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May, 2023

South Sudan Mission - War in Sudan

On 15th April fighting started between the SAF that is headed by General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, who led the coup against the transitional government in October 2021, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The two warring Sudanese Generals have caused disastrous consequences of the violence there. This is a war about self-interests, power, control of gold mines and oil wealth, and the integration of the RSF who is demanding more power. Tens of thousands of refugees from South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea living in the country have fled the fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the Khartoum area.
Sudan hosts over 800,000 South Sudanese refugees, a quarter of whom are in Khartoum and are caught up in the fighting. Many of them are attempting to undertake dangerous journeys to the Joda border crossing in Renk, Upper Nile state. It is having a great humanitarian impact because of the large unplanned influx of returnees on an already dire humanitarian situation in South Sudan. They come from different parts of South Sudan and UNHCR expects them to go back to their places which are already extremely fragile as a result of conflict, climate change, and food insecurity.
I left for Joda border on 27th April with a team of three others to assess the situation at the border. The border is less than 400 km from where I live. But it takes the all day to arrive because of the poor condition of the roads. More challenging is we have to pass a good number of kilometers that are hot spots of intertribal violence recently. It caused the deaths of over hundred civilians from the last week of November 2022 to January this year. We encountered numerous military and local militia check points along the way. In many villages people have abandoned their homes and fled to safer interiors or to other villages. Freshly dug trenches not far from the road were visible in many places. During our return journey we met a group of 7 young boys with big assault guns who apparently looked ready for some kind of action.
First day we slept in the open as we failed to get any accommodation. On the second day, the Comboni sisters offered their small store room where we could rest in the evening during our operation.
Situation at the Border: So far close to 30,000 people have crossed Joda border into South Sudan. Over 90% of them are South Sudanese. The Government of South Sudan and humanitarian partners are expecting the return of an estimated 180,000 South Sudanese and the arrival of up to 60,000 refugees in the next three months. They transport costs have gone up multiple times since the start of the conflict. First arrivals were those with sufficient means to pay for transportation from Khartoum using open lorries and other means. Now a greater percentage of vulnerable individuals arriving at the border by foot. Depending on who controls the check points, both SAF and RSF searched the returnees, their valuables stolen, bribes demanded, and in some incidents some youths were taken away to work for RSF etc. giving them guns and uniforms. There have been many reports of extortion against people on the move that have been rife along the roads. Some youths shared this in the transit center though I am unable to verify it. More than some 60,000 people are waiting closer to the border to see how the conflict evolves to decide whether to return to the Sudanese capital or move to South Sudan.
We met a number of injured children and women. There are many mothers with their new born babies and pregnant women among the returnees. There are also many sick people who went for medical procedures to Khartoum when the war broke out, and they were forced to flee in their deteriorating health conditions. Other returnees include Sudanese and third country nationals.
As people arrive, they are head counted, registered and some food and water is offered for the most vulnerable. There was nothing formally set in place until last Saturday as major agencies were not sufficiently prepared for this human tragedy. Now water facilities are set up at the border, measles vaccinations for children are given and for women and children some protein sachets are given.
Those can afford, they travel to Renk town on their own. Others wait for UNHCR/IOM hired trucks to bring them to the transition center. For a few days the arrivals were given a bucket, blankets and plastic mats. Though all were sleeping in open, now some 500 are sheltered in tents. Another 3000 people are living in the open. Thank God there are no rains yet here! During the day temperatures are well above 45C degrees. It is searing heat by day. There are WASH and medical facilities set up in the center. The understanding is people vacate this center after a few days to their respective destinations. But that is not happening currently as there is no transport available for people to move nor do they have any means to pay. There were some 1500 people stranded until two days ago at Faluj airstrip some four hours’ drive from the border. Yesterday when I had passed that way, I found most of the stranded returnees had been evacuated to Juba by cargo WFP flights. One of the Catholic dioceses is providing a boat service to bring people to Malakkal through the Nile River. But scores of families are stranded in the transit center, in town, in mosques, schools and churches.
The Eritrean Refugees: Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war for independence. Since 1993 the country has been ruled by a dictatorship, under the authoritarian president Isaias Afwerki and his party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The Eritrean refugees face a different challenge. Seeking asylum abroad is considered by the Eritrean government to be an act of treason. I met a number of refugees who shared if they returned to Eritrea they would face life long cruel detention, torture and other forms of serious ill-treatment. One young man shared there are many prisons in Eritrea where detainees are kept in shipping containers, exposed to severe heat during the day and shivering cold at night. Since Eritreans and Ethiopians can look like South Asians, many came to me to seek help and to just share what they are going through.
Eritreans are deeply religious people. Christianity took root in the region in the 1st century. Government allows only the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Catholic Church (predominantly of the Eritrean Catholic Church who follow the Alexandrian Rite) of oriental rite and the Muslims. Many participate in weekday mass, they kiss the ground of the church as they enter, they leave their foot wears outside the church, and whenever they see a priest, they all come and kiss our hands and place it onto their foreheads (something like in the Philippines). They do not wish to return to their home land at any cost. Their only fear is if inter-governmental decisions can forcefully evacuate them back to Eritrea against their wish as it has already happened both in Sudan and Egypt.
Priests and Religious: I met 5 Canossian Sisters from India, a Salesian deacon who was supposed to be ordained on 30th April, a M.Afr from Cameroon and a few diocesan priests from Khartoum including the VG, the brother of cardinal in Khartoum who fled the violence. The sisters administer the Comboni Primary School. The students were in class rooms when the distant sound of gunfire rang out across the yard as their residence and school are located in between the control of two warring parties. The sisters were in tears as they shared how the entire school had been vandalized and destroyed. Some of them had spent 25 years in developing the school. They said their chapel was fully destroyed, tabernacle was shot open and blessed sacrament missing. There are some six elderly Salesian sisters staying back because of current condition of their health cannot allow them to undertake any difficult road travels. The Salesians who run the Don Bosco Technical School in El Obedid and the St. Joseph’s Vocational Training Center in Khartoum have also stayed back.
Inter-governmental networks through embassies have facilitated the evacuation of other nationals stranded at the border to the capital Juba. This part of South Sudan where I live depend on Sudan for the provision of basic goods and food. Since the war broke out there have been sharp increases in the prices of food and other basic goods, and soon most of the goods will not be available in the market.
As of now our involvement there is providing psycho social support and of presence. Other agencies are doing what they can. But none of it can ever replace what a functional government is capable of doing. More is to be done by them by providing the basics: food, water, shelter, medicines and transport. I had to return because I have to send my passport to the capital for the renewal of my residence permit. If other alternative documents are facilitated through the Catholic Secretariate for my stay there I am willing to return for a max stretch of two weeks at a go as it is physically demanding work living with the basics. As of now I am ok in health. Here we are at the start of rainy season. It rained a few times. In the coming months it will be a challenge to use the roads for travels as most part of it can be cut off by floods. White Nile flows along the border.

Fr. Shiju Paul Puthenpurackal, SVD