South Sudan: Refugees, returnees, and the family goats

“Peter stop nibbling the tablecloth, shoo” – a friendly rebuke came from the Kenyan lodge owner. Peter, the errant goat looked up briefly then nonchalantly resumed his nibbling. Another goat then caught my eye – apparently Peter’s companion I was then told, George... I nearly fell off my chair as I laughed out loud, much to the bemusement of my eclectic mix of companions.

It was my third night in South Sudan, an hour’s flight from the Capital Juba by WFP plane in a small town called Rumbek. My extreme amusement at the goats was because my husband who I had left just days earlier back in England and won’t see until Christmas is called Peter – and my name is George(tte).

Peter the goat. Photo: Georgette Thomas/Oxfam

Separated from their loved ones

The incident struck a chord as one of the first things that had become obvious during my first few hectic days in the world’s newest nation was that thousands and thousands of people living in South Sudan, for a multitude of reasons, are separated from their loved ones.

Take my companions that night in Rumbek where we had randomly joined together to unwind and shelter from the persistent heavy rain. Anthony, a tall always impeccably neatly turned out South Sudanese man who is living away for two years from his wife and children in Uganda; Jacqui, a charismatic Australian lady who has been working as a health advisor for Oxfam for over a year and Ollie, the lodge manager who grew up in Kenya.   

Yes, South Sudan has well documented challenges, including sky high prices for even the most basic foods, fuel shortages and the depreciation of the South Sudanese Pound. But it is also a place where South Sudanese are ‘returning home’ and people from all over the world are arriving to work - whether for one of the many NGO’s here, the United Nations, to help build infrastructure such as hotels which are popping up in ever increasingly numbers in Juba or alone to hunt out a job.

There is the smell of opportunity here, the chance to play a small part in building a strong future for this newly independent nation or the belief that a better life can be created here and despite the high cost of living the hope of a better wage.   

Returnees and refugees

A tall man called Paulo is one of the more fortunate South Sudanese returnees – a year ago he arrived with his family risking leaving their previous life behind including belongings and property and is now employed at Oxfam in Juba. But, for thousands of others the future is much less certain – often once they arrive they have no access to health clinics, schools, water and no job prospects. Small business group start up schemes and other income generating activities are some of the projects being run by Oxfam in areas where thousands of families are trying to secure a footing and reconstruct their lives in their country.

The other group of people crossing the border in huge numbers are refugees fleeing fighting(1), many of whom have been forced to separate from loved ones in order to escape to safety. Oxfam is responding to the humanitarian crisis in Maban county where approximately 109,000 refugees now live in four overcrowded camps(2) supplying clean water, sanitation and running public health campaigns.

With still no sign of urgently needed peace talks between the Government of Sudan and the rebels in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states it is unlikely that these people and others in additional camps in Unity State will be able to go home anytime soon.

That night in Rumbek when the rain had subsided, I stood up to head back to the Oxfam base where a croaking chorus of frogs awaited to sing me to sleep. Noting that the mischievous Peter was still hanging around I took a quick snap, perhaps a picture to amuse me in those moments when my thoughts would float to home in the coming months.

George, who I like to presume was a doe not a billy goat was disdainful of the photo opportunity, precociously turning her back and sauntering off probably en route to her next discovery. 

(1) Fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement North in the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.

(2) In a remote corner of northwest South Sudan, in one of the most challenging environments Oxfam has ever provided aid in, we are working hard to supply clean water, sanitation and running public health campaigns for around 28,500 refugees in the Jamam and Gendrassa camps. There are also other camps in Unity State hosting thousands more people – not an area where Oxfam is working.

Georgette Thomas is an Oxfam GB Press Officer currently based in South Sudan.

Related links 

Photo gallery: Daily life in Jamam refugee camp 

Oxfam's response to the crisis in Sudan and South-Sudan

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