A New Zealander’s perspective on the Sudan crisis – Phil Johnstone FPRINZ

sudan crisis

World Vision’s Phil Johnstone has spoken to NZ Herald’s The Front Page podcast, and written about his recent experience visit to South Sudan. After a calmer period, violence has broken out in the region.

It is a journey filled with terror. Amongst gunfire and violence, Sudanese women and children flee their homes hoping to reach safety from the current conflict engulfing their country. Their journey is a long and perilous one and they arrive exhausted, but with their lives, at a series of transit camps set up along the border in neighbouring countries.

It is in one of these makeshift camps, in South Sudan, that I hear their unimaginable stories of survival.

Saura sits under a tree with her children, sheltering from the intense heat. Her face etched with pain, she tells me she fled after she saw her husband shot dead.

“I witnessed the fighting. Many people were killed. I saw my husband fall down and saw him dead with my own eyes. I needed to leave and took my children,” she says.

I meet another widow called Halima. Alone, without a husband to help her, she couldn’t bring all her young children with her on the dangerous journey across the border. And so she had to leave some of them behind. They are being looked after by family, but are living amongst deadly fighting. She is distraught and doesn’t know when she will see them again.

It is hard to comprehend the vulnerability of refugees desperately seeking peace and safety from the fighting, looting and lawlessness that has befallen Sudan in the wake of conflict which began in mid-April between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals.

The violence set off a shockwave of displacement. More than a million people are on the move within Sudan and 350,000 have fled the country to neighbouring states like Chad, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Andrew Ajou, a World Vision Protection Monitor, is one of the first people refugees meet as they enter the northwest of South Sudan. Shell-shocked refugees tell him of being stopped by multiple groups of militia while trying to escape and being forced to pay their way through roadblocks mounted for the sole purpose of extortion.

“Refugees tell us there are roadblocks where people ask for money. If you do not have money, you give your belongings. And if you do not have belongings, they torture you.

“Just the other day, a boy was stabbed because he had nothing. A man was killed, and a woman was stabbed. The road is not safe. As they move from Sudan there is a lot of fear,” he says.

The militia are cruelly exploiting the vulnerability of returnees and refugees desperately seeking peace and safety.

Even when they cross the border, refugees remain cautious – fearing someone else will make demands of them.

This reality is being played out across Sudan and its neighbours. In Chad, World Vision staff have been told of kidnapping attempts to pull children and young people into slavery or forced marriage.

Most of the refugees streaming across the borders are women, children and the elderly. The UN estimates around half of those on the move are children.

At the camp, I also meet 10-year-old Muhammed, who had lost both his parents before the war. When the fighting broke out, he was able to escape but was separated from his uncle. He came across the border with his grandmother who was elderly and frail.

“I’d like to be back in a school,” he says, before focusing on some of his immediate needs. “I need some clothes. We sleep on the ground and that’s not easy.”

Fifteen-year-old Ismail is hungry. He’s missing his friends and wants to resume education so he can achieve his dream of becoming a doctor.

But having endured their dangerous journeys to escape conflict, people must now wait as the Government, the UN and other humanitarian agencies construct a refugee camp with better facilities, such as water and sanitation.

World Vision is helping to register the arrivals and distribute kits with non-food items such as sleeping mats, cooking utensils, mosquito nets, blankets, a water container, soap, sanitary products and solar lamps. We are also providing water and sanitation and food assistance, in particular emergency nutrition.

Even before the conflict, there was huge need in Sudan. A third of its 49 million people needed humanitarian aid. The conflict means millions of vulnerable people are now cut off from aid and face a worsening maelstrom of violence, food shortages and health system collapse in Sudan.

The impact that this conflict is having is catastrophic, both for the country as a whole and for those people like Saura and Halima whose lives have been irrevocably changed by it.

Yet, the people of Sudan still hold out hope for the future. When I ask Saura about her feelings towards the people that murdered her husband, I’m shocked by her response. She holds no animosity towards them.

“They have destroyed Sudan but I’m asking God to change their hearts.”

It’s a sentiment shared by tens of millions of people in Sudan right now.

Phil Johnstone is a communications specialist working with World Vision. He has visited both Ukraine and Sudan during their respective conflicts.

Listen to the full episode of The Front Page podcast to hear Johnstone elaborate on the plight of the Sudanese.

By Phil Johnstone, June 19, 2023. Published by NZHerald.

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