Thousands of people have fled Abyei, a region claimed by Sudan and South Sudan. But its disputed status means those leaving violence behind face an uncertain future. Daniel Tamene visited Jabarona refugee camp, near Khartoum, where many have ended up.
He showed me his tent. Not a proper tent, just a patch of sacks sewn together. It had holes in it. You could see the stars at night and the sun in the day – which shines at 40C.
“I worry,” he says.
Sultan is the chief of a South Sudanese community of 329 households. The community had to flee the violence in Abyei, on the border with Sudan, and is now in the Jabarona refugee camp, along with many other people he knows.
“I know the number by heart. There are exactly 3,236 people here.”
I hear the sadness in his voice, the despair at where his community is living, and the fact that he can’t provide them with what they need.
“Who are they?” I ask.
“We have no status. We are in Sudan, but we are not citizens of Sudan. Some of us are Dinkas – we come from North Bahr el-Gazal. Others are Shuluk, from the Upper Nile region. Others still are Nuer. They come from Upper Nile and Abyei. But Abyei is at war, so we cannot go back. People have tried to return but ended up here again. Where can we go?”
“So you are refugees from South Sudan?” I say.
“We are not recognised as refugees. We are from Abyei, and the government says we are Sudanese, but we are not. South Sudan says Abyei is part of its territory.”
“We are seen as outsiders by the local authorities, and they take our names and request aid for us – but we don’t have refugee status.”
“And what does that mean?”
“I cannot work, as I am not considered a citizen, and our children have to pay for schools as foreign students. There are 20 university students in this camp who can’t attend classes anymore, because they can’t afford it. If we can’t work, how can we pay for our children’s future?”
“The rainy season is closing in,” he adds.
“We’re sleeping on the floor, so when the rain kicks in, we’ll have nowhere to sleep. The sacks we’ve made into tents will not hold. I wonder what will become of us.”
“Back in Abyei we worked – some of us were farmers, others were teachers, some of us were studying.” But now, Sultan says, there is no work. “Because of pressure from the government, the contractors are not offering us the jobs anymore.”
After talking to Sultan, I remembered what the government said in the paper last year. Khartoum’s preparation for the rainy season is complete. So the refugee camp will be left as it is.
“How much would a tent cost?” I ask.
“The little ones, about £60.00.”
He draws on the floor, to show me what they look like. Again: “We are 329 families.”
At Peace Direct, we are not an aid agency, and the local group we support in Sudan, the Collaborative for Peace, are unlikely to be able to help with tents. And Sultan says that international groups aren’t allowed to contact his community.
“But the Collaborative for Peace visited us. They ran two workshops and distributed canvas to help us make our tents.
The workshop that Sultan refers to was organised by the Collaborative with a small grant, but this didn’t stretch to much more.
He tells me how the workshops restored their hope, paving the way for dialogue between the refugee newcomers and the host communities they were living among, smoothing tensions that had risen with the arrival of so many people.
“We still face some problems on an individual level, but as a community we are okay. The hosts are much friendlier than before those two workshops.” He explains how the community has been able to reach the authorities, even meeting a Minister.
“I still remember the surprise on his face. He promised to solve our problems. He helped us make it to the presidential office to appeal our case. Some of us even got identity cards, which enabled us to access local services and hospitals. It was a good start.”
“But,” he continues, “We were never visited by other organisations. That could have helped us show our problems – to draw attention to our issues. We still have problems, we do not have medical treatment, our community has no sanitation facilities, and our children need nutritional treatments.”
I wondered how a peacebuilding organisation could help in a situation like this. It would be difficult for Peace Direct to help with sanitation and water issues.
“It is clear that international NGOs are not going to reach us. But the workshops, and being able to speak to the host community and ministers about our problems, helped.”
Sultan was adamant.
“This is the first time that a representative from an international organisation has visited us. You are hearing our concerns. It is not just about solving problems, it is also about listening to us and sharing ideas so we do not feel ignored and left alone. The Collaborative helped us because they visited and organised this workshop.”
I understood what he means. Sultan was asking to be recognised, to be listened to. What he was asking for was more than a plaster. He wanted a path to a future; only that could give him hope that his community had a future.
The Collaborative is now fundraising locally to support similar work, smoothing relations between the newcomers and the communities in which they live.
As I returned to the UK and read the newspapers, I thought that this approach is one that we can learn from. If it were used in other countries, fewer people would be forced to flee. We could help prevent elements of the refugee crisis before they begin. If local organisations can be supported to help in the regions where people are fleeing – not once they’ve already fled – then we can help give people the choice not to leave their regions. That would be progress.