David Hennessy spoke to two aid workers from Concern about the plight of those displaced by the ongoing conflict in Syria and the violence that erupted in South Sudan last month.
Ceasefire needed in South Sudan
Since violence erupted in South Sudan on December 15, at least 1,000 have been killed and over 200,000 have been displaced.
The unrest started after South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accused his sacked deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup, something Machar denies. The conflict has since taken on ethnic undertones with Kiir from the majority Dinka community and Machar from the Nuer group.
Peace talks have begun but with no progress and the fighting still continues.
Concern CEO Dominic McSorley spoke to The Irish World from Tomping, one compound that houses 16,000 of those who had to flee their homes.
“We now know in the short time that I’ve been here the numbers displaced have gone up from about 180,000 to over 200,000 and we know that UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) has registered about 12,000 people that have fled across the borders into Kenya, Ethiopia and north into Sudan itself.
“The biggest issue I think for us is the fact that there’s continuing hostilities. We know that the peace talks have started, the UN and certainly the regional leaders were pushing for a ceasefire first and talks second so that hasn’t been delivered. Peace talks are critically important but the reality is the fighting has intensified in particular around areas like Bor or Bentiu where Concern was based before and now more people are fleeing, some people for the second time, so the situation is definitely very, very critical at the minute.”
Concern were based in Bentiu in the state of Unity which is now under the control of opposition forces: “But we are planning to go back up there to do an assessment to see if we can provide the assistance. We know there are about 8,000 displaced in and around the town of Bentiu so we need to get back up there to see what we can deliver.”
The compound of Tomping has 16,000 refugees with 14,000 in another at Juba 3: “There’s two displaced sites that we’re working in so in total there are 20,000 and we’ve been providing nutrition, food and emergency relief supplies.
“I just spent a morning in Juba 3 talking with people there. While I was there the UN bulldozers were levelling the ground to try and expand the camp because there’s more people coming. It’s overcrowded, the conditions in these camps are not good and we have to expand and try to decongest, but people are prepared to put up with that because that’s where they feel safe and they in no way see they can go home and they don’t perceive being able to go home for quite some time.
“I spoke to one guy, he was 22, and what he said to me was ‘our new year has been damaged and our hopes are broken’, that was how he expressed it. And I said: ‘Will you go home?’ And his home was half a mile away in a part of Juba and he said ‘we can never go home alone, we need protection’. This is the consequence, you’re in these camps and you just kind of get the whole senselessness of what we know is 13 months on from celebrations of South Sudan being an independent country when there was great hope. This is why it’s such a tragedy to be squandering those opportunities because South Sudan has a very young population. I think more than 50% of the population is under the age of 15 and whatever hopes and dreams they had, for those who are displaced: Their futures have been altered in the last few weeks.
“In essence the people who are in these two camps I’ve talked about are the lucky ones because they have protection and they have basic relief items. The problem is that we’re not accessing everybody and the UN aid has reached half and only half. If 200,000 have been displaced, probably only about 100,000 have received some kind of assistance and that’s another 100,000 that we’ve been unable to reach because of the insecurity. That’s why we’re calling for a ceasefire: To allow the aid agencies to go out and do what we came here to do.
“Peace negotiations will take a long time. We certainly want the political leadership here to go back to the spirit that created South Sudan, one around freedom, peace and prosperity because there’s so much potential in this country and the last couple of weeks are just undermining an extraordinary amount of progress. In the end, I’ve got to give credit to the courage and commitment of our team that stayed throughout. Our team was holed up in our compound for three days while there was shooting and fighting on the streets outside and when it was safe, they went back out and started working. In the end, that’ what we’re doing. We’re sticking by the people of South Sudan and we’re certainly hoping that the donors and international community will do the same.
“The challenge now is two things, to scale up the emergency response and the second thing is we have an end to the hostilities to be able to get access. Those are the key things.”
Escaping war to battle the cold
Two years of fighting in Syria has forced millions of its native people to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring countries like Lebanon. However, these refugees are now facing a harsh winter without the food, blankets and other things that are necessary to get through it.
Anne O’Mahoney, a senior Irish aid worker and International Programmes Director with Concern Worldwide, told The Irish World of the conditions she witnessed first hand when she visited Lebanon recently.
“What I was moved by was the condition of the refugees,” Anne begins. “It was so cold, it cut me to the core and there were these people living under plastic with very limited heat and I just could just so identify with the cold that they were experiencing. Many of them had come from situations that you and I would have grown up in: Concrete houses with good heating systems, with jobs that paid salaries, with their children in school and here they were reduced to living under plastic and it just seems so wrong.”
