The road had closed in-between the tall grass and it felt like we were standing in a long, narrow room when we meet them. We had been driving for about five hours along this muddy road, going north from the Doro refugee camp, headed up to a place called Guffa at the border of the two Sudans. We were on explo looking to see if any refugees were coming down now that the dry season was approaching. It was here, about ten kilometres from the border, that we met some refugees coming south.
They were all members of a single family—a man in his forties, a woman about the same age, a young girl in her mid-teens, and four young boys, from about twelve to three years age. The man wore a thin beard on his chin and a tattering plaid shirt in brown. The knife and scabbard that the Ingessana tribesmen customarily wore around their arms protruded from the torn sleeve of his shirt. The woman carefully adjusted and balanced a wicker basket, covered with another wicker lid, upon her head. The younger girl too carried a basket on her head in which she had placed a muddied jerrycan half full of water they had collected at a stream just up the road. She had a solemn, quiet beauty; around her neck she wore a pink plastic compact on a string, hanging open reflecting the world back at itself, a straight crack running across the surface of the glass. Two of the older boys moved around us and into the tall grass after their goats, gently rustling it, as the wind did too. And atop a donkey sat the two younger boys who deftly manoeuvred the animal with an ease and control that seemed beyond their years. Between them lay a tiny newborn goat, its umbilical cord still attached and slowly drying out.
Upon spotting the family on the road, we left our vehicles and approached to see how they were doing. The nurse in our team did a quick check to see if they were injured or unwell and, fortunately, they seemed to be physically fine. We asked them where they were coming from, about what had happened.
They told us that their village had been bombed. They had fled and been on the road ever since, walking for four days now. The man explained that when the bombing began, all of the households of their village scattered into the bush carrying what they could. He didn’t know what had become of the others; they hadn’t encountered any of them since. As we were speaking to the family, the woman bounced gently on her knees, rocking the basket. It wasn’t enough and the shrill cry of a newborn rang out from beneath the wicker lid. She cajoled the basket until the baby within fell back to sleep.
We thanked the family for the information, filled up their jerrycan with the clean water that we were carrying, and told them that there was a village some ten kilometres down the road. They headed south and we continued on our way north, up towards the border.
We arrived at Guffa at about midday. That left us a half hour in the village before we had to leave so that we could make it back to base before nightfall. We quickly carried out an assessment of the village’s healthcare facilities, water points, and airstrip. The military authorities in the town told us they had been seeing aircraft in the skies to the north for the past week, streaking in and leaving plumes of smoke rising from the earth. Refugees had been coming through the town sporadically, but they couldn’t give us a number of how many had passed through recently. With time running short, we loaded up to make the run back to base.
On the road south it wasn’t long before we met the refugee family again. As we slowed down to pass them, not so far from where we had first met them, the older woman gestured for us to stop while the man yelled something to us in Arabic, but the lead car kept moving. I was confused and asked the logistician riding in front what was going on. He told me that they were asking us to stop and take the kids with us down the road to the village. I asked him why we didn’t. Sadly, he said, our security regulations prohibited us from picking up people, notwithstanding a medical emergency of course, but there was none here. Besides we had only space for a few of the kids, and what would we do once we got to the village…just leave them there? He was right; there wasn’t much we could’ve done in the situation.
Still, the thought of that baby in that wicker basket made me question whether we had made the right decision. The family was fine for sure, and they would make it to the village by the end of the day or the next, but still, it just felt strange to pass refugees, having fled what they had fled, and kept going. I guess sometimes you can’t do anything about what you see, and that’s a hard lesson to take in.