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‘They Blew Our Lives Up’: South Sudanese Flee War in Sudan

Nyamut Gai lost everything four years ago when armed militias stormed through her village in South Sudan, a landlocked African country tormented by civil war, famine and flooding.

Desperate, she and her family fled almost 600 miles north across the border to Sudan, where she worked as a cleaner in the capital, Khartoum, and began to settle in. But then, a fierce war broke out in Sudan in mid-April between rival factions of the military, sending her packing yet again.

As she and her family made the weekslong journey by foot and bus from Khartoum, her 1-month-old son began coughing and withering away from hunger, and soon died. When she finally crossed the border into South Sudan, any sense of relief she felt was shattered when her 3-year-old son succumbed to measles.

“We are not safe anywhere,” Ms. Gai, 28, said on a recent morning at a muddy and congested aid center in Renk, a town in South Sudan.

“People fled war here. There’s a war in Sudan now. There’s war everywhere,” she said. “It never ends.”

The war in Sudan has set off a mass exodus of people who years ago fled a bloody civil war in South Sudan to seek safety in Sudan. But they are returning home to a country still in the grip of political instability, economic stagnation and a massive humanitarian crisis — many of them without actual homes to return to.

Sudan descended into chaos almost five months ago, when a long-simmering rivalry between the leader of the army, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, burst into open warfare across the northeast African nation.

In recent weeks, the conflict has intensified in Khartoum and adjoining cities, and also in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where mass graves have been uncovered. Regional and international efforts to end the fighting have hit a stalemate, with General al-Burhan dismissing any attempts at mediation last month in advance of his first postwar foreign trip to Egypt.

On Wednesday, the United States imposed sanctions on senior leaders in the paramilitary force, including General Hamdan’s brother, Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo.

The vicious fighting has precipitated a staggering humanitarian crisis that has left millions in Sudan, a nation of 46 million, facing shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity. Thousands of people have been killed and injured in the conflict, the United Nations, Sudanese officials and aid agencies estimate.

One of those countries is South Sudan, which has received more than 250,000 people to date. A country of 11 million, it became the world’s newest nation when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011, but soon after was torn apart by a civil war set off by a power struggle between the country’s political leaders.

Intercommunal violence, chronic food shortages and devastating floods continue to afflict the country — and many South Sudanese are now fleeing the war in Sudan only to begin a new ordeal in their homeland.

“They are coming to start from zero,” Albino Akol Atak, the South Sudanese minister for humanitarian affairs and disaster management, said in an interview in the capital, Juba.

At the Joda border crossing between the two nations, almost 2,000 people, most of them South Sudanese, plod through every day after sunrise. Many arrive after weeks of walking or driving through territory teeming with robbers and paramilitary forces who they said took their phones and food, sexually assaulted the women and beat the men.

After being processed and given high-energy bars, the new arrivals are crammed into buses that transport them to a transit center nearly 40 miles away in Renk. Designed to hold 3,000 people, the center is now packed with twice as many.

During a recent visit, people were crowded into a muddy field with limited access to showers or toilets. Some families fashioned makeshift shelters from plastic tarpaulins or bedsheets. Others sat in the open, braving the 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures during the day and deluges of rain at night.

As the afternoon sun blazed, the air filled with the wailing of sick and hungry children.

“They blew our lives up,” Muawiya Salah Yusuf, a 29-year-old Sudanese said of the warring generals as he cuddled his 2-year-old son, Yasir, and begged him to stop crying.

Mr. Yusuf, who has a degree in electrical engineering, had for years struggled to find a job. But he was finally able to open a shop selling and repairing phones in Omdurman, a city near Khartoum. Now, all that was lost, he said, and he found himself sharing a small tent in Renk with 10 family members.

“I feel like we are living in an alternate reality,” he said, musing about how long he would be marooned in the squalid purgatory of the camp with his sick child and his wife, who was seven months pregnant.

“I feel so hopeless I can’t even think of tomorrow,” he said.

Several miles away, hundreds of Sudanese and South Sudanese streamed into the Renk County Hospital every day, medical officials said, burdening a facility with limited staff and shortages of water, electricity and medical supplies.

In the children’s intensive care unit, malnourished babies lay nearly lifeless as intravenous fluids dripped into their veins. In the surgical section, men nursed bullet wounds that they said had been inflicted by Sudan’s paramilitary forces. Almost all those interviewed said they had relatives and friends in Sudan who had been killed or who had disappeared weeks or months ago.

Funding for the crisis hasn’t kept up with the growing needs, even as the United Nations and humanitarian agencies grapple with a shortage of staff and dwindling food and medical supplies. Donor nations — focused on Ukraine, their own economic challenges and other competing crises in Africa and beyond — have pledged only 20 percent of the $1 billion needed to support those fleeing the violence this year.

“The very low levels of funding in response to the emergency in Sudan and from Sudan is really a shame,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an interview during a recent visit to South Sudan. “This needs to change.”

Almost 700,000 children with severe malnutrition are at risk of dying in Sudan, the United Nations has said, and about 500 children have already died from hunger, according to Save the Children, a nonprofit aid organization.

Given the limited services and remoteness of towns like Renk, South Sudanese officials say they don’t want to establish permanent camps there. Instead, they are moving the displaced people back to their original villages in South Sudan or to camps and transit centers elsewhere where they can get food and health care.

But heavy rains have rendered vast parts of South Sudan inaccessible by road, forcing the authorities to transport people on boats and barges on the Nile.

On a recent afternoon, more than 600 people jammed onto a barge headed from Renk to Malakal, a city in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, their mud-caked feet and flip-flops resting on their meager belongings stacked below them. Many of them were eager to begin the dayslong journey but said they were worried about what awaited them.

In a few days, Ms. Gai, the house cleaner grieving over the loss of two sons, said that she would be on a similar vessel, returning to her village near Bentiu, a city in South Sudan’s Unity State.

She wondered what the farm she left behind would look like, or what the future held for her three remaining children. But before her departure, she wanted to do one more thing: visit the grave of her 3-year-old son.

“I never want to go back to Sudan,” she said. “But I know it will not be easy where I am going.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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