Monday, May 28, 2012

The Identity Crisis in the Sudans

When Sudan and South Sudan split last summer, they left many questions unresolved, including the status of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese living in the north. These citizens, many of whom have lived in Khartoum for decades and have few ties the south, are being caught in the middle of a developing statelessness crisis.

On April 8, the Sudanese government revoked the southerners' citizenship, calling them 'security threats' and giving them just under a month to leave the country. While some had the 'luxury' of being able to just pick up and leave, many South Sudanese were unable to make it out by the May 5 deadline. Some fled to camps in the city of Kosti, just south of Khartoum. Others faced threats of violence back in the capital city.

On May 14, the international community, led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), began a humanitarian airlift to transport the southerners to South Sudan. As of Friday, IOM had transported 5,792 people to Juba, and they're now operating four flights a day between the two countries. The new South Sudanese citizens, called returnees, are being transported to large camps, one of which is just outside of Juba. There they register, wait for their belongings (which are shipped separately), and try to figure out what they are going to do in their new home.

I was able to visit the returnee camp just outside of Juba yesterday, where Sanjay and I volunteered with the International Medical Corps (IMC). The IMC deployed a Emergency Response Team to the camp as it was established, and they're providing free (but limited) medical care through a clinic at the camp. Both of the doctors we worked with came over from the US to help out, and one of them was a volunteer doctor in Libya last year during the revolution.

The inside of the medical clinic
The outside of the medical clinic

Given my limited medical knowledge, I helped register patients with Sanjay. As people entered the tent for treatment, we asked them for their name, age, and a description of what was wrong. Only a handful of people spoke any English at all, and I used my two semesters of Arabic to help me communicate. At a certain point, registration became a big game of charades, where I asked patients their names ("Ma ismook?"), ages ("Omrook?"), and then they pointed at different parts of their bodies until I realized what was wrong. The little guessing game made me realize just how difficult it was going to be for many of the returnees to start over in a new country. The official language of South Sudan is English, and the dialect of Arabic that some people in Juba speak is apparently unintelligible for most Arabic speakers from Khartoum. The language barrier will be just the first of many hurdles they face as new citizens of South Sudan.




After patients saw the doctor, they returned to us to check out and we entered their diagnoses. We logged dozens of cases of diarrhea, a few cases of malaria, and countless skin and eye diseases, among other things. We saw close to 250 patients, the largest number they'd seen yet in a day at the camp.

With flights coming in from Sudan every day, the camp faces many logistical and health challenges. They don't have enough latrines to provide proper sanitation, and there are two doctors and limited medication for the close to 5,000 people now occupying the camp. What's even worse though is the fact that it might be one of the best doctor-to-patient ratios in the country. We had a young girl be referred from a hospital in Juba to our tent clinic at the returnee camp because they believed the care was better at the camp.

One thing I kept trying to remember was that the returnees I met at the camp were the lucky ones--most southerners have yet to make it out of camps in Sudan. The humanitarian situation is becoming increasingly dire, and it's even more troubling to know that the government is putting people in this position. I keep asking myself--how can a nation strip people of citizenship based on ethnicity? 

Groups like Human Rights Watch have denounced the move, telling the Sudanese government to reverse the decision and allow southerners to be allowed to stay in the north. This doesn't look probable though, and with increasing ethnic tensions in the north, it is important to keep a close look at how the government treats the groups of South Sudanese who are unable to leave the country. If Bashir decides to use force to make them cross the border, we could have an even larger humanitarian crisis in Sudan.

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