I approached my first ever visit to Sudan’s refugee camps last month with trepidation. Not only because of the risk of Covid-19, but because, as a Sudanese aid worker, I was all too aware of how bad the situation is for the Ethiopian refugees fleeing Tigray for my country.
I visited three camps in eastern Sudan, but by far the worst was Village 8, the transit centre near the border crossing at Lugdi. There, 16,000 Ethiopian refugees are crammed into a small space alongside 10,000 Sudanese residents. On arrival, crowds started to approach us – but though I was fearful about contracting coronavirus despite our masks, I knew this worry was far from the minds of the refugees.
Many are living in unfinished empty homes built for Sudanese agricultural workers. Most houses are sheltering between four or five families. Many don’t have roofs or windows. None have toilets.
In the camp, there is an overwhelming stench of defecation. There are only 58 latrines for more than 16,000 refugees, each full and overflowing. People have no choice but to defecate in open spaces. This means there are widespread concerns of waterborne diseases, such as dysentery. If this is not brought under control, though Islamic Relief has already started extra latrines to be delivered as soon as possible.
One couple I spoke to told me how they were separated from their two children in the confusion and they had no idea what had happened to them.
Despite the difficult conditions in the camp I was determined to speak to individuals, especially women, about what they needed. And as I started to find out more, I imagined how I would feel in their circumstances, and found my fears for my own wellbeing soon dissipated.
The overwhelming level of need for basic things like food, shelter, toilets and clean water was all too apparent – it’s hardly surprising that Covid-19 is not at the top of their minds.
I also saw the trauma and despair in people’s eyes. I met a pregnant woman, Barakhti, who fled for her life with her family on a tractor. Leaving your home, fleeing for your life is difficult enough – I can’t imagine what it could be like fleeing with a precious baby growing inside you.
The woman told me that at times pain in her stomach was so intense that she felt she could lose the baby at any time, though thankfully her baby survived. A midwife told me later of two other mothers in the camp who weren’t so lucky.
One couple I spoke to told me how they were separated from their two children in the confusion and they had no idea what had happened to them as they had no means of communicating with them. Their distress was really palpable and I just couldn’t imagine what they were going through.
Help is coming for families like these, but not quick enough. In Hamdayet, a campclose to the Ethiopian border, there are currently more than 30,000 refugees the UNHCR is trying to move on to where camps are being installed. However, many are refusing to go – they want to return to their homes back in Ethiopia as soon as it is safe to do so.
But there is no shelter, and families are sleeping out in the open. It is already winter and it is starting to get really cold now. I saw people desperately searching for whatever they can find to shelter them – plastic sheeting, bits of wood, anything to try and keep out the cold. We are scared that the refugees, especially the small children, will not be able to survive.
That means it’s a race against time for organisations like ours to provide what we can to make life as comfortable as possible for those who have lost so much.
I have honestly found it difficult to comprehend the sheer amount of suffering that I witnessed.
The experience of visiting these camps is one that will stay with me for a long time. I have not experienced anything like this in my life, and I have honestly found it difficult to comprehend the sheer amount of suffering that I witnessed.
Now that I am away from the camps, the feelings and emotions of seeing people in such desperate need still lingers with me. Each day, I live with enormous fear of what will happen with the lack of proper sanitation latrines and the coming winter. So many people around the world are fearing Covid-19, but the refugees I met are just doing what they can to survive and the pandemic is almost the last thing on their minds.An outbreak of waterborne diseases would be unimaginable and devastating.
I pray that the world doesn’t forget the plight of these people.
Aya Elfatih is an aid worker with Islamic Relief Sudan
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