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Horrors of war still haunting Sudanese refugees

By Mamer Abraham

An old adage that says two are better than one is at play as Sudanese refugees in South Sudan, console each other by sharing, but the trauma of war keeps lingering in their minds.

Over hundreds of kilometers away from war fronts; distance has not detached the Sudanese refugees from the past horrors, as some still do not have peace at all.

Camped here, at Wedwiel in Aweil West County, Northern Bahr El Ghazal State of South Sudan, the refugees keep experiencing attacks from the invisible realms.

Hallucinations of atrocities, coupled with ghost attacks, remain major health threats, giving refugees sleepless nights, months after escaping death from Sudan by a whisker.

Despite assured safety and security, most refugees are yet to cope with the harsh living conditions they never experienced before.

Some refugees still receive nightmares of killings and the sounds of artillery, resonating in their minds and others are worried of about their loved ones, left behind.

Assistant commissioner of the Commission for Refugee Affairs (CRA), Julius Taban Philip, testifies of the mental instability of some of the refugees.

He says a number of children, women, and men are traumatized due to their current living standards.

Taban narrates an ordeal of a traumatized boy, who misses watching TV, living in good house, eating good food and other luxuries, that he enjoyed back home.

“The boy was used to TV, good accommodation, and good feeding, but here it became different. He was telling his mother to take him back home (Sudan). We needed to take him to the clinic, but there was still nothing. He was very stubborn; he was traumatized,” Taban narrated.

According to Taban, trauma affects people in different ways that are not easy to identify, as for the twelve years old boy, it manifested inform of stubbornness.

“Actually, the twelve years boy was very happy when at home in Sudan but when they came here, he became very stubborn. People thought it was stubbornness, yet it was already a trauma,” the commissioner explains.

The assistant commissioner of refugee affairs says many traumatized refugees are undergoing healing at the MSF clinic for counseling.

“This is a problem here, and not only him, but so many women and so many men are saying what this is. I think it is their first time to know about it because it is their first time to see refugee life,” Philip laments.

The mental tortures and trauma that the refugees are experiencing does not stop at those who have fled the Sudan war, but also extends to others who take care of their needs.

Victims of war horrors also torture aid workers like Taban, by mounting extraordinary demands that the officials cannot fulfill.

“Some of them even think that they want to go to America; they are disturbing us; others, if they find nothing, either go back or they just go to Wau, going to where…so there are a lot of trauma issues,” he notes.

Visible Trauma

Ahmed Mohamed is the name of the 12-year-old boy; he is the son of Mohamed Ibrahim, 45, who remained in Sudan, and his mother is Aisha Nourien, 34, who holds a Master’s degree in Mathematics and Statistics and is currently in the camp without her certificates after they were looted.

Each morning, Ahmed wakes up and climbs the tent they live in, trying to untie the tent, having in mind that they must return to Sudan.

Like other refugees in the settlement, they sleep on mats without either a bed or a mattress—a life Ahmed has never experienced before. He is also upset because he is unable to access the internet, where he used to play internet games while in Khartoum.

As he was young and could not make independent decisions, the boy invented a technique of hanging his phone on a tree to receive fast internet and put on a hotspot that he connected to his mother’s phone as he sat under the shade of a tree to play games.

According to Braa Nourien, 21, a second-year university student of dentistry who now works at the IRC hospital at Wedwiel camp (Ahmed’s maternal aunt), Ahmed now charges children 500 SSP each to play games so that he can buy bundles for him to play internet games and reduce the stress he is going through.

This only solves the internet hurdle, but other valuables that still lack are thoughts that provoke him each day, therefore disturbing his mother and aunties’ peace of mind.

Ahmed is not the only one facing this stress, but also his own mother and aunt, Safa Nourien, 39, who are also unable to put food on the table. Only Braa Nourien, an English speaker who is among the few refugees who have secured a job with the IRC in the settlement, receives incentives.

But Braa is also hopeless because she has not completed her studies and therefore doubts what the future holds for her. However, she puts aside her burden and remains jittery about the condition of her nephew, Ahmed.

“Now one of my nephews has started developing some psychological problems because of the trauma after the war. We were living a luxurious life; we were staying in our own home, with all the necessary needs for everyone to live, like electricity, TVs, internet networks, and all that,” she explained.

“For me, everything is lacking. UNHCR is providing life assistance, but for someone like me and my family, those things are not enough.. It affects me in a lot of aspects, especially since we have kids here. Like I told you, a kid is traumatized after the war. We tried to counsel him a lot, but nothing has improved his situation up to now.”

An individual in the camp receives three Malwa (tins) of sorghum, a cup of lentil, a spoon of salt, and a cup of oil for the whole month—the insufficient ration that still entrances the refugees with their sharing habit.

Braa said that some refugees had illnesses, but due to a lack of proper medical services, their medical conditions were not properly managed in the settlement.

