The city in the bush

Written by Kieran McConville

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.

See how we built a city — in twelve weeks

“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.

Women carry firewood

Women carry firewood back to their homes through contaminated flood water in the Bentiu POC camp. Photo: Crystal Wells

“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.”

Yap Jikany, one, his mother, Nyaker Gatlek, 22, and three siblings arrived in Tomping, a displacement camp in Juba, on July 28. The came from the displacement camp on the UN base in Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity State where some of the heaviest fighting has taken place in South Sudan's civil war. The camp in Bentiu is also heavily flooded because of regular downpours and Yap developed a skin infection there, which left open scabs on his chin and nose as of September 6. Yap was also admitted to Concern's targeted supplementary feeding program (TSFP) to treat moderate malnutrition.

One-year-old Yap Jikany developed a skin infection at Bentiu camp due to the contaminated floodwaters. The infection left open scabs on his chin and nose. Photo: Crystal Wells

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.

Mission: (im)possible

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.

A shelter focus group meeting

A shelter focus group meeting conducted by Concern Worldwide with Bentiu residents. Camp residents were extensively consulted on the design of the shelters to ensure the structures met their needs. Photo: Kieran McConville

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.

Otis shows us how it’s done!

Concern’s Shelter Manager, Otis Kingjehjeh Moore, shows us in 45 seconds how to build a life-saving robust emergency shelter in the heat and dust of South Sudan.

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.”

Kuol Tab Liah, logistics and warehouse assistant for Concern Worldwide, helps unload wooden poles

Kuol Tab Liah, logistics and warehouse assistant for Concern Worldwide, helps unload wooden poles for use in the construction of the shelters. Photo: Kieran McConville

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.

Robust emergency shelters at Bentiu Protection of Civilian (POC) site

Robust emergency shelters at Bentiu POC site in South Sudan. Concern has facilitated the construction of nearly 10,000 shelters on the site. Photo: Kieran McConville

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.”

Simon Majiek with some of his children and extended family in front of their new shelter

Simon Majiek with some of his children and extended family in front of their new shelter. Photo: Kieran McConville

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.”

Some of the construction team in front of a shelter

Some of the construction team that, along with camp residents, helped build 10,000 robust emergency shelters at the Bentiu POC site. Photo: Kieran McConville

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Country: South Sudan