Sudan refugees reduced to eating bark

2012-06-20 13:20
Two refugees from the Nuba Mountains, rest at UNHCR camp in Yida, Unity State, South Sudan. (Giulio Petrocco, AFP)

Two refugees from the Nuba Mountains, rest at UNHCR camp in Yida, Unity State, South Sudan. (Giulio Petrocco, AFP)

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Kilometre 18 - A bitter war between Khartoum and rebels in Sudan's troubled Blue Nile state has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing to the transit site known only as KM 18 in South Sudan.

Having fled shelling in their home villages with little supplies, many of the 35 000 people who have sought refuge at this site 50km from the border - even children - have been reduced to gnawing at tree bark and eating leaves to survive.

"We brought a little bit of sorghum with us and water ... but then the food ran out, and we were just eating the leaves of trees," said Hawa Jema, as she gulped down rehydrating fluids in the 40 degree heat at a clinic run by Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders - MSF).

"On the way, some people died from the water, and even some men died because they were too weak to walk," said Jema, who was at least fortunate enough to be able to bring some camels when she and her family fled.

Five days without food

Close by, two small children scrape furiously at the bark of a tree stump, stuffing shreds of it into their mouths.

Cradling her granddaughter Khalifa, Anima Hassan Omer sits on a mat surrounded by mothers feeding tiny blobs of high-fat paste and sips of water to babies with huge knees and baggy skin.

Khalifa's mother went missing along the way when she went to fetch water, and so the baby survived on dirty water.

"For five days we had no food. We ate tree leaves and drank any water we found on the road," said Ali Osman, displaying a shrapnel wound to the leg sustained when he fled shelling in Jam village in Bau County.

Over 100 000 people have fled fighting in Blue Nile state to South Sudan since war broke out in September between Khartoum and rebels that fought alongside the South during decades of civil war.

"As we were coming, the army sent big bombs and I was injured on the leg," said Osman, who fled along with his five children.

‘We lost everything’

Many new arrivals echo this story of fleeing shelling with nothing.

Omer fled Bau County, just like Osman.

"We left because of the big guns - the ones from the Antonov (planes), the ones from soldiers on the ground and the ones from far away," she told AFP.

"We lost everything. We don't have sheets, clothes, not even a plastic bucket."

MSF says that Khalifa was in her last gasps when she came to the clinic. She is unable to keep the water or the plumpy'nut peanut paste down and has been transferred to the MSF hospital in Jamam refugee camp for intensive feeding.

Malnutrition above emergency levels

But food and water shortages and illness have followed the refugees across the border.

"There's a lack of water, there's a lack of sanitation and a lack of latrines, which results in a lot of diarrhoeal diseases," MSF doctor Erna Rijnierse said.

"We see a big increase in the number of consultations. We had just over 500 last week. Half way through this week we had already over 900," she said.

MSF says that malnutrition levels are way above emergency levels, especially in children under five, and that diarrhoea can easily prove deadly in refugees weakened by time on the road without food.

Moreover inadequate shelter and a lack of mosquito nets mean the refugees are also suffering from respiratory diseases and malaria.

Ironically, even while rain will soon cut off roads, drinking water will soon run out at KM18, where tens of thousands of refugees all need to drink from a limited number of man-made watering holes.

"We are racing against two clocks," Rijnierse said.

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