Some have lost loved ones or have been searching for loved ones since they were forced to flee. There is very little news coming from their home but when news does arrive, it is often not good: “We were asking some of the refugees what’s happening at home? And most of them said they really don’t have any contact with home. One man was telling us that gunmen arrived into their village, he quickly moved his children into his mother’s house. He went back to collect his wife to take her to the mother’s house, and we’re only talking about a matter of half an hour here but by the time he came back, his wife was gone and he has not seen her again. And this was 9 months again. He gathered up his children, his mother and the rest of his brothers and their wives and their kids and they all moved out but he has no idea what happened to his wife and these are the sort of traumas that people are dealing with and having to cope with. They had received a message the day before I was talking to them that the husband of one of their sisters who had gone missing was now confirmed dead so these are messages and information that are filtering through. I was asking them: Would they go back? And they were saying they would go back instantly if they knew they could have their houses back and there was a safe place to go but there’s no place at the moment for them to go.
“There’s no indication as to when they will be able to return. Even if there is peace in Syria in the morning, it is unknown how soon their villages will be clear enough for them to go back. Even when I was there, you could hear shelling in the distance on the Syrian side, it’s sort of a constant there in the background. You’re very conscious of the conflict, it’s very much there, you can’t relax.
“But of course they would love to go back. They hate being refugees, they hate being a burden and they hate being in the conditions that they’re in. But they did express a gratitude for the help and support that the Lebanese government and the aid agencies were giving them.”
Lebanon has been kind enough to give these refugees a home but it has stretched its own resources and created tensions: “Lebanon is a tiny country. It’s about one seventh the size of Ireland so it’s really quite small but it already is accommodating over a million refugees and for a small country to be able to take in that number of people, it’s huge. Its own population is about 4 million so this is a 20% rise in the population over a period of a year or two and it has generously opened its doors but it’s feeling the burden and can a country be expected to cope with this burden for a long time? It’s quite difficult to do that and it is creating tensions within Lebanon itself. The refugees are undercutting the poorer Lebanese to get the low paying jobs and it’s creating a certain amount of unemployment for the Lebanese themselves.
“I think the medical services are under pressure, I think what’s under even more pressure is the schools. When you move a million people into an area, they all have their children. The Lebanese authorities have looked at creating double shifts for teachers and for schools to run on two shifts, from 8 until 2 and then 2 until the evening time, but of course it gets dark very early this time of the year and it’s very difficult for kids to get home in the dark especially in a country that they don’t know very well and it brings up issues around protection and a safe school environment for children.
“All these are putting pressure on a struggling system and Lebanon itself is in between governments, it has a transitional government so the decision making ability of the existing government is quite limited so from a political perspective, accommodating this number of refugees doesn’t win any votes either.”
Concern are working to provide proper shelter for millions of refugees in Lebanon but Anne explains it is something that takes time: “In order to get people into proper substantial shelter, it takes much more time. Concern has taken over a few of what were chicken farms and we’re converting them into one roomed housing units for families, building in a shared toilet facility and putting in a joint kitchen so they can all make use of the same kitchen facilities and at least it will given them concrete walls, but these take time to do. We have to rent these chicken farms from the owners and then do the conversions and then move the families in so we’ll able to accommodate 40 or 50 families in each unit, but it does take time.
“We’ll put in gas heaters into those locations and of course it has to be connected up to the national grid and then with sewerage and water systems. All that is happening at the moment, it just takes time and it costs a lot of money.”
In the meantime, more immediate help such as blankets and heaters are needed but supplies only go so far so heartbreaking decisions have to be made: “It could happen to any of us and our families. They had just lost so much in such a short space of time. I wanted to give them everything, I wanted to help them to have warm clothes, to have heaters, to have good shoes that would withstand the snow, I wanted them to have hot water bottles so they could be warm at night but we have limited resources, we have to make choices about who to assist and who we don’t and those choices are very difficult to make when you’’re looking at a whole group of shivering people. But these choices have to be made because of the limitation of resources. Yes, we would want more and we would want a lot more and we could do an awful lot with a lot more. We have to be realistic and until we get more funding, we really do have to make these choices. I hope they will survive the winter.”
To donate to Concern and their campaign to help those affected by both conflicts in South Sudan and Syria, go to: www.concern.net.