Yida refugee camp, February 2013

The typical building material in Yida is grass.

Yida refugee camp is situated in Unity State just South of the border with North Sudan. It houses now an estimated 63,000 people with between 300 and 500 new arrivals every day. The reasons for its existence have to be looked for up North in the Nuba Mountains (NM).

The war in the NM resumed in June 2011. Since then the Khartoum army occupies the main towns while the SPLA / North holds most of the countryside. The main war activity going on is the Antonov. In the Christmas period the little town of Kauda on its own received more than 90 bombs. January was relatively quiet. But since then the planes fly over the area practically every day and they drop bombs arbitrarily on any small settlement.

P3 pupil Intisar Bushra from Kauda arrives at a hospital early February with bomb shrapnel in her thigh.

The bombings do not attract much outside attention, not even in South Sudan. An exception was Jau which was bombed on February 14. Jau, about 15 km North of Yida, is considered the border between North and South.

These bombings have had two main effects. Schools still function but many pupils and students have left in search of better education. Nuba students can be found now all over the South and even in refugee camps in Kenya. The bombings have also affected agricultural activity and this, combined with drought and many of the men under arms, has recently created wide-spread famine in the NM.

It is this lack of food that makes people to leave for Yida according to the refugees themselves. For many this involves a journey of 100 km or more, often to be done on foot. If they are lucky a trader’s lorry will help them; e.g. a certain Cletia paid SSP 350 for the transport over 200 km of herself, her husband, 4 children and 2 beds.

In Yida a harsh life awaits them. Once they have paid SSP 5 for the allocation of a plot in the sprawling 20 sq km vast camp they have to collect in the bush the building materials for their shelter. At the same time they have to try and get registered for the monthly food distributions.

Sorghum, pulses and oil awaiting distribution
Water point in Yida


According to WFP the refugees receive 15 kg of cereals per person per month. Refugees themselves claim the ration is more like 4 malwa which equals slightly over 9 kg per person per month. But even if WFP is right the ration is minimal and forces people to look for additional income. For many the only source is to go and collect useful items in the bush such as building materials and firewood.

Once they have settled the daily provision of water is a big challenge for the women. Samaritan’s Purse drilled the boreholes in the camp. Four NGOs are active in the field of health. MSF runs a hospital as also some outreach activities such as malnourishment monitoring. IRC does reproductive health. Solidarity International promotes sanitation. And Samaritan’s Purse makes its plane available for medical evacuations.

MSF monitoring centre

If health is relatively well taken care off then education is the most neglected service. If it was not for the local administration by the Nuba Relief and Development Organisation (NRRDO) which made schools to be built and appointed teachers, there would be no education at all for the large population of school-age kids. There is no NGO that provides any material support up to the present day.

Amazingly enough the lack of support to education is intentional. A fact finding mission from the British Anglican Church recently wrote: UNHCR “has prevented funding for schools – leaving 13,000 primary school children and young people with little access to education.” (HART visit to South Sudan, Nuba Mountains (South Kordofan) and Blue Nile, January 4-18, 2013, p. 5).

This UNHCR policy is motivated by its wish to move the entire camp further away from the border. It appears to have two reasons for this: it would make the refugee camp safer (in fact Yida was once bombed in November 2011 though without any resulting damage); and it would give UNHCR greater control over the refugee population and so protect it against accusations of feeding SPLA / North soldiers.

Long line of classrooms. There are 3 more schools like this one in the camp
Main entrance of the UNHCR compound. The two busses, though idle, undoubtedly represent the single biggest investment in Yida refugee camp.

It appears that UNHCR Geneva and a ‘coordination group in New York’ have mounted a successful campaign among the foreign affairs ministries of the main donor countries to refrain from funding support as long as Yida has not moved. However, the intention to move the camp Southwards goes against the need of the refugees to remain as close as possible to their homes, fields and relatives who stayed behind.

In fact this discussion has poisoned the relations between UNHCR and the refugees while the implementing NGOs (and probably also the UNHCR staff in the field) feel caught in the middle. But worse, since the time UNHCR came in proper service delivery has been paralysed.

For people in the field the discussion has meanwhile been overtaken by the facts. In the words of Msgr. Macram Max Gassis, bishop of El Obeid: “Who still wants to move people who have been in a place already for over a year?”


Deputy camp manager Najda Romeo Peter: “If UNHCR wants us to move let them leave us alone”

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