As the car pulls up, hundreds of faces turn to me expectantly from beneath a sea of dirty, torn blankets and shreds of blue plastic sheeting balanced delicately on sticks gathered from the dangerous swamps surrounding the camp.
This crowd of internally displaced people (IDPs) living homeless in the camp, away from the rows of longhouses constructed by NGOs to house those fleeing this horrible conflict, has more than tripled in size since the last time I was here a week ago.
Every day the new arrivals trickle in through the big, bulletproof walls that form the gates to the Bentiu protection of civilians (POC) site, with empty bellies and horrific memories of what lay behind them. Recently some have been arriving naked – their clothes stripped from them at the end of an AK47 on the long road between what was their home and here.
The Nuer are wonderfully proud but private people. It warms my heart to see the way the women I speak to are connected to each other in their silent way – they seem to treat each other as an extension of themselves. I hope, as I approach them, that as a woman too, they will trust me enough, and feel safe enough now, to open up a bit and give me a glimpse of what lies outside this camp.
Not everyone wants to talk. As my South Sudanese colleague and I squat down to ask one group of five young women if they know MSF, and if they might tell us their story, they raise their chins and cast their eyes down, muttering in a way now familiar to me. They won’t look us in the eye. I know what that means – they are not ready to relive what they’ve just been through. They are just going to live day to day, waiting for that moment where the words will not come with a painful jolt. When they can speak and be sure of not letting that dignified wall collapse.
And so I smile, wish them all the best, and move on.
Next, I find a group of 40 women, with over 60 children. Some arrived six days ago, a couple arrived yesterday. One young woman on the left catches my eye. She is staring intently at the ground and refuses to acknowledge our presence. If it were home, I would pass her off as a stubborn teenager, but here I know that that look could mean something very different.
We sit down and a circle gathers around us – bright-eyed toddlers, breastfeeding mothers, elderly matriarchs. I scan the group and find one mama in her forties who looks straight at us with clear, smiling eyes. Yes, she says, she is ready to tell us their story. Of course she knows MSF, she says, they are everywhere.
My colleague and I gently start to ask questions. Where have they come from? What was it like there? How was the journey? What have they seen? “It’s the same as usual,” my colleague announces, with a sigh and a sad smile. He translates their answers, and they are the answers I have heard all week, from Koch, Jazeera, Leer, Thonyor. The same heart-wrenching story I’ve heard over and over again from our MSF staff, who fled their homes and moved through the swamp in the night to reach the POC site. It comes from women who physically endured the very worst that man is capable of at the hands of up to 20 young men, until they were released shaking, damaged, into the bush, and finally summoned the strength and bravery to seek a place to heal. And it comes, of course, from our patients with bullets in their flesh, who are some of the very few who have made it to hospital and who have survived to tell their tale.
It is a story of another world from this POC, in which children run around playing and making little models of tanks out of the clay; smoke billows out from neat little rows of houses where families eat meals of sorghum together; tall, beautiful people greet each other gently with the characteristic laying of hands on each other’s shoulders and bringing them to their hearts to signify their respect of each other. It is a story of angry young men given guns and taught how to overrule their humanity. Innocent infants burned alive in the houses they were born and nurtured in. Women systematically gang-raped in front of their neighbours. Then tukuls burnt to the ground, cows stolen and it’s over. Until the next morning, when they return to do the same again. And the next morning. And the next.
Despite this, some people stayed on in their villages for weeks, others for months. The elderly, mostly, will never escape. But as I gaze around this group of mamas with their babies, who found the courage to make the journey down that long road from home – on which all they owned was looted and from where two of their number were dragged off to be “made a woman” by masked youth along the way – I feel a pang of pride to have found a connection with these brave, resilient women.
I also have a deep desire to be able to give them something more than this for a welcome. A dirty, dusty floor under a stretch of plastic sheeting that is the registration centre is their home for the foreseeable future. The 30-person tent for new arrivals is full to bursting with almost 50 people every night. A promise that emergency food rations would be delivered on the day they arrived has been broken – they have been begging from strangers for food for five days now. I wish we could at least offer them a tukul and shelter and food. They deserve the very best after what they have survived, but I can’t do much. There are 105,000 like them in this camp, and this evil war has touched most of their lives in exactly the same way.
I thank them deeply for sharing their story, and tell them I will try to help. I reach out to the hand of the quiet girl in the corner, and she takes my hand in hers, pressing it to her chest, finally turning big, sad eyes to mine. I silently pray that this is the end of her nightmare.