In one of South Sudan’s forlorn camps, even a papal visit feels far away
Feb. 4, 2023 Updated Sat., Feb. 4, 2023 at 6:31 p.m.
Elizabeth Njadien Riek said she has little hope that the pope's trip to Juba will change conditions at the camp. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Chico Harlan (Chico Harlan/The Washington Post)
JUBA, South Sudan – Several hundred lucky people were chosen to see the pope on Saturday – and a few even told him their stories – but the other 47,000 stayed back where they always are, yet another day in a forlorn displacement camp.
While the pope, in a conference hall, talked about the miseries and injustice of losing one’s home, many of the people five miles away in Juba IDP Camp 3, as the site is known, didn’t have the means to watch.
Even in one of the world’s poorest countries, then, there was still room for a profound contrast on Saturday: between a well-planned papal event, words scripted in advance, and the ugliness of a sometimes-violent place where people squander years of their lives, feeling like nothing will change.
“Me, I’m waiting for the pope to come here,” said Elizabeth Njadien Riek, at the camp where she has spent a decade.
“You came alone,” she told a Post journalist visiting the site. “People like you are always coming – you ask, you ask – but nothing comes of it.”
The camp, situated just beyond South Sudan’s capital, reachable by red dust roads, is itself a mini city – and it speaks to the astonishing scale of near-permanent crises that have engulfed South Sudan. Years of war and ethnic rivalry, compounded more recently by climate change and flooding, have fed what is often called Africa’s largest refugee crisis, with some 2 million South Sudanese fleeing to neighboring nations, and another 2 million remaining inside the country, with nowhere adequate to go.
“Sadly, in this war-torn country, being a displaced person or a refugee has become a common and collective experience,” Francis said in his address.
The Juba IDP Camp 3 is a place for traumatized people that only makes the situation worse. White tents are spread out in blocks, separated by dusty, shadeless paths. The smell of human waste is pervasive. Makeshift services have popped up in the camp – a barber shop, churches, a school – making for a corrugated metal world that some people scarcely ever leave. More than half the population is younger than 18. An ever-growing percentage has been born there and knows nothing else.
“It’s terrible,” said Chap Deng Magany, who arrived at the camp in 2013, when the war began. As he spoke, a naked child played on top of garbage. He said the camp has problems with malaria, sanitation and mental health. Others said people at the camp have endured horrors like seeing their children slaughtered or being forced to drink the blood of killed relatives.
“People can go nearly mad because of that,” said one camp organizer, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. The official said that most people in the camp feel they have “no future.” One resident called it a camp of “orphans and widows.”
For a place that sprung up as a temporary solution during the onset of fighting, one of the hardest things to grapple with is the de facto permanence. The reasons why people have stayed there for years vary. Many have no land or homes to go back to. They lack money. The camp residents are overwhelmingly from the Nuer ethnic group, and even though a peace agreement among Nuer and Dinka political leaders has ended the worst bloodshed, they still see South Sudanese institutions, as well as the capital of Juba, as Dinka-dominated – and unsafe.
“If we came out of the camp and returned to our land, somebody would come out with a gun and say: No!” said Khor Chuol Koam, 39, a camp resident. “And there is no accountability.”
Some in the camp even view the pope’s trip, which is being spent entirely in the capital, with suspicion, worrying that he could receive a sanitized, or Dinka, narrative. They note that, on the itinerary of a trip planned for last year and then canceled because of the pope’s knee pain, Francis was slated to visit a displacement camp. But this time a sampling of displaced people instead came to him. A Vatican spokesman noted that the road conditions getting to the camp would have been difficult.
“He’s being blindfolded,” said Gatdet Ghan Yut, 31.
Inside the hall where the pope spoke, the mood was upbeat. People who’d come from the Jube IDP Camp 3, as well as other camps from across South Sudan, wore lanyards and white hats with a logo commemorating the visit. The pope watched a video about the South Sudanese displacement crisis set to music. A United Nations representative spoke about “food insecurity,” “sexual violence” and “chronic health issues” and “lack of education.” Several teenagers from different camps recited short texts – haltingly, sometimes struggling with their reading comprehension – about their lives and dreams.
“I plead with everyone from the heart: let us help South Sudan; let us not abandon its population,” the pope then said. “They have suffered and they continue to suffer so greatly.”
He called on the country to commit to peace in a “more serious way,” after a day earlier challenging the government – which presides over an oil-rich bounty – to cease corruption and act equitably.
“The future cannot lie in refugee camps,” Francis said.
The country, over the last years, has seen the limits of the peace deal forged between South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his Nuer deputy, Riek Machar. That deal has ended part of the fighting, but localized clashes among a constellation of ethnic groups continue, sometimes brought on by land disputes as flooding forces more people from their homes.
Experts say the fighting is also a legacy of country that has been at war, in some form, for years: first for independence from Sudan, then with itself. There are so many wounds, so many grievances, so many guns, and sometimes even people at the displacement camps aren’t safe. Scores in South Sudan have been displaced more than once.
Martha Nyatok Riak, 26, said she’s been displaced for a decade now, with her family chased by war and arriving at the Juba camp in 2013. Then, she was “just a girl,” she said. She got pregnant soon after. She gave birth to a boy who is now 8, has lived only at the camp and doesn’t attend school. To make money, she said, she washes dishes at one of the makeshift stores on the camp’s commercial drag, and on good days, she earns 1,000 South Sudanese pounds; three days’ labor could buy her a Fanta at an upscale Juba hotel.
“It’s stressful,” she said. “Whatever I make, we spend it right away on flour. It is not enough.”
She offered a little tour of the camp, where several days earlier two people had been killed in a knife fight. But as she walked through the dusty paths, things were mostly calm. She reached her section of tents, which was predominantly home to women and children, and unlocked a metal door sealing off her living space.
“There are thieves,” she said.
Her bed, which she shared with her son, was just a yellow foam mattress in a mud room.
“If there had been no war, I could have continued my life,” she said.
She did not watch the pope’s address. She was interested. But she doesn’t have a smartphone, she said, and nobody else around seemed to be watching.
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