counting of IDPs, the IOM team is distributing census forms very early in the morning, before sunrise, to avoid including local people by mistake.