Together with her husband and seven children, a hungry and thirsty Shadiya Ibrahim fled war and famine in South Sudan and says she has found safety in Sudan’s conflict-ravaged Darfur.
“This was the only place we knew we could come to,” Ibrahim said at El Nimir camp in East Darfur, a newly opened facility for refugees crossing into Sudan by the hundreds each day.
Ibrahim, 40, was among a crowd gathered on Tuesday to mark World Refugee Day at the camp in the presence of US charge d’affaires Steven Koutsis, making a visit to Darfur.
Koutsis travelled across vast stretches of Darfur — a region the size of France — to assess the security situation before President Donald Trump decides next month to whether to permanently lift a two-decades-old trade embargo on Khartoum.
Even as Koutsis makes his assessment, Darfur has become a refuge for South Sudanese like Ibrahim.
“We are peaceful and secure here. There we lived in fear, but now we no longer feel afraid,” she told AFP.
A brutal conflict ntroke out in Darfur itself in 2003 when ethnic minority groups took up arms against President Omar al-Bashir’s Arab-dominated government, which launched a deadly counter-insurgency.
At least 300,000 people have since been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Darfur, the United Nations says.
Sudanese officials claim the conflict in Darfur has ended, despite reports of continued fighting between government forces and rebels.
– ‘Hungry and raped’ –
Ibrahim and several other refugees at El Nimir camp say the difficulties they face in the camp are minor compared to the trauma they experienced in their country.
Ibrahim fled in January from her home in the town of Raja after her father was killed in fighting between forces of President Salwa Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
South Sudan — formed after the south split from the north in 2011 — plunged into a civil war just two years later when Kiir fell out with Machar.
Since then the war has seen ethnic massacres, attacks on civilians, widespread rape and other human rights abuses.
“Women have suffered the most in the war,” said Ibrahim. “We lost our husbands and our fathers. We have been left hungry and raped.”
About 400,000 South Sudanese have arrived in Sudan since the war erupted in the world’s youngest country, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
About 50 percent of them live in 10 camps in Sudan, while the rest are scattered in cities and towns.
The increasing number of refugees fleeing the war and famine in South Sudan has only put pressure on Sudan’s resources, Sudanese officials and tribal chiefs say.
“The healthcare sector in particular is under severe pressure,” Mohamed Mussa Madibu, chief of Sudan’s powerful Rizeigat tribe said in a meeting with Koutsis.
Cooperation in efforts to resolve the war in South Sudan is key demand of Washington to help lift sanctions on Khartoum, first imposed over Khartoum’s alleged for Islamist groups.
“We hope that the Sudanese government’s cooperation continues until the refugees are able to return home safe,” Koutsis said.
– ‘I want to study’ –
More than 5,000 refugees live in El Nimir camp, which opened in April. The camp is spread across a vast open area near El Daien, the capital of East Darfur state.
A long muddy road connects the camp to El Daien, raising concerns that delivering aid to the facility in the rainy season could be a challenge for aid workers.
A quick tour of the camp showed refugees — mostly women — living in thatched huts and children playing in open areas.
Despite the scorching mid-day sun, groups of children and women performed traditional African dances as they marked World Refugee Day.
UNHCR officials said a hospital was already under construction in the camp, while plans were being finalised to open two schools.
“It is not easy to live in a camp when you once had a home,” said 12-year-old Houda, who also fled from Raja with her family.
“But then we are safe here. What I want is a school because I want to study,” she said. “When I grow, I want to become a powerful voice of my people.”