Touchdown Leer, southern Unity state. After the chaos of Bentiu, to be greeted on a muddy airstrip by a donkey cart feels like landing in an entirely different world.
My rational brain knows that I will only have to scratch the surface to see the horrors that people continue to live in and within the ongoing war, but emotionally I don’t feel it yet. I just see and hear kids giggling and jostling to be in front of the camera. The donkey snorts. It looks and feels like paradise.
At the MSF compound the feeling intensifies, birds tweet in the trees, giant lizards roam and there are stunning sunsets to view. Hmm, I think, with the cooking over coals, outdoor latrines and showers you really just need to throw in a few yoga classes and some more fresh fruit and you have all the elements of a “get away from it all back to basics retreat”.
Just outside the compound is one of many small market areas, always a good sign. There is not a lot, but there is something. Women serve tea and people sit and talk and trade, kids make clay models of animals, and remarkably detailed planes and helicopters, including with grain being dropped. What kind of world do these children know, I think, to live in the middle of the bush but for food dropping from the sky to be virtually the only reality of food they understand.
A malnourished child sits beneath the protection of a mosquito net in Leer hospital.
In reality, it does not take long for the two parts of my brain to connect. It is not so much a scratch, more of a boiling over onto the surface of the trauma people continue to suffer. The MSF hospital, which was destroyed earlier this year, has been cleaned up beautifully, but the burnt out shells of former hospital and office buildings are sobering.
“They took the hospital because they did not want us to receive healthcare anymore. Destroying the hospital. It was another way to try to kill us,” Mary, a young woman tells me. It is a commonly held view, that the hospital was deliberately targeted to prevent people from accessing lifesaving healthcare.
The burnt out market stalls and containers in the main market site and the concrete buildings full of bullet holes continue to tell the story. The half built houses are another sign, made from mud and plastic sheeting they are similar to those inside displaced camps. People are not going to rebuild their houses just to have them destroyed again.
The slow and plodding donkey may seem romantic on the surface, but the reason it is now our only form of transport is not romantic at all. Our cars – eight in total – were stolen in the bush, not long after the town itself was taken out, and our staff fled taking the most severely ill patients with them as they went.
The remains of an MSF car in Leer
The brutality of the attack on Leer is one thing, what people experienced in the bush is the next, months of living in fear, surviving on dirty water, killing their cattle and in some cases surviving on water lilies. In less than two months after we returned to Leer, the MSF teams treated more children for malnutrition (2,835 for May and June), than we did in the whole of 2013 (2,142 over entire year).
Now, thankfully, the situation seems to have stabilised - for the most part anyway.
The reports of abuse and fear from the time in the bush are also overwhelming. “The women they were raped, so many women. They were raped when they went to get food. Eight men – they raped a pregnant woman until she died.”
“I am a nurse, but what can I do? It makes me very unhappy when I see these women. Very unhappy,” an MSF nurse tells me.
“The women of South Sudan, after this conflict, we have nothing more to say,” Mary continues. The phrase goes around and around in my head long after we have finished talking.
But the main thing is the fear of the future. What next? “We cannot go through this again. It is calm here now but that is only because the rain protects us. When the swamps dry up, Leer will be destroyed again. They will destroy us. This community, we cannot survive again. Not again. We cannot go into the bush again,” says David, a man whose wife was killed when they fled.
As with Bentiu the mobile phone network has been destroyed, something which compounds the psychological trauma people live through - the difficulty of reaching your family, of knowing they are safe, of them knowing you are safe.
Perhaps the hardest thing to take in is the way that everyone - including those old enough to have lived through both of the decades of civil war with Sudan, the wars an independent South Sudan was born out of - talks about the ‘old wars’ almost nostalgically.
“It was never like this before. They looted and stole things but they did not destroy, they did not kill, civilians. The biggest mistake we made was independence. It was the biggest mistake we made.”
Many people are incredibly well informed about international affairs, asking me questions about the UNSC, IGAD and the peace process. Many ask about protection: “Can UNMISS come here? We need them here, we have nothing. We need what they have in Bentiu,” they tell me.
This goes to my core. After witnessing the conditions in Bentiu it boggles my brain to think of people wishing for it. But of course most people don’t know. They only know that it is a place that provides some sense of protection. Something most people here do not feel they have. They live in fear, and what a fear it is.
The problem an old man explains to me is this: “Revenge. It is always worse than the original act. Always. This is the problem we have here in South Sudan.” Hate breeds hate, I think out loud. “Yes, that is exactly it,” he says. “Hate takes up all the space, and it is getting worse, and no-one knows why anymore even why it is so. They just hate. And only with the hate, there is no way for peace.”
Names have been changed