In war-torn South Sudan, a haven of hope
We’re in a remote part of conflict-plagued Unity State, South Sudan, and Concern’s Denise Desmond is referring to what’s officially known as Bentiu Protection of Civilians Site, or POC in UN-speak. In plainer language: this is a makeshift camp for people who have been displaced by some of the worst atrocities committed anywhere in recent years.
“You can see it from miles away, as you fly across the bush — it’s an amazing sight. It’s like a city.”
The world’s newest country, South Sudan is also one of the least stable. In early 2014, as conflict spread throughout the country, thousands of people sought refuge in a handful of United Nations bases manned by international peacekeepers. Bentiu is the biggest of the POC camps hosted on these bases.
“The water was up to your waist… and green.”
Everyone living here has a horror story to tell. Villages overrun, homes destroyed, family and friends killed or maimed, and possessions looted. And when thousands converged on Bentiu all at once, the conditions inside began to deteriorate rapidly. A lack of proper shelter and sanitation facilities left people exposed to both the elements and disease.
And then the rains came.
“The water was up to your waist in places… and it was green,” Soloman Yien recalls. “People’s shelters were submerged and there were mosquitoes and mud everywhere. It was horrendous.”
“This was a crisis and something had to be done — and done quickly,” says Concern’s South Sudan Country Director, Feargal O’Connell. “It was imperative.”
The Concern team joined with other organizations to plan what would be one of the biggest logistical and engineering operations in its history: redeveloping the massive site and building safe and robust shelters for up to 50,000 people. Because of the challenges posed by terrain and climate, the timeline would be tight — just 40 weeks.
But that’s not quite how it worked out. Bureaucracy and red tape badly delayed the start of construction and the remoteness of the site meant that many of the materials had to be airlifted to a nearby landing strip, further hindering progress.
“Over the course of three months the numbers doubled to 100,000… and it was a nightmare,”
The real challenge, however, was yet to come. As fighting intensified on the outside, tens of thousands more people began to pour into the camp in search of safety. “Over the course of three months the numbers doubled to 100,000… and it was a nightmare,” according to Concern’s J.P. Mugo.
They now needed twice the number of shelters, but the constant delays meant the project was already behind schedule — and soon the rains would arrive. The timeline had shrunk from ten months to twelve weeks. Could they possibly get this done?
“our initial plan was to build 15 shelters a day… we ended up building 150 shelters a day.”
Luckily, the shelters had been designed by respected emergency shelter engineer Tom Dobbin, who worked closely with the camp residents to come up with a design that would work for them and be easy to build using locally available materials. The units are made with treated wooden support poles, sheets of tarpaulin, bamboo roof timbers, and “elephant grass” to cover the walls and roof.
Working every day from dawn until dusk, the shelter team (most of whom were actually residents of the camp) raced against the clock. Concern’s construction crews built the frames for each one and then provided the materials and advice for families to complete the construction on their own. For more vulnerable residents such as the elderly, ill, and disabled, the crews built the entire unit. It was an incredible undertaking.
Concern’s Denise Desmond, puts it in perspective: “our initial plan was to build 15 shelters a day… we ended up building 150 shelters a day.”
The fourth largest “city” in South Sudan
Eighteen months later, we’re climbing a water tower to get a better view of the camp. The scale of what has happened here becomes apparent. Almost as far as the eye can see, row after row of small “houses” line up under the midday sun — nearly 10,000 of them. At last count, over 115,000 people now live on this base, which is almost two miles square. The houses are arranged in neat blocks, surrounded by drainage ditches, and interspersed with wide roads. There are schools, health facilities, and water points. It really does look like a city. Indeed, by population, it’s the fourth largest city in South Sudan.
Block leader Stephen Joahw sums up the changes that have resulted from the frenzied activity of summer 2014. “The conditions were very bad — no good shelter, no good hygiene or sanitation. Now we have a whole new camp and the conditions are much better.” As we say our goodbyes and we start to walk away, Stephen calls us back and asks us to turn the camera back on. “I would like to tell whoever has made donations, what Concern has done for us on your behalf is so good and we really appreciate it.”
Back in the capital city, Juba, Concern’s Feargal O’Connell is reflective. “The environment in that part of South Sudan is harsh and extreme. Nobody — especially women and children, the malnourished, and the sick — will last any amount of time without adequate shelter. I firmly believe our team in Bentiu have contributed to saving many, many lives… and that’s something they can be immensely proud of.”