Clashes in Yei creating commuter refugees between South Sudan and neighbouring DRC

As a road patrol prepares to leave a United Nations Mission in South Sudan base in the town of Yei, the team leader warns those travelling to take great care during the trip to the southern part of war-torn South Sudan.

Make sure you go prepared. Don’t take any chances, says Cherno Jallow, who serves with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). This is a very volatile environment.

Being prepared means wearing flak-jackets and helmets, taking enough supplies to survive if the convoy gets trapped, and working together to ensure everyone stays safe.

I want us to go as a team and come back as a team, he says.

The environment is volatile because, despite the signing of a new peace deal that has restored calm in much of the country, sporadic clashes continue in the central Equatorian region. This has caused thousands of people to flee south across the porous border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Many are commuting back and forward across that border seeking safety in refugee camps on one hand but then returning to their homes in search of food.

They only come to this side to collect food from their farms which are located on this side (South Sudan) because, when they are out there, they are not being supported as refugees, so they have to come here, fend for themselves and then go back. But they don’t stay here, because things are not right around here, says retired Lieutenant Colonel Mwarambao Muralonya, from the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangement Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (CTSMVM) who has joined the integrated patrol along with UNMISS personnel and humanitarian workers.

This kind of commuting is creating a risk that the Ebola outbreak being experienced in DRC will be transported to communities in South Sudan who are already suffering from conflict and poverty.

The patrol is the third attempt to try and access the border area of New Lasu, about 12 kilometres from Lasu town. On other occasions, they’ve been turned back because local authorities claim it is not safe.

As the convoy gets underway, they see destroyed and abandoned homes and markets along the route. In one place, a fire is raging along the roadside. Here too, there is no sign of life. On the three-hour drive, only a handful of cyclists are seen. The rest of the population has fled.

The homes along the road are deserted, because that is where communities feel threatened when they stay there, says Cherno Jallow. So, they decide � for their own safety � to leave their homes by the roadside and go inside the bush.

There are three military checkpoints along the way. Each time, permission has to be sought to advance.

It is scary, says an UNMISS military liaison officer. They took us deep into the barracks. I had to literally beg to allow the convoy to proceed.

Finally, the patrol makes it to the New Lasu border crossing, about 43 kilometers from Yei town. The crossing is a simple grilled-metal gate with a nearby tree offering shade to the patrol team as they engage with counterparts from the DRC � each standing on opposite sides of the border.

People were running when they heard blasts on the other side, says a Congolese border guard, describing the initial exodus of refugees. They were afraid and there were many people crossing past here and until today, they are in a camp near here.

As the conversation continues, refugee Jacob Karaba pushes his motor-cycle past. He travels back and forward about once a week.

Since we left in 2016, we were living well (in the refugee camp) and we were receiving our food rations, but since the beginning of this year we have not received any rations, says Jacob Karaba. That is why we are coming here to South Sudan to get some food.

He is also making money selling soap in South Sudan and purchasing food stuffs, like sesame, millet and beans, to bring back to DRC to sell in the refugee camp.

While it is mostly men commuting, some women also make the journey to support their families.

I have one child. We ran from here when I was pregnant, says one mother. We walked through the bush and now we are staying in the DRC. Although we are hearing that our village is better now, we haven’t moved back.

We always come here to collect grass for renovating our houses and also sell some to buy washing soap.

While the Ebola outbreak is some distance away from the border, in the Ituri region of DRC, the patrol team passes out information pamphlets to raise awareness and support prevention. They’re also looking at options for setting up a screening area if it is considered safe enough.

Job done, the team begins the long journey back to Yei, knowing that it was a trip worth making, as they work together to keep communities safe.

Source: UN Mission in South Sudan