Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization, had to evacuate its staff Sunday from a refugee camp in northern South Sudan due to escalating violence in the region, with the evacuation occurring just one month after a bombing in the area.
South Sudan has been beset by outbreaks of ethnic violence since it became independent in July, but even before that, as part of Sudan, it was torn by conflict. The situation has been further complicated by the presence of many armed groups and militias across the country, according to media reports.
The refugee camp staff is hoping to return to the location, but only after violence subsides. Meanwhile, the missionaries are eyeing other locations for the refugees inflowing from the north and cooperate with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in supporting some 20,000 refugees from their temporary shelter in Juba, the capital.
Samaritan's Purse mission staff have been feeding and assisting refugees fleeing violence in the Nuban Mountains – where the Sudanese government maintained a heavy military presence – at a camp in the Yida region, about 12 miles from the Sudan border, since early August. The mission has distributed hundreds of tons of food staples, with material support from the United Nations World Food Program, as well as provided temporary shelter, medical care and other assistance to the growing number of refugees fleeing the ethnic conflict-resulting violence, the mission's website claims.
South Sudan has been torn by conflict for years. On July 9, 2011, this small, land-locked country gained independence, becoming the 195th country in the world and the 55th country in Africa, gaining autonomy from Sudan.
The nation continues to struggle with the "countrywide effects of conflict, displacement, and insecurity," according to the U.S. Deptartment of State. During over 20 years of conflict, violence, famine, and disease killed more than 2 million people, forced an estimated 600,000 people to seek refuge in neighboring countries, and displaced approximately 4 million others within Sudan, creating the world's largest population of internally displaced people, the departament's data says.
Samaritan's Purse's Yida camp was bombed on Nov. 10 and the organization suspected the Sudanese government of having a hand in the attack. The bombing sent an early but clear signal that the location is no longer safe.
On Nov. 18, the UNHCR declared that it was working to move refugees to safer areas.
"Between 60 and 200 Sudanese refugees continue to arrive daily at a camp in Yida in South Sudan’s Unity state after fleeing fighting in Sudan's Southern Kordofan state," the agency stated at the time. "Around 23,000 people are already sheltering in Yida, which was the scene of air strikes last week.”
"We came here to escape from our home where we were suffering because of bombardments," Awadia Kifi, a refugee from the north told the UNHCR. "We had no food in our home and when we came and we are now suffering just like in our country."
According to the the U.N. agency, the influx of refugees in that region started in August, when Samartian's Purse also started cooperating with it, and the UNHCR has been urging the residents of Yida camp to move further away from the unsafe border area.
On Sunday, Samaritan's Purse called for a complete evacuation of all staff in Yida.
"We received reports that Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) had moved large artillery about eight miles to the east of Jau, which is about the same distance from Yida. Knowing that the SAF already bombed Yida camp by air in November, a logical assumption is they will likely also shell it by ground," a statement on the mission's website says.
"The security has become improved [according to the government reports that the mission staff has received] but we are not sending any of our staff back there until there has been no combat for two weeks," Ken Isaacs, Samaritan's Purse VP of Programs told The Christian Post Tuesday in a phone interview from Juba, where the staff was moved to temporarily. "In the meantime we are working with the UNHCR to begin transiting people from Yida to other camps."
"Samaritan's Purse remains deeply concerned for the refugees in Yida, and for the 1.2 million displaced people of Nuba who are totally shut off from food, medical care, and all other forms of humanitarian assistance while they try to survive ongoing aerial bombardment and attacks by the military of the Islamic Republic of Sudan," the mission said in a statement. "The people of South Kordofan in the Nuba Mountains need a humanitarian corridor to be opened."
The organization promises to continue to monitor the situation and prepare to assist the refugees as soon as security will allow such assistance to happen, and has appealed for prayers on its website.
The majority of South Sudanese maintain traditional, indigenous beliefs, followed closely by Christianity and some Islam.
Here is a video titled "Yida, South Sudan Refugee Camp Needs Food - Samaritan's Purse" uploaded Nov. 12, 2011, by Samaritan's Purse: