In an orderly Ethiopian camp, South Sudanese refugees face malnutrition, trauma

Children and Malnutrition South Sudan

Nyayaul Gatkuoth Chol fled the violence in Mathiang, South Sudan, about 500 kilometres away, to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where she now lives with four grandchildren and an orphan she looks after. Photo: Naomi Garneau for Action Against Hunger.

Our executive director Danny Glenwright penned this piece following a visit to Nguenyyiel refugee camp, where he sat down with some of the beneficiaries you’ve helped us reach. Their stories are heartbreaking, but thanks to your support, we’re able to help mothers and children who have fled the unthinkable.

This excerpt is from an article originally published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 24th, 2019.

When her 5-year-old grandson wakes in the middle of the night, shaking and screaming from the nightmares that haunt him, Nyayaul Gatkuoth Chol is worried but not surprised.
The youngster watched his father and grandfather’s, Chol’s husband and son’s, murder two years ago in neighbouring South Sudan.

Chol, along with tens of thousands of other South Sudanese refugees, fled the violence in Mathiang, a community about 500 kilometres away, to this dusty refugee camp in Ethiopia, where she now lives with four of her grandchildren and an orphan she also looks after.

Mental health issues are common among refugees in the camp, with some here blaming them on evil spirits. But Chol knows the violence her grandson saw back home is responsible for his night terrors. Living in this temporary camp, far from home and without enough to eat, adds to the child’s mental health challenges.

“We want to go home to South Sudan, but we can’t,” Chol says. “Not until the fighting is over.”

Despite recent positive political strides, including a peace deal last year aimed at ending the country’s five-year civil war, the world’s youngest state remains perpetually unstable, home to one of the worst humanitarian disasters. The crisis is characterized by gross human rights abuses, according to a recent UN report.

“Rapes, gang rapes, sexual mutilation, abductions and sexual slavery, as well as killings, have become commonplace in South Sudan,” noted Yasmin Sooka, the chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, which produced the paper.

The result: a dispersed population with extensive mental health issues.

A 2016 report from Amnesty International found that decades of armed conflict in South Sudan have resulted in high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, including among those who have fled the country. Another 2015 study found that almost half of all respondents showed signs of PTSD, 63 per cent reported losing a close family member to the violence, and 41 per cent had witnessed the murder of a close friend or family member.
Out of a population of about 12 million, 1.9 million South Sudanese are currently displaced within the country and more than two million are living in camps like these in neighbouring countries.

Nguenyyiel, the newest and biggest camp in the Gambella region, is home to more than 75,000 South Sudanese refugees. It was opened in 2016 following flare-ups between opposing South Sudanese factions to accommodate a new influx of refugees to this sparsely populated, low-lying and remote corner in southwest Ethiopia. The region currently hosts more than 360,000 refugees from South Sudan.

Children and Malnutrition
Nguenyyiel camp, Gambella region, Ethiopia. Photo: Naomi Garneau for Action Against Hunger.

Most people here have lost at least one loved one. Everyone I spoke with worries about losing more.

Unlike most refugee camps, Nguenyyiel at first appears calm, clean and orderly. Neat rows of tukuls, the cone-shaped mud huts with thatched roofs common to this region, give the appearance of a genuine local village.

As we drive through the wide and tidy streets, I watch teenagers playing soccer, goats foraging for food, and youngsters dodging small dust whirls as they wander arm in arm among spotless latrines made of shiny corrugated metal.

But behind this hygienic order is a tenuousness that continues to threaten those living here. Outside the camp, the crisis has destabilized the region, where clashes between different ethnic groups are common. Women, children and youth make up the majority of residents in the camp — 62 per cent are younger than 18 — because many men remain behind in South Sudan to guard homes and farmland. Several women and children who left the safety of Nguenyyiel to collect firewood in the nearby forests have been sexually assaulted and killed.

The regional conflict is one of the thorniest challenges facing the new Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, whose first year in power was marked by far-reaching democratic reforms. He has freed thousands of political detainees, appointed women to half the country’s cabinet posts, and ended the country’s 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

Earlier this month, Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki travelled to South Sudan to meet its president, Salva Kiir, for a discussion about regional security. Since gaining power, Ethiopia’s Ahmed has made the issue a priority. The region is also a priority for Canada, which has invested millions in foreign aid in South Sudan and Ethiopia, including in Nguenyyiel camp, where the Canadian flag and logo are ever-present.

Inside the camp, the human cost of regional instability is brought into focus when you see the high number of unhealthy little patients in the clinics set up here to treat malnourished babies. Action Against Hunger, the humanitarian organization I help lead, runs these health centres, which have recently seen a spike in the number of cases of severe acute malnutrition, also known as wasting.

The rise is partially due to a lack of clean water. Local officials and aid organizations installed a water system in 2017, with pipelines to serve Nguenyyiel and other camps in the region — as well as the local population — but a generator recently broke down. This has meant that camp residents only get half a day of water at a time, if they’re lucky.

As one member of our team in Nguenyyiel noted, “If one thing falls apart in the camp, everything falls apart.”

Continue reading on the Toronto Star website.

Children and Malnutrition
Nyadok Tang and her 18-month-old son Nyakoang, who is suffering from malnutrition. Photo: Naomi Garneau for Action Against Hunger.