UNITY STATE, South Sudan — A recent surge of refugees from Sudan has seen Yida camp, a sprawling collection of grass and sorghum reed huts, swell to become a sanctuary to more than 30,000 people.
Most of them have fled fighting between the Sudanese military and Nuban rebels in the Republic of Sudan. But with fewer than 15 miles separating the camp from the disputed border and just 17 miles from the frontline, the violence never feels far away.
Almost every night we hear the crackle of gunshots and we’re frequently awakened by the sound of Sudanese planes dropping bombs in the distance.
Some days, the aerial bombardments are close enough that we can feel the explosions, sending us jumping into bunkers for safety. Other days, Antonov planes buzz right over the camp. I watch the reflex that many children have when they hear bombs start to fall. They run as fast and as far from their homes as they can — running toward the bush in terror without looking back. Women tend to stay put, helping those unable to get away.
The women and girls living in Yida camp tell me it’s far safer here than in their villages in the Nuba Mountains, where nine months of brutal fighting has sown fear and chaos, and sexual assault has become commonplace. I can tell you though, Yida is hardly a safe haven.
Over the past few months, while setting up International Rescue Committee programs for vulnerable women and girls here, I’ve heard story after story that made me wonder at the strength and resiliency of these women.
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They told me about being raped in front of family members by armed men in the mountains of South Kordofan state. They spoke of women being attacked by multiple perpetrators while trying to flee the violence and being “taken” for long periods of time, sometimes never to return.
One woman told me about her sister who had been seized by soldiers. “We still don’t know where she is,” the woman told me.
Unfortunately, the violence they fled in South Kordofan has followed them into South Sudan. Here in Yida, women and girls remain at grave risk, like a 19-year-old I met last week. I was called to the health clinic after the young woman had been taken there by others who found her wandering alone on a road outside the camp. Everything indicated she had been raped — signs of trauma, an inability to speak, evidence of assault. She couldn’t remember anything.
Teenage girls in Yida camp tell me they live in constant fear of being attacked, such as when they collect wood or go to the market place.
“We cannot go to the market alone,” a 15-year old told me. “The military men wait for us there. If a girl is alone, the men will grab her. These men are looking for girls.”
And there are many young girls here. More than 500 fled en masse from their boarding schools in South Kordofan. They arrived with teachers, but no family members. The refugee community in Yida set up three compounds for the unaccompanied girls. But in spite of their good intentions, the risks these girls face inside the walls of these compounds are terrible — overcrowding, not enough food, no bathing area, one latrine for every 100 girls, no gate and no guards. To them, the compound feels like their only option for protection, but they are not safe at all.
As for women in Yida, they may have escaped the violence in the Nuba Mountains, but they are increasingly at risk at home. Married women tell me that since they’ve arrived in Yida, their husbands are beating them far more frequently than ever before. One woman told me, “Married women are beaten all the time. If you are married, you are hit. Everyone is being beaten.”
It stuns and saddens me to realize that these women find nothing unusual about their husbands beating them, only that the beatings have become far more frequent since they became refugees. Yet these are the same women who trekked for many miles to reach South Sudan, protecting their children while carrying their family’s belongings. And once they arrived, these are the same women who built shelters out of materials that they foraged and who, each day, collect food and water for their husbands and children. And these are the same women who helped clear a one-mile long swathe of bush for an airstrip that would allow food to be airlifted into the camp.
It is a grim illustration of the conditions women and girls face at Yida camp that a place where they risk being raped every time they go to the market or beaten by their husbands every time they go home, is safe compared to where they came from.
Elizabeth Pender is a women’s protection expert at the International Rescue Committee and a member of the IRC’s Emergency Response Team. She writes from Yida camp in South Sudan’s Unity State, just south of the disputed and volatile border with the Republic of Sudan.
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