JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - Tracing his fingers over the metal fencing at a United Nations protected site in South Sudan’s capital, Nhial Nyuot Nhial hung his head as he contemplated going home after years of civil war. “At the moment it’s impossible for someone to leave,” he said.
The 33-year-old is among tens of thousands of people who are still sheltering in such camps across the country, the legacy of an unprecedented decision by a U.N. peacekeeping mission to throw open its doors to people fleeing war.
Nhial has been in the Juba camp since 2014, shortly after the country erupted in fighting. A fragile peace deal signed between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar in September has brought little comfort. Like many in the camps, Nhial still fears for his life and refuses to leave.
What began as a temporary experiment is looking more like a permanent refuge for more than 190,000 people living in squalor in the six U.N. protected sites. Now the U.N. is pushing for the camps to close, amid warnings by the international community that rushing the process could re-ignite violence among ethnic groups.
“If or when the walls of the protection sites come down, there will still be dangerous intercommunal tensions and massive protection needs,” said Lauren Spink, senior researcher on peacekeeping for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an international non-profit group.
An internal U.N. draft shared with aid agencies in September and seen by The Associated Press detailed a plan for “all services to be permanently relocated outside” Juba’s two U.N. sites by the end of January, according to the document.
The plan, which was never made public, has yet to be implemented and U.N. mission chief David Shearer said there has been no decision to close the camps at any particular time. “People moving back to their homes have to make their own decisions,” he told the AP.
Five years of fighting have killed almost 400,000 people and left more than seven million, or two-thirds of the population, in “dire need” of humanitarian assistance, according to South Sudan’s 2019 humanitarian response plan, which will cost $1.5 billion.
The cash-strapped government doesn’t have the means to resettle the more than four million people who have been displaced from their homes. More than two million of them fled the country.
“Given the population and the people that will need to be resettled, it’s really massive,” said Hussein Mar Nyuot, South Sudan’s minister for humanitarian and disaster management.
The government is largely relying on the U.N. and aid agencies to implement its resettlement plan, which includes safe passage and a three-month package of food for people who want to go home, Nyuot said. The government has said it will provide land and security for returnees.
At least one South Sudan expert said the number of people willing to leave the U.N. sites and return from refugee camps in neighboring Uganda and elsewhere will be a true test of peace.
“If we see that number significantly go down . in a meaningful, lasting way over several months maybe we can measure the peace agreement in steps like that, as opposed to just believing what politicians say and what statements are,” said Pete Martell, a journalist and author of a new book on South Sudan, “First Raise a Flag.”
In the last six months, about 17,000 have voluntarily left the camps, according to the U.N.
But continuing unrest in South Sudan has civilians worrying about whether the government can provide for and protect them. Even inside the U.N. camps, violence occurs.
In August, due to intercommunal clashes inside one of Juba’s U.N. sites, almost 3,500 people were relocated to Mangateen, a displaced persons’ camp run by the government on the edge of the city.
People there said the camp doesn’t feel safe.
“Living here is a danger,” said John Tut, Mangateen’s camp coordinator. Earlier this month government soldiers came to the gates and threw rocks at civilians while shouting insults, the 42-year-old said.
There is also not enough space. About 1,500 people currently live in a stifling warehouse waiting for the government to allocate more land for the site.
Seated on the floor of the warehouse, Elizabeth Nyamai shrugged. “We’re not living in good conditions, we’re living in fear with no basic needs being met,” the 28-year-old mother of five said. “I’ve lost hope in the government, whatever they say we don’t believe.”