Fieldset
"We need dry land"

By the gate, an old lady lies down in the mud, defeated. Skeleton thin she is wearing a threadbare cotton dress. She has no shoes. She digs in the soil with her scarred hands, so thin you can see her bones. She slowly brings the mud up to her mouth, and eats it.

By the gate, an old lady lies down in the mud, defeated. Skeleton thin she is wearing a threadbare cotton dress. She has no shoes. She digs in the soil with her scarred hands, so thin you can see her bones. She slowly brings the mud up to her mouth, and eats it.

This lady and the indignity of her situation will be etched in my memory forever.

Let me try to explain a bit. Imagine a sewage infested swamp, a field roughly 1x1.5 km into which 40,000 people are cramped. Try to imagine the smell of such close human habitation mixed with mud, urine and faeces. It lingers as the mud squelches under your boots, and the water goes in over the top. If you are lucky enough to have boots, that is. Most people are in flip-flops, or barefoot.

When it really rains the whole site becomes a fetid river, and the flimsy houses made of mud, plastic sheeting and bamboo, flood.

Imagine a blind woman with no-one to look after her, standing up all night in water up to her chest, and mothers desperately clutching their children to protect them from the rising waters.

Imagine children dying from diarrhoea and drowning in the muddy ponds. Imagine that when people leave to collect firewood, something that has to be done to cook food rations, they face the constant threat of beating, rape or killing by armed men outside.

Welcome to the Bentiu Protection of Civilians (PoC) site, a guarded area inside the UN base. Across South Sudan nearly 100,000 seek protection in them, fleeing violence which has seen more than 1.3 million people displaced inside the country, since conflict erupted in December.

“My son died in my arms. He had three months. He died because of the water,” a woman named Nyabol tells me. Like so many people, her resilience and strength is incredible. “Now I fear for my other children. It is too wet to cook. My children did not eat for three days.”

Nyabol has been living in the PoC since April when, like many others, she fled in terror after witnessing horrific violence. When fighting in Bentiu town saw over 200 people slaughtered in a mosque and at least 28 people executed inside a hospital - places people had run to seek shelter from the fighting.

"I was in the hospital. I saw them kill the men. I saw so many bodies inside and outside. I was so scared. Every day I have bad dreams. Every night I dream they are coming to get me.” Bol, a young man tells me.

Some have been here earlier still, fleeing earlier bouts of fighting. Others have arrived more recently, many are searching for food. 

Alizabeth with one of her young twins

“We came because there was no food” says 38-year-old Alizabeth. MSF is treating her one-year-old twins for malnutrition. “They are doing much better now, but even when they recover we don’t have anywhere to go. We need dry land.”

Many people do try to leave of course, mostly heading for Sudan. People say that some make it, and some do not. “I want to leave, but I heard they kill people on the road” says Nhial, a 24-year-old man. “My relative, he was killed outside – that is what I heard.”

Between a rock and a hard place barely begins to explain the choice these people face. I see it and hear it, but struggle to process what this really means for people.

Perhaps no-one captures it more eloquently than 18-year-old Mary. “Out there we are being destroyed by war and in here we are being destroyed by water, we don’t know what to do.”

Many of those too scared, or unable, to leave for good, still have to go out sometimes. “I don’t want to go, but I can’t afford to buy the charcoal in here. It costs 150 SSP ($40)” says 28-year-old Alice. “I am fearing that I will be attacked like other women. Men they wait and jump on you.”

People’s stories quickly become far too familiar. Everybody has seen terrible things, has lost family members and friends. Everybody talks about abuse, violence and fear.

I am brutally aware that I get to walk away. That, while the living conditions for the MSF team are basic, they do not begin to compare to what people here are living through.

Still amongst this children laugh. They run shouting “male” “mal ma gwa” (“hello” “how are you?”). Hundreds of tiny hands grab yours.

I stop at a deep puddle. A tiny girl stretches out her hand to help me. As I take it, my heart, not for the first time, breaks a little. But she is laughing “male” she cries and giggles. Somehow, I feel hope in that sound. 

* Some names have been changed