The empty gates of Bentiu town

10 April 2018

Chris McAleer is the Project Coordinator in Bentiu, one of MSF’s largest projects in South Sudan. Here, MSF provides advanced medical care for serious illnesses and injuries to an internally displaced population of approximately 115,000 living inside the Protection of Civilians camp (referred to as the PoC) that is guarded by UN peacekeeping forces. Outside the PoC, in Bentiu town, MSF offers maternal and pediatric care and conducts health promotion activities. Below, Chris reflects on a routine trip from the PoC to the town, as remnants of past merge with the realities of today...

I have to go to our base in Bentiu Town from the PoC this morning. It’s a journey I’ve done more times than I can count. I have to lead a meeting for all the staff there on general issues within the project, nothing special. But during the journey I am confronted with three distinct reminders, all pointing to something I had too easily forgotten.

As we turn out of the PoC, the road is a terracotta brown washboard, with dried deeper ruts from vehicles having strayed from the established tracks during the rainy season. As the sun rises we drive past a herd of cattle, numerous here in Rubkona - which is the town that lies between the PoC and Bentiu Town. The route is not busy at this time, and there are only a few people we pass as the market starts up for the day.

Young children walk through the deserted town of Bentiu. Only a few structures remain near the centre of the town after intense fighting.
Photo: Dominic Nahr/MAPS

The sights are familiar; small stalls with the same goods on each side of the road, the car workshop with at least one Toyota LandCruiser missing its front, the clothing vendors with a wide variety of vibrant colors hung up outside, and the tea shops with men huddled together on whatever stool or plastic chair they could find nearby. The stalls and buildings don’t have two pieces of their construction that are alike. The different scraps of sheet metal and wooden beams are my first reminder of what I had forgotten about this place. Rubkona had been completely destroyed during the fighting in 2014. The various bits that now make up the stalls are the remnants that were left after the destruction, pieced together to try and make a new life.

These are the most subtle reminder of where we are; empty gates to homes that are no longer there.

After passing Rubkona, we cross the bridge over the river. Straight ahead is the local petrol station, and the pumps are dry. I assume the last time anyone filled up their vehicle there was before the conflict erupted. Now it is the home of two abandoned military vehicles. I glance to the left and see a tank, a reassuring sight. It has been there since I first came to Bentiu, all painted up with nowhere to go. The tank, along with the multitude of vehicle remnants that sit on each side of the road represent my second reminder. Their twisted carcasses, once burnt out and now becoming orange with rust, sit in stark contrast to the beautiful greenery behind them.

A destroyed car lies on the side of the road in the town of Bentiu.
Photo: Dominic Nahr/MAPS

I remember my first time going from the PoC to Bentiu Town in February 2016, my driver took it upon himself to tell me how many people had died fleeing in each vehicle.

People are living the past every day they live inside the PoC

As we reach the outskirts of Bentiu Town, I am confronted with a third and final reminder. Hidden during the rainy season, it is only now, out of the morning mist of the dry season that they begin to appear. Two brick columns stand as ghosts, just off the road. They are not alone. Along the way from the bridge to Bentiu Town there are many. Some facing the road, some facing towards the town, some with broken doors attached. These are the most subtle reminder of where we are; empty gates to homes that are no longer there. 

Displaced people walk past an abandoned home in Bentiu, abandoned by residents after fighting destroyed the town.
Photo: Dominic Nahr/MAPS

Like Rubkona, most of Bentiu Town was also destroyed in 2014. Its residents fled to the PoC site where I now live and work. The constant grind of running our hospital in the PoC along with our activities in Bentiu Town take up most of my day, and as such it is sometimes easy to forget what led MSF to be here in the first place. But while the remnants of the past may easily be overlooked, the effects are clear. The PoC itself is still hosting around 115,000 people, four years after initially opening.  The majority of the camp’s residents still live in fear of what might happen if they return home. People are living the past every day they live inside the PoC.

He took one look at the body then simply looked straight up at me, and without showing any emotion, told me it was his brother

Upon its opening in 2014, Bentiu and other PoC sites around the country were applauded for protecting civilians from immediate harm and the effects of the conflict. They undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of South Sudanese. The PoC in Bentiu was a hellish swamp initially, with residents often having to sleep upright in order not to drown. This was four years ago. However, the situation that residents face now is still dire, and one of limbo. Lives on hold. The conditions outside the camp means that people still cannot return home. Their lives inside the camp bear almost no resemblance to the life they had before.

A woman stands inside her makeshift home in an old container in the town of Bentiu after it had been completely destroyed by fighting.
Photo: Dominic Nahr/MAPS

Cattle, for example, are a central component to Nuer culture (the majority of residents in the camp are Nuer) and are completely absent. This means that many of the younger residents in the camp cannot progress in the traditional Nuer way of life through gaining cattle, trading them in for marriage and progressing to adulthood. What we see instead is youth joining various gangs inside the camp, with fighting among them becoming increasing common. We regularly receive spear or machete wounds into our hospital ER needing surgery.

But gang clashes inside the camp are usually mirrored by cattle raiding outside the PoC too. One morning, we received some bodies from a recent cattle raid just outside the PoC perimeter. One of our ER staff was helping me move the bodies inside our morgue. We had to open each body bag to identify the deceased. Upon opening the first, he took one look at the body then simply looked straight up at me, and without showing any emotion, told me it was his brother.

An abandoned suitcase lies on the side of the road in the town of Bentiu.
Photo: Dominic Nahr/MAPS

I have dealt with bringing in bodies and their identification in previous missions. However it was always accompanied with a huge outpouring of emotion. This time, my staff’s bluntness and calm were what shocked me most. I don’t know the reason for the lack of emotion he displayed, but part of me thinks it’s just being tired from seeing it over and over again.

These things remind us why the people we serve are still in the PoC. Not because they want to be in the PoC, but because if they weren’t there, they would live in constant fear of death or persecution. Their past is their present, and they cannot escape it. This is what my colleagues and I need to remember on a daily basis. We need to remind ourselves of the reason behind the situation in which we work.
With this in mind, my vehicle pulls into the MSF compound in Bentiu Town. Time to start another day of work.