The village of Pagak lies in Ethiopia’s Gambella region on the western border with South Sudan. Pagak essentially exists on both sides of the border, and in better times, people would move from one country to another primarily to meet friends and relatives, engage in trade, or transport livestock.
Today, the village serves as an entry point for those fleeing fighting and the lack of food inside South Sudan – many walking for days to reach the border. Last year, as South Sudan’s civil war spread throughout the country, up to a thousand South Sudanese refugees were crossing into Ethiopia each day – totaling nearly 200,000 over the course of the year.
The intensity of the conflict subsided somewhat during the rainy season, when access routes were closed off and the movement of troops was more difficult. But as the roads dry out, the conflict is expected to reignite. Just over a week ago, battles in South Sudan’s Upper Nile and Unity states between government and opposition soldiers left 50 dead.
Unless a resolution to the South Sudan conflict is reached, the UN Refugee Agency projects at least an additional 100,000 refugees will arrive in Ethiopia this year. Last week, my colleague and I traveled to Pagak entry point to meet some of the year's first arrivals.
We met a man named James who had arrived in early January. James had been living and working in South Sudan’s capital Juba when war broke out in December 2013. His wife and six children immediately sought protection at a UN base in Juba, while he fled north to his home state of Jonglei. After several months, he was able to send money to Juba to secure transport for his wife and children to join him. Then last month, the village where they were living was attacked by government soldiers. That’s when he and his family decided to make the journey to Ethiopia.
James hopes that his five children will be able to attend school in the refugee camp. A staggering 70% of the South Sudanese refugees in Gambella are children – many of whom arrived without their parents. The needs for education and child support activities are great. Some kids have been able to enroll in education programs established by aid organizations, and others attend local Ethiopian school within neighboring communities. But over half of primary-aged children are not in school, and opportunities for secondary education are extremely minimal.
The international community and the Ethiopian government face twin challenges. On the one hand, there is an urgent need to expand education programs, vocational training, and livelihood opportunities for the thousands of refugees who have lived in the camps for over a year. At the same time, aid agencies must be prepared to receive a potential massive influx of new refugees who will be in need of emergency food and medical care, and the Ethiopian government must be prepared to allocate suitable land for new camps.
We asked James if he had any messages for the UN or donor governments. "First," he said, "there are many people in South Sudan who were unable to run away. They are dying because of sickness and hunger. I hope that aid organizations can reach the people who are too weak to travel." He added, “Your president, Barack Obama, is the world president. I hope that he can make a push with the fighting parties to bring about peace.”
Indeed, peace talks between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar (who know leads the opposition forces), were set to resume this weekend in Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, they have been postponed until the end of the month. Analysts following the negotiations told RI that the prospects for a lasting peace remain low. In the meantime, the war continues, and millions of South Sudanese are facing the consequences.
Photo: James fled the war in South Sudan and is now living with his family in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Jan. 2015