She stressed that she did not witness rape cases happening or targeted people being killed, but some people in the settlement witnessed such things happening while they left and tried to cross to South Sudan.

Braa stated that she always thought of reuniting with her mother, who is currently in El-Jizira, and her two sisters, who are now in Egypt, so that they could share ideas and make decisions together as before.

Her message to the warring parties in Sudan is for them to stop the war so that the civilians could return home, and then they would build their country themselves.

Thrown to abject poverty

Idris Babala who lost property worth over 100 million Sudanese Pounds prepares food in front of his tent at Wedwiel Refugee Settlement. Photo: Okech Francis

Idris Babala (above) who lost property worth over 100 million Sudanese Pounds prepares food in front of his tent at Wedwiel Refugee Settlement. Photo: Okech Francis

Idris Babala, a 45-year-old man from Nyala, was targeted when he went to check on his shop after the war erupted in Nyala. But his clothes were removed as his shoulder was checked to prove whether he was a soldier or not because he was found wearing a khaki cap.

After he was released, his door was knocked five times in five different days, and then the forces later approached him, asking him why he could not open the door.

The forces went ahead to ask him for support, but after all this, Idris was afraid of how he was targeted and had to flee Nyala with his second wife and one daughter. His other four children from a South Sudanese lady from Bari, with whom he separated, remained in Sudan.

But to Idris, who was a wealthy person who had been helping people but now turned into a vulnerable person who cannot afford to help himself by getting even 2,000 SSP, the memories of the property he lost linger in his mind each morning, especially when he sees the place he is living as opposed to the luxurious houses he lived in and his businesses.

The shops and other assets he lost amount to about 54 million, while his family house amounts to 47 million Sudanese Pounds, bringing the total assets he had lost to about 101 million Sudanese Pounds. The only hope Idris had remained with was the 14 million Sudanese pounds that he had banked, but he could not have access to them in the current situation.

As he shed tears on remembering all the losses, Idris said, “I never requested anyone to help me; I have been helping people. I never requested anyone to help me with a single pound.”

These memories of the property he lost and the good places he lived in, he said, will never be erased from his mind until he finds resettlement in a third country where he will live a similar life and regain his wealth.

“The thing that never goes away from my mind is how I have been living, how I have been sleeping in my own house, and my own business. This is something that never goes away from my mind all the time,” he concluded.

Running with a hospitalized baby

Mohamed Abubakar Osman, who lived at Hai-El-Wadi in Nyala, witnessed many dull scenes of forced recruitment of children, raping, and killing of people.

He narrated an incident where a bomb fell in his neighbour’s house and two children aged 10–13 were wounded. He was one of the people who took the wounded children to a hospital called Turkey, but the children died on the way before reaching the hospital.

When the war intensified, Mohamed had a new-born baby admitted to the hospital because the baby could not breastfeed and was fed using a naso-gastric (NG) tube.

Due to the way the situation grew worse; he forcefully removed the NG tube from the two-month-old baby and took the risk of running with the baby. He said it was through the grace of God that the currently 4-month-old baby survived.

“At the time the child was born, the mother was not having milk, so the child was admitted to the hospital. And then he was also given this tube (NG tube) for feeding,” he explained as he sobbed, trying hard to hold back the easily rolling tears.

“And the conflict was all over; they had to pull out the child from the hospital and run with the child. It was by the grace of God that this child lived; otherwise, we would have lost the child.”

According to him, about 30 civilians, among whom were his closest friends, had been killed either through crossfire or after a bomb fell in their midst while they were chatting and killed them, all apart from other incidences of targeting civilians based on their tribes.

He said such memories could not get out of his sight, as well as children, whom he said were adversely affected as they always had nightmares related to the sounds of heavy artillery they heard and the good schools and feeding they had.

Mohamed’s other worry was that he had a diabetic brother and two sisters who were left in Nyala, whose whereabouts he had never heard up to date. He said the costs of buying airtime to call Sudan were expensive and that the network in Nyala was also down.

This continues to trouble him because he was the one who took good care of his brother and now wonders what might have happened to him as the situation continues to worsen.

The settlement

Wedwiel refugee settlement is located in Aweil West County of Northern Bahr El Ghazal State and hosts about 9,113 refugees from about 4,391 households.

According to UNHCR, about 50 refugees arrive the camp on a daily basis, to seek safety from the raging conflict.

The war in Sudan ensued on April 15, 2023, between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), commanded by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

According to the data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) September report, the conflict has displaced nearly 7.1 million people, either internally or externally, as huge numbers cross to the neighboring countries of Ethiopia, Chad, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Egypt, leading to a stretching of resources in the countries hosting refugees.

In August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, told the media in Juba that the UN Refugee Agency was appealing for $1 billion to address the humanitarian crisis in the region, out of which 356 million will address the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

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