Yida is the Sudan of popular imagination. Small Cessna’s ferrying medicine and other essential supplies land on a tattered airstrip lined with beleaguered faces. The landscape is scorched and unforgiving. Trees and grass have been slashed in order for the camp’s 20,000 inhabitants to build basic structures. Modest huts, made entirely of wood and thatch, dot a landscape that seems wholly unfit for human settlement.
The refugee camp in Yida rests approximately 15 miles south of the new and contested border between north and south Sudan. It borders the embattled state of South Kordofan, where southern-aligned rebels are embroiled in a bitter and protracted insurgency against the northern government. In recent months, northern forces have employed brutal tactics to suppress the rebellion to no avail. Where they succeeded, however, was in creating a mass exodus of Nuban civilians, tens of thousands of whom have taken refugee in camps like Yida.
As fighting in South Kordofan and other adjacent border regions intensified in recent weeks, aid agencies here indicate an sharp rise in the number of new arrivals. Many arrive by foot, having walked for days to reach relative safety. While Yida is not affected by active ground combat, the few aid agencies operating here say they are unable to provide sufficient services for the rapidly swelling population. Food and water are scarce, electricity and phone networks are non-existent and political dynamics within the camp are ominous.
As I strolled through the camp’s dirt roads this afternoon, I passed a large group of armed men crammed into a “technical” (a term referring to a modified pick-up truck or SUV outfitted with a 50 caliber weapon). Draped in ammunition and holding rocket propelled grenade launchers, they donned the signature headdress of Darfuri rebels. They presented a picture I felt might have been unwise to take. As I raised my camera, a stern looking rebel wagged his finger in my direction. It’s known that members of Darfur’s Justice and Equality movement have taken part in recent fighting alongside SPLA and SPLM-N forces. The two factions share a common animosity against the ruling government in Khartoum and have formed an alliance of convenience. It is rumored that JEM fighters played a role in the recent seizure of the Heglig oil field north of the border.
As usual, the situation is tense and complex. With violence between northern and southern forces on the rise and rains predicted in the coming weeks, it seems the situation for refugees here will get worse before it gets better.