MINKAMMEN, South Sudan (AFP) ― In long lines, women waited for fresh water, pumped out of the muddy Nile before being treated as part of efforts by aid agencies to support rising numbers fleeing South Sudan’s conflict.
“The children are sick ... they have been sleeping outside, eating poor food and drinking straight from the river,” said Mary Acouth, who fled when rebel soldiers who had joined up with an ethnic militia raided and then torched her village on the other bank of the river.
Almost 400,000 people have been forced from their homes in a month of fighting. Some 350,000 are still in South Sudan; the remainder have headed as refugees into neighboring countries.
Over 60,000 people are packed into U.N. peacekeeping bases, too frightened of attacks to leave the security offered by the razor wire fences and guns.
Here in Minkammen, the largest single collection of displaced people according to the U.N., over 84,000 rest in the shade of trees, having crossed the swamplands of the White Nile river often carrying only the clothes on their back and dodging bullets.
The aid agency Oxfam was one of the first into Minkammen to support those arriving, setting up basic offices under a tiny open-sided thatch roof hut.
A small but thumping generator provides power to charge aid workers’ computers and telephones for brief periods each day.
Just like many of the displaced people outside the basic dirt yard compound, the aid workers sleep under basic tents or mosquito nets, to ward off the swarms of insects that plague the swampy riverside.
“The main problem is to provide water to this huge amount of people ... you have the Nile river, but obviously the water is not drinkable, so the challenge is to treat it,” said Ferran Puig, a country director of Oxfam.
“Secondly, there are no sanitation facilities here so there is a risk of cholera.”
Oxfam has set up water systems to filter and clean the river water.
Many of those here are deeply traumatized, having fled brutal fighting in the key town of Bor, now the last major town in rebel hands after almost a month of heavy conflict.
Boats loaded with those fleeing the fighting continue to arrive each morning.
South Sudan has been gripped by violence since Dec. 15, when clashes broke out between army units loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and those loyal to ex-vice president Riek Machar.
Morale of the government troops has been boosted after comrades wrested back the key northern oil city of Bentiu on Friday from the rebels.
But top U.N. aid chief in South Sudan Toby Lanzer has warned of an “unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in the young country.
The U.N. has said that “very substantially in excess” of 1,000 people have already been killed in the fighting.
An analyst with International Crisis Group said reports from the field suggested that the number of dead was closer to 10,000.
Trucks loaded down with grain and basic supplies are also arriving, travelling down rough roads from the capital Juba, many from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
“Many fled with very little chance to gather their belongings ... what was important was to get out,” said the ICRC‘s Harry Chilufya Mwewa, overseeing the offloading of heavy sacks of sorghum grain, and its distribution to families.
Plastic sheeting for shelter, mosquito nets, buckets, cooking oil, salt and soap were also handed out.
“People have nothing ... they don’t have food, they don‘t have the materials to make shelters,” he said, adding that the packages ICRC is handing out give displaced families the chance of a “fresh start”.
Aid workers are already planning ahead for how they will support people in a few months when the current dry season ends and the country is swamped by usually torrential rains.