July 30th, 2014, Bentiu, South Sudan
Peter Bothi is a storekeeper with the CARE South Sudan team in Bentiu. He is in charge of maintaining the inventory records of the stocks from the clinic and office that were once in Bentiu town but which are now currently being occupied by soldiers and where a number of CARE vehicles were stolen and the offices looted in March. Peter works out of a "rub hall" in the UN compound outside of Bentiu town where anywhere between 35,000 and 45,000 people currently live in desperate conditions. Why? Because it is only here that they feel remotely safe and protected from the continuing violence between the government, the opposition and different factions wearing uniforms of various sorts and carrying many arms.
Peter tells of the day in March when he loaded a CARE vehicle with the office safe, files, medical supplies, and assorted stocks to flee to the UN compound. As he shares his story with me, his face remains emotionless while the words stream from his mouth as he describes being surrounded by armed men and boys in the CARE compound in Bentiu town. Suddenly, a young boy wearing fatigues and waving an AK-47 orders him to be shot. Peter says he wove his way into the group so that he would be surrounded by the group. Shots rang in the air and in the confusion the group continued on their way without killing him.
I ask Peter about his family, his wife and children. "I called them on the cell phone as we still had cell phone coverage at that time, and told them to run through the bush NOW with the children and reach the UN compound where they will be safe. I didn't see them for many hours but when I finally arrived at the UN compound where hundreds of people were pouring into the gates, I heard my name being called and saw a neighbour who told me that my wife and children are safe."
Peter, his wife and four children are now living in a cramped homemade shelter with UNHCR plastic sheeting; they have two jerry cans to collect fresh water from a common borehole and share a latrine with at least 200 other people. The rains are heavy at this time of year in South Sudan and water streams through the walkways between the tents and makeshift shelters, spreading refuse including human waste into open drainage canals. Children swim in the fetid water as they have literally nowhere else to play. The living conditions are horrific but Peter says that he at least has food and basic health care for his family, and that they are safe. He keeps repeating that: "We are safe for now but we do not know when this will end. Without CARE and other international agencies' support, we would not be alive today."
The outbreak of cholera is an imminent threat here as there have been many cases in other UN compounds where CARE and others have been working tirelessly to help prevent any further disease outbreaks. With the threat of a looming famine given the extremely high levels of malnutrition being reported by aid agencies and with the heavy rains continuing through at least October, the situation is not optimistic. As Peter says: "We need the rest of the world to support us at this time; we've lived through many years of war and we had hoped that we would have peace and that our children would have a better chance for the future."
As I bid goodbye to Peter to board a plane that he cannot take and where I leave him and his family and many thousand others to confront months ahead of uncertainty, likelihood of more violence and the threat of disease and hunger. We all must do more now to prevent the effects of a crisis that is not of these people's making. Peter's courage and endurance is reflected in many thousands of people across South Sudan; he and his family should not suffer more.
I am very proud of CARE's work in Bentiu, but it is not enough. We need to do so much more - it is our obligation, our commitment, and it is the right of the people of South Sudan to receive our and other support at this critical time.