South Sudanese Flee Upriver to Escape Violence

April 23, 2014

Christopher Tidey is a UNICEF communications specialist on mission to South Sudan.

Up until a few months ago, Minkaman, a fishing village on the Nile River, had fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. Since South Sudan's political crisis erupted on Dec. 15, 2013, the village's population has swelled to 100,000, as more and more families have fled fierce fighting in the town of Bor. Those who make the 124-mile trip upriver to Minkaman are registered by aid agencies on the ground and thus able to receive support such as safe drinking water, food, medical care and primary school education for their children. But not everybody can afford to pay for passage aboard one of the rusty overcrowded barges that travel there.

The fare, which before the crisis would typically cost 40 South Sudanese pounds, or about $13, has since soared 150% to 100 pounds, or $33, a sum that most South Sudanese would be lucky to earn in a month. Those who can't pay end up stranded on one of the many unpopulated islands in the Nile River, which are difficult for UNICEF and its partners to reach. In early March, I joined a UNICEF-supported medical assessment team on a mission to Matorau, a previously deserted island where more than 2,000 displaced people have sought refuge. "We don't have enough blankets, so the children are getting sick," David, who narrowly escaped the fighting with his wife Rebecca and 18-month-old son Nyok, told me. "The fishermen left their nets behind so we don't have enough food. We need schools, we need water, we need latrines ... we need it all."

Nyok, 18 months, and his parents escaped recent fighting near the city of Bor, taking refuge on an island in the Nile River with other displaced families.

Nyok, 18 months, and his parents escaped recent fighting near the town of Bor, taking refuge on an island in the Nile River with other displaced families. ©UNICEF/2014/Tidey

Delivering relief to remote locations such as Matorau pose serious logistical challenges. The channels and passageways between the islands are essentially unmapped and extremely difficult to navigate for anyone who has not spent years on this part of the river. And once the rainy season begins, the low-lying islands will be prone to flooding. Nevertheless, UNICEF and its partners have started to expand their presence in the island areas, providing nutrition screenings and vaccinations for waterborne diseases such as cholera. A rapid response operation is in place to provide relief to 250,000 people in hard to reach areas. But much more must be done. UNICEF had issued an appeal for $75.1 million to support humanitarian efforts in South Sudan for the first six months of 2014. That amount remains 78% underfunded.

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