Jason O'Brien: In a land where price of not being able to speak the language can be bullet in the head
The lives of tens of thousands of refugees are on pause in war-torn South Sudan
Published 07/02/2014 | 02:30
THEY detail calmly how close family members were selected after failing language tests and shot – coldly, quickly – right in front of their eyes, just last month.
And they wait.
They sit on the dusty ground or on dirty mattresses as the mercury hits 40C and the rough material above their heads becomes hot to the touch.
And they wait.
They endure the incessant encroaching of new neighbours as the population of this new 'town' – on a tiny patch of land uninhabited a couple of months ago – hits 25,000, 26,000, 27,000.
They wait in hope for the day it is safe to leave.
They wait in some fear for the day – and it approaches – the rains arrive in earnest.
It's not the population density of the UN humanitarian camp near Juba's airport in the South Sudanese capital that is its most striking feature, despite already hitting 10 times that of Mumbai. Or the tales of violence perpetrated by fellow South Sudanese – generally of different ethnicity – on the stoic inhabitants. Or the rancid smell. Or the incredibly difficult living conditions.
It is the sensation that life, for these people, has effectively been paused at its worst moment – and this new reality may become permanent.
The situation here in Juba is replicated at UN camps in Malakal, Bor and Bentiu (and another Juba location). But also in various community spaces such as hospitals and churches in other areas around the country since violence erupted just before Christmas.
Nauakaran Puoch (22) watched from a nearby ditch as two of his cousins were murdered in the Munuki West area of the capital.
"I couldn't do anything – there were a group of perhaps 12 government soldiers going from house to house rounding up Neur people, but doing it pretty silently," he said.
"They asked questions and if you didn't answer in their language you were selected. I didn't know what was happening. But they shot my cousins, and others, including women and children. They burned the bodies."
Mr Puoch's story has not been verified by other sources, but has striking similarities to horrific stories of violence up and down the country as a political dispute between the country's president and vice-president quickly split along ethnic lines between the Neur and Dinka people, the country's two biggest groupings.
Barry Andrews, CEO of aid agency Goal, which has 900 staff here, last night described the violence as unparalleled, both in terms of its extent across the country and the pace by which it has spread since December 15.
"We are looking at upwards of 10,000 dead, 800,000 people displaced in the country and another 100,000 displaced in neighbouring countries," he said.
"There are people we still haven't been able to reach, and the rainy season will bring all manner of extra health risks to those in these camps, specifically diseases such as cholera."
A ceasefire was agreed on January 23 but sporadic fighting has been reported in some areas including Unity, Lake and Jonglei states.
A further round of peace talks are due to take place today in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa – but few in the Juba UN camp have any plans to go home.
"It is something that they say is over, but I don't believe that it is over, I don't believe that is safe for me or my family at home. We are Neurs. We are targets," Michael Koang from Unity state said.
Nor, of course, does the 26-year-old student want to stay.
"You see the way we live here," he says, pointing to the two single beds – with a small space between them – under a sheet of blue tarp. "There are three of us in this bed, three in that bed and maybe four on the floor.
"There is nothing to do so we lie in bed during the day, and we wait."