AFRICA/SOUTH SUDAN - Sister Elena and the boat on the Nile that rescues refugees fleeing the war in Sudan

Friday, 14 July 2023 area crisis   refugees   caritas   military  

Malakal (Agenzia Fides) - Sudan is on the brink of the collapse. From a low-intensity conflict, hostilities are transitioning into open war three months after the outbreak. After the umpteenth ceasefire agreed and not respected, bombings and fighting erupt, mainly affecting the capital Khartoum and the Darfur region, but spreading to other areas of the country by the week. According to the United Nations, Sudan is dangerously close to a situation of full conflict that "could destabilize the entire region". The death toll is already over 3,000, the number of wounded is high and rumors of repeated violence against women are multiplying. Almost all hospitals are closed, there is a lack of water, food and electricity. Fear and terror reigning across the country means that Sudan - one of the states with the largest influx of refugees from all neighboring countries (about 1.1 million) before the war - has become a place of desperate flight. Statistics speak of more than 2.8 million people already displaced by the conflict, with more than 2.2 million inside the country and over 700,000 outside the borders. In addition to Egypt (255,000) and Chad (over 230,000), the countries most affected by displacement include South Sudan, a small and young country (independent since 2011) that is already burdened by humanitarian crises and conflicts. 150,000 refugees from Sudan have already arrived in South Sudan. "In a very short time", Sister Elena Balatti, a Comboni missionary, tells Fides, "an enormous emergency has arisen: our area - explains the nun, director of Caritas Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state - is the hardest hit, because it is a border area and the most direct access point for those coming from Khartoum. Here we mainly meet Sudanese who, before independence, during the civil war (2013-18, ed.) or due to the recent Instability or environmental disasters have fled to Khartoum. They are returning to their areas, which continue to be plagued by environmental problems, floods and inter-ethnic conflicts. Such a massive and sudden influx aggravates an already difficult situation. Unfortunately, the tensions created by the civil war persist, are still leading and leading to internal exodus, to which a new influx is now being added. Just a few days ago, about 3,000 people arrived from Sudan in a very short time, the situation is very complicated". The international organizations in charge of assisting the refugees, as well as NGOs and charities in South Sudan were already working there in critical conditions before the war in Sudan broke out. Now the situation is increasingly complicated, not least because various ethnic groups who have found refuge in Sudan in the past are arriving in the small country and are now fleeing for their lives once again. The implementation of aid programs is very difficult and requires large logistical capacities and large quantities of basic necessities.
"The IOM (International Organization for Migration) reports Sister Elena "is doing its best, as are smaller organizations like our Diocesan Caritas, but it is becoming more complex every day. Here, alongside South Sudanese, Sudanese and also many Eritreans arrive. Unlike those countries such as Egypt or European countries, whose embassies facilitated the exodus of their compatriots or organized flights, it is different for the Eritreans: nobody wants to return to Eritrea, and Asmara has made no attempt to help either. The South Sudanese who return, on the other hand, are mostly people who had been living in Khartoum for some time and had found work, housing and stability of their own there, after rushing away with nothing and starting from scratch. Now they are reliving the same experience: they have left everything again and have to rebuild their lives from scratch".
Tensions in Sudan had been latent for a long time (there was a coup d'état in October 2021 which interrupted the democratic transition, ed), but no one expected a conflict to break out in such a short time and turn into an open war that undermines the stability of an entire region. "It was all too rapid and violent, we knew that there had been tensions in Sudan for some time, but we did not expect such an escalation," said the missionary sister. "The problem is when there are two armies in a country (the regular armed forces and General Dagalo's RSF, ed): the balance is precarious, one of the two inevitably tends to claim supremacy, and by force of arms. Exactly the same thing happened here (the civil war waged by President Salva Kiir's army and the armed militias commanded by Rieck Machar, ed.). The people here even say: 'They learned from us'." The presence of armed groups other than the army is, as Sr. Elena explains, "undoubtedly a problem that causes great tension".
This was also evident in Russia in the coup attempt by Evgenij Prigožin's Wagner troops. The powerful mercenary militia is also present in Africa and, according to many observers, is also involved in the Sudan conflict: In all likelihood, it supports the RSF with weapons and soldiers. However, some do not rule out that it can also help the army.
"In the Darfur desert (one of the areas most affected by the conflict) there are no advanced weapons, they certainly come from another source, someone else procured them. It's very difficult to mediate between two parties in conflict, let alone if there are more actors involved", says Sister Elena. If it is nevertheless possible to provide a minimum of assistance to the tens of thousands of refugees arriving in South Sudan, it is thanks to the work of international organizations as well as smaller organizations such as the diocesan Caritas or Caritas South Sudan. "Fortunately," Sister Elena concludes, "we receive international support. Recently, some members of Caritas Austria came here and decided to help. They do so with great generosity. We provided a boat that would take people from the border transported up to here on the Nile. About 2,000 people arrived in this way. Then we distribute essential goods in the transit camps. Unfortunately, we see people dying of hunger or need every day, some even during the journey. That's why I also appeal through Fides to Caritas to help the displaced people from Sudan, Upper Nile and South Sudan". (LA) (Agenzia Fides, 14/7/2023)