‘IDPs’ is one of those acronyms tossed around in the conversations of charity workers, government agencies, and the UN. Short for ‘Internally Displaced Person’ it refers to those who have fled their homes and become refugees within their own countries. They have nothing more than the hope of survival.
I met these women in March when they were living in small ‘temporary’ huts in a place called Wonthow IDP settlement; Atrin (22 years), Adjok (18 years), Omjima (30 years), Nyabol (17 years), and Sedia (25 years), to name just a few.
Some had been there for a year; others sought refuge only a few months ago. Atrin along with seven of her relatives were packed into a small shelter with only two beds. Seven months pregnant at the time, Atrin slept on the ground. She was one of an estimated 6,000 IDPs who in mid-April, had to flee once more when the IDP settlement was attacked by an unidentified group.
These are their stories.
Atrin Osman, just 22 years old and nine months pregnant with her second child, sat on the delivery table in the Medair antenatal clinic at Wonthow.
She shared freely how she ended up at an IDP settlement, jumping back and forth through time, adding more detail here and there. Often Atrin stared blankly out the one small window, sometimes stuttering as if her mind and mouth were in conflict over speaking of the horrifying events.
Two months earlier, Atrin lived in the village of Jamam where her husband was stationed for military service. When a large armed group attacked the village, the small company of soldiers sent the women and children running, saying they would take up the rear. Atrin, seven months pregnant with her two-year old little boy, fled with nothing but her documents and some money. Her husband followed some distance behind with the other soldiers. But later, one of the men caught up with Atrin and asked her to come back to identify her husband’s body. She found him lying under a tree; he had been shot, first in the arm before receiving a deadly bullet to his back.
How can I go back to Jamam? My hope was my husband and my children, but since I lost my husband, I think there is no hope.
She went into shock, immobilized by sudden pain through her stomach and back. The only thing that brought her back to reality was the realization that she had two children to protect. She fled again but was captured by the armed men who demanded 5,000 South Sudanese pounds to be released. She paid it and ran again. For seven days, as she worked her way through a minefield of danger toward the Wonthow settlement, Atrin and her son had nothing to eat but small bits of food offered by strangers, and nothing to drink except the water from muddy puddles along the road.
By the time she reached Wonthow, she and her son were weak and ill. One of the Medair midwives saw Atrin in the settlement and invited her to the clinic where they began her treatment.
In March Atrin gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Only three weeks later she fled violence again when the violence reached the settlement.
The IDP settlement
Driving north from Renk, before you reach the border with Sudan, you see reed shacks covered in white humanitarian emergency sheeting begin to fill the narrow space between the road and the Nile River. Wonthow became a settlement in April of 2014 when fighting erupted near the town of Renk. It’s the farthest north you can go without crossing into another country. People came from as far away as Malakal over 225 miles to the south. The ethnic-based fighting has torn families from their homes and forced them into temporary shelters too afraid to return to their villages.
Medair set up a clinic soon after the Wonthow IDP settlement came into existence. Their staff cared for sick and malnourished children, kept pregnant mothers healthy, delivered their babies, and provided clean drinking water for everyone. The nutritionists and midwives knew their regular patients’ names and stories, greeting the mothers and children by name as they arrived for their exams. On average, the staff treated more than 130 people every day.
Julietta Isaak is a midwife working at the Wonthow settlement for the last six months. 'I live in the IDP settlement myself,' she explained. 'If I see a pregnant woman, I’ll tell her to come to the clinic to get checked. I want to help my community. Medair helps everyone regardless of his or her tribe.'
Adjok and Omjima
At 8 AM last September in the village of Jarbanna, Adjok and Omjima ran from their village when it was attacked and burned. The two sisters-in-laws, along with relatives and hundreds of Dinka from their village, spent four days walking, sleeping, and hiding in the bush, drinking water from puddles.
'The help that I get from Medair is very good,' Adjok said in March at the Wonthow nutrition section of the clinic where her one-year-old child, Afrah Kur was receiving Plumpy’Sup. 'I see my child getting better. I’m very happy with Medair and I really hope they will continue to give the help to many more children.'
'This is the first time I had to run,' Adjok continued. 'It was a terrifying run. The sounds were so close to us and I ran and ran. Everything is destroyed. The whole village was burnt down to the ground. The armed men came to murder us. I still live in a lot of fear and I hardly sleep. How can I sleep?'
Three weeks after admitting that she was still afraid, Adjok and her family had to run once more.
Nyabol and Sedia
Pregnant seventeen-year-old Nyabol fled Renk on foot when the town was bombarded with artillery a year ago. It took her two days to reach Wonthow. Two days after arriving she gave birth.
Twenty-four-old Sedia also came a year ago when the conflict reached their village, traveling on foot and by boat for 24 days to reach Wonthow from Malakal. While they were running, her uncle’s two young children got lost and the family has yet to find them.
'I will deliver my child here, because I know that it is safe,' Sedia said in March. 'I hope to go back to Malakal. If I stay alive, I can work with my hands and I will be able to bring up my children.'
Sedia was one of thousands who vacated the settlement in April. At seven-months pregnant, she may not get her wish for a safe delivery at the Medair clinic.
The future for any IDP is immensely uncertain. Many, like Atrin, lose hope. 'How can I go back to Jamam?' she asked, 'I lost my husband there. There is nobody responsible for me. My hope was my husband and my children, but since I lost my husband, I think there is no hope.'
After giving birth to a healthy baby boy on 18 March with the help of a Medair midwife, Atrin appeared to be more content in the knowledge that her children have given her a reason to live. But that was before the latest attack on the settlement.
For Medair, future work in Wonthow is now uncertain. They are committed to serving but since the latest attack, the clinic staff spent the nights in Renk and Sudan for their own safety, returning during the day to Wonthow to work. Ten days after the first attack on the settlement, people began to trickle back and the clinic staff treated 31 IDPs.
'We’ve been flying Medair for many years, and I’ve seen that they really go where the needs are,' MAF pilot Ryan Unger observed. 'There’s risk involved in a lot of places where they work. Their commitment is exceptional.'
MAF flies to Renk weekly bringing in supplies and personnel. As Medair’s Logistic Officer in Renk, James Ireri knows the value of MAF’s support. 'From Juba, using the MAF Cessna Caravan, it takes three hours. It takes five days by a road only accessible at certain times in a year when it’s very dry, a small window of only a month. That would never be viable for our work at all. If you add the issue of serious security risks, and the only possible transportation option is flying'.
Willem van Amerongen, Medair Deputy Country Director, sees the big picture. 'If we would not have MAF at this point, we would have a serious problem. MAF makes the major difference.
'It seems like a small thing - we just fly from A to B - but it’s actually a major thing because how else would we come to the right location to help people with needs?'
Whatever the future holds, Medair is committed to serving the Atrin’s, Adjok’s, and Sedia’s of South Sudan. The IDPs with names and stories. MAF is committed to support them in that work.