Helping Displaced People in Abyei

Andy Schaefer, CRS technical adviser for emergency coordination, who was in Agok, Sudan working to assist some of the more than 100,000 people displaced by recent violence in the contested border area of Abyei, Sudan. He shares with us his impressions from the field.

The situation here in Agok is still very fluid. It’s been a few weeks since their displacement from Abyei, and you still see people coming and going. Some are leaving to go further south while others are arriving because they’ve heard from the government that it is safe to return. This is the planting season, so people are trying to make decisions about what they’re going to do over the next few months for food. It is important to them to be able to get seeds into the ground to harvest crops in the coming months. Their very livelihoods are in jeopardy.

Markets here continue to be bare. Prices are so high, especially fuel, that even the truckers or vendors that under ordinary circumstances would bring goods to the local market, aren’t doing so because they’ll either break even or lose money on the transportation. The incentive to bring items to sell is not there.

Catholic Relief Services and the Caritas Network are coordinating with other humanitarian aid agencies to get supplies to those most in need. Like a rock thrown into a pond that forms concentric circles as the ripples fan out, we’ve looked to see where other agencies are working and are responding in the peripheral areas where they’re not reaching. We found that for the most part people in the city of Agok are being assisted but those small villages outside of the main city have not been helped. CRS and Caritas have been able to go out into the bush to find pockets of the displaced.

We’ve distribute plastic sheeting, blankets, soap, khanga cloth for women, and 14 liter buckets with tops. We have enough supplies for 4,300 households or around 17,000 people. We’ve relied greatly on the help of local parish priest Fr. Biong to help us identify central locations for distributing these supplies. We don’t want people walking too far to receive assistance, but at the same time people are spread across a large geographic area and we can’t logistically go to every small grouping. With the help of Fr. Biong we’ve been able to pinpoint areas that are easy to access.

We have selected four large villages as sites where people can come from surrounding communities to be registered. While the village is made up of traditional mud tukuls – round huts with conical grass-thatched roof– our target population is not staying in the tukuls they’re seeking shelter under trees. People have no shelter. When it rains everyone runs for shelter in a central place like a Church for cover. After the rains stop they go back outside.

One area of we’ve been particular successful at in past emergencies is helping to provide people with shelter. With the rainy season swinging into high gear it will become increasingly more important to make sure that people are protected from the elements. We’re still deciding what that will look like, but it will definitely involve a self-help model. We want the communities to be able to build their temporary homes with us providing expertise such as carpentry to guide them through the process. It’s important to clarify that many of the people we’re seeing are women and their children and the elderly. The majority of the men stayed closer to Abyei in the hopes of returning when it becomes safe. The gender roles are fairly well divided here in Sudan. While most of the men have the carpentry skills needed to build temporary homes many of the women will need help in this area.

I’m working with people on the ground, the displaced themselves to see what type of shelter model would be the most useful to them. We’re taking the customer satisfaction model approach. We want to make sure that whatever shelter solutions we provide will be useful and not something they’ll simply discard.

We definitely don’t have all the answers. It is imperative to get input from the people we’re serving. They are the ones who are the most knowledgeable about what will be the most helpful to them. Their voices help to guide our work and teach us how to become better as an agency. This requires asking questions. We want to know what their future plans are now so that we can gauge how we did and formulate future responses so that we can be of better service.

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