Dreaming of Peace: The Women Inside South Sudan's Protection of Civilians Camp

“The world has forgotten about us.”

For 48-year-old Rebecca Nyawal, this is what it means to be forgotten: to live with just two small beds to fit her family of seven, a small stove, a soft ground under their feet that turns into mud during the rainy season, and to boil under an iron-sheet that heats her home like an oven.

They used to have a better home at the Malakal town in South Sudan, with a garden where the kids could play, better ventilation, and better access to everything they needed: markets, school, and the chance to make a living. But when war decimated her hometown in 2014, they had to leave everything behind and seek refuge inside the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp.

“Women here die of heartbreak,” Rebecca tells us one afternoon, inside the PoC. “Women would stay in their house – they think about the loved ones they have lost in this war, their husbands, their sons, their daughters. And then one day, the women would just be found dead in their homes. They die of heartbreak.”

Rebecca is joined by around 25,000 others, also living their lives in waiting, cramped inside the camp, with an average living space of only 17 square meters per person. The Protection of Civilians camp was supposed to offer temporary haven where civilians could be protected from the worst of the conflict. But four years after the first bullets flew in the former Upper Nile state, Rebecca is still living in the cramped conditions inside the PoC.

Rape, killings, and other form of attacks on people who ventured out of the camp, even just to collect wood or go fishing, were common for years - and people still don’t feel safe to leave after dark.

Women’s bread-making group inside the Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp, South Sudan. Photo: Rhea Catada/Oxfam

Women’s bread-making group inside the Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp, South Sudan. Photo: Rhea Catada/Oxfam

Every night, a different heartbreak

“The world doesn’t think about what we are going through. The world has forgotten us,” says Rebecca.

What would she want the world to know about her life?

Every night, she said she thinks about the pile of dead bodies outside the PoC gate the day conflict broke out.

Every night, she thinks about the women and men inside the camp who had suffered long enough from depression and trauma, and have decided to end their lives.

Every night, a different heartbreak. “I think about all of them, every single day,” she says.

Rebecca is not alone with her thoughts. She is surrounded by women who share her dreams, and come together to support each other. As the leader of a women’s bread-making group working inside the PoC, she has become the de facto “Mama” of the group – a title commonly used for elderly, respected women.

The women’s bread-making group is one of the projects under the Humanitarian and Resilience in South Sudan (HARISS) program, implemented by Oxfam and local partner organization Upper Nile Youth Development Association (UNYDA) in the Malakal PoC and the town itself. The program is geared towards helping people get back on their feet by helping them make a living.

As the “Mama” of a bread-making group, she is seen by the women as someone they can come to with their problems. Some of the women in the groups were widowed by the war, while the conflict has caused some of them to be separated from their families.

Rebecca Nyawal, South Sudan. Photo: Rhea Catada/Oxfam

Rebecca Nyawal, baking bread. Photo: Rhea Catada/Oxfam, South Sudan.

Friendship, strength - and longing for peace

For Rebecca and the members of the group, getting together at Oxfam’s livelihood center in the Malakal Protection of Civilian site, is no longer just about making that soft, chewy bread that people have come to love. It has also become about friendship, about being each other’s strength.

"I think the bread-making business is the best thing to happen to us inside the PoC," she says. "Not only do we keep ourselves busy and earn money, we also fostered solidarity among us. We share our hopes and dreams, we share our experiences, our sadness and our happiness. Being together is helping us cope with the stress of living inside the camp."

Rebecca told us that while the women are grateful for this program, what they all long for is peace. “What we ultimately need is to have normal lives, go back to our homes, and not live in fear anymore.”

“Every night we pray: let peace come to South Sudan. Keli salam ja fee Junub Sudan,” she says.

As news of fighting rumbles on after each ceasefire is signed, Rebecca says she suspects that her country’s leaders may never listen to her call, but she repeats those words again and again, hoping they will have weight.

“Keli salam ja fee Junub Sudan,” she says “Keli salam ja fee Junub Sudan.”

Marsa Adyang, member of the women's bead-making group, Malakal PoC camp, South Sudan. Photo: Rhea Catada

Marsa Adyang, together with other women inside the Malakal camp, is being supported by Oxfam’s HARISS program so they can make a living out of making and selling bead accessories. Marsa says: “As a group, we really bonded well. We have tea together, we talk about our lives, our experiences, our problems, our joys. If it’s only one of us who sold beads for an entire day, that person wouldn’t pocket it: she will share it to the others in the group, redistribute it. She collects the money and divide it among ourselves."

This entry posted on 20 September 2018 by Rhea Catada, Oxfam Media and Communications Lead, South Sudan.

Top photo: Rebecca Nyawal, South Sudan. All photos credit: Rhea Catada/Oxfam.

Oxfam and our partners are working across South Sudan to save lives and help people build for the future. Since the conflict's start in 2015, we've reached over 500,000 people with emergency and longer-term support. The work described in this blog is carried out with the support of UK Aid.

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