- By Catherine Byaruhanga
- Africa Reporter, BBC News, Paloich
It’s the airport waiting from hell.
Paloich Airport, which is usually buzzing with the sound of healthy workers serving South Sudan’s oil fields, has turned into a camp for thousands of people fleeing conflict in neighboring Sudan – which has now dragged on longer than a month.
No toilets, no running water, no kitchen – just crowds living around their bags, resting on luggage carts or sleeping under makeshift tents while waiting for their flight. fly.
They ended up here, four hours from the border with Sudan, hoping to find a way out.
But there are few flights and little is known about when people can leave.
Among these refugees were Eritreans who had to emigrate for the second time after arriving in Sudan earlier to escape the situation at home. And these people are stuck in limbo.
According to the United Nations, there were more than 136,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan before this war.
Most Eritreans are reluctant to reveal their names to journalists because they fear retaliation by the Eritrean government.
Eritrea is a very limited country, controlling almost every aspect of its people’s lives, and many want to avoid the prospect of having to fulfill a mandatory national obligation.
But Tesfit Girmay agreed to talk to me. He had arrived in Paloich five days earlier.
“Lifestyle around here, you wouldn’t want it to happen to animals let alone people,” he said as he looked at the tents around him.
As a single man, he realizes that he is luckier than some.
“Maybe I can stand it. Sleeping outside, eating once a day, maybe I can stand it. But the biggest problem is there are people with small children. There are people with four or five children. children,” Mr. Tesfit told me.
He fled the faltering economy in Eritrea late last year and went to Sudan, hoping to find work and possibly travel to another country.
But in South Sudan, the Eritreans find themselves trapped.
More than 700 have arrived in the country.
Other nationals fleeing the conflict in Sudan such as Kenyans, Ugandans and Somalis have been repatriated by their governments. But many Eritreans in Paloich say they are afraid to return home or see no future there.
Mr Tesfit said that Eritreans at the airport had been barred from boarding flights to the South Sudanese capital Juba. At the same time, they refused to go to designated refugee camps in the country.
A three-hour drive further north, and closer to the border with Sudan, is another makeshift camp exploding at the seams.
The former campus of Upper Nile University in Renk, once abandoned, is now inhabited by more than 6,000 people. Even the bushes on the opposite side of the road were cut down to make way for more people to come.
This is where I met another refugee from Eritrea.
She was sitting on the steps of a classroom with her three children and told me her husband had gone up to town for food.
“I can’t live in my country because I can’t worship God the way I like. I can’t live there,” said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous.
She explains that she is an evangelical Christian and struggles in Eritrea, where religion is strictly regulated and those whose beliefs are not officially punished have been sent to prison.
After fleeing Khartoum, she said she had hoped to make it to South Sudan’s capital but it proved to be a challenge.
“No one can pass through Juba. This road is only for Eritreans. I don’t know what will happen next.”
South Sudan’s Acting Foreign Minister Deng Dau Deng told the BBC that his office was in contact with all foreign embassies including Eritrea, to ensure their citizens were repatriated.
But he admits that the situation with Eritrea is complicated by the fact that there are people who do not want to return home and they do not want to contact their embassy.
Mr. Deng did not deny claims that some Eritreans who reached Juba were forced to return to Paloich. Since the Eritrean embassy wouldn’t take them back to Asmara and there was no refugee camp in Juba for them, they had to go elsewhere, he said.
For his part, Eritrea’s longtime President Isaias Afwerki told state television that his country would welcome anyone fleeing conflict in the neighboring country.
“Eritrea with open and unobtrusive borders will continue to receive Eritrean and Sudanese civilians and others affected by the current conflict and share with them whatever they have,” the president said. .
In South Sudan, infrastructure was overwhelmed by 60,000 people who crossed the border into the country in just one month.
Back at Paloich airport, I met some South Sudanese who were desperate to go to other parts of the country.
Sandy Manyjeil has been stuck with her five children for two weeks.
“Last night they gave us a ticket. You wait at the gate, show your ticket and then they take you or not. It depends on your luck,” she said.
“Sometimes they take your ticket and they take you or they don’t. Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, no one knows.”
The government is operating free flights on cargo planes from Paloich and has transported more than 7,000 people. But it is a fraction of the participants.
Its strategy is to get people out of Renk and Paloich to areas where they can find food and medicine and try to rebuild their lives.
But South Sudan has barely any paved roads, few domestic flights, and parts of the country have still faced bouts of violence since the 2013-2018 civil war.
It is a huge challenge for any country and as the war in the neighboring country continues, the number of people, both citizens and foreigners, entering South Sudan is constantly increasing.