‘Why won’t the war stop?’ South Sudan refugees in their own words
When students at the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp in South Sudan first held the smart phones given to them by a UN Refugee Agency project, they didn’t know how to turn them on.
“These are people who have never seen a photo of themselves,” Kathryn Mahoney, the UNHCR communications officer who led the initiative told Mashable. “They come from a part of Sudan where there is no access to television or basic photography, so we were pretty much starting from scratch.”
Through the project, 21 students between the ages of 16 and 25 were given smartphones and participated in a two-month course in digital storytelling. Soon they were taking hundreds of photos documenting day-to-day life in the refugee camp. At the end of the course, students selected and wrote about their favorite photos for an exhibit to the community.
“We placed a huge emphasis on writing because, with the lives these kids are leading, a picture is really not worth a thousand words,” Mahoney said. “Given their situation, it is important to provide some context to let the photos speak more strongly.”
The students are drawn from around 14,000 people in the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp. Most refugees fled to South Sudan from the Nuba Mountains of neighboring Sudan after fighting broke out in mid-2011. As the conflict in Sudan raged on, South Sudan erupted into its own unrest, displacing more than 1.3 million people within the country since 2013. Mahoney says the refugees in this camp are “caught between two wars, with nowhere else to run.”
“It’s a man-made nightmare,” she said. “Peace talks have so far yielded no results to stop the suffering of the South Sudanese people.”
Many of the students participating in the course fled the conflict to further their education, leaving their parents behind. They now live on their own, often providing for younger siblings. Mahoney said the project has given the students a voice, and sparked a lasting interest in photography as a means to share stories from this little examined region of the world.
“I think first and foremost for them, it’s an outlet,” she said. “It gives them a safe space to come to every day, to learn a new skill and to have something creative to do. Beyond that, it’s given them a tangible skill and something they could use later in life that sets them apart. There are no photo journalists or photographers in the part of the world that they come from, so they have actually all recognized there is a huge gap.”
Although the course officially ended in late September, Mahoney said the students have formed their own photojournalism club, which still meets regularly. They call themselves “The eyes and ears of Nuba.”
Here are some selected stories and photos from three young, female student photographers.
Manal Abdulaziz Mudir, 17
When the war broke out in the Nuba Mountains, it was June 2011. There was a terrible situation. Schools were closed because of the heavy bombings from planes. People had no idea what to do.
A few months later, people started hearing of a refugee camp in South Sudan. Many people decided to leave their homes and come to safety. Some came specifically for education. Mothers started to come with their children to educate them so that they could become a better generation for tomorrow. We wish for peace in Southern Kordofan.
When the war broke out, people were really confused and did not know what to do. Some people decided to come to South Sudan to become refugees. And many became refugees alone, without any family to help take care of you. It’s a huge challenge.
Many people opened up shops and businesses in the market to make some money to help sustain themselves in their new lives. People struggle to cope with their situation. Days will come when we will have peace in our country and we will once again be comfortable the way we used to be.
This Nuban woman uproots the grass on her farm. Nubans are cultivators. When they reached Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp, they tried to adapt and cultivate here too. This woman now remembers the time when she was back home in the Nuba Mountains. She wants to show her people that the cultivation and their tradition can continue here. We wish for peace in our country. When the war broke out, many students were forced to flee their country. For us who left, we came mainly to continue our education. This is the road that leads to Soba Secondary School. It has very tall grass, taller than us. Most of the students are afraid of this grass because it causes the risk of attack or even rape. Back when we were in the Nuba Mountains in secondary school, there were no roads with tall grass like this. We wish for peace so that we can go back to our land.
When the war broke out and people left the Nuba Mountains, many people thought there wouldn’t be football ever again. Football is what the youth of Nuba normally played before coming to Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp. When they reached South Sudan, they prepared the fields and played together in remembrance of the Nuba Mountains.
Julia Ibrahim Kome, 21
Stealing in the camp has increased this month, September 2014. People are trying to learn how to sneak things from other people. The reason is because there is high competition for jobs and casual labor. As a result, students resort to stealing property, even from their own brothers and sisters. Girls are even now stealing things from their boyfriends, even when they are in a trusting relationship.
This boy stole from his school benchmate in class. Consequently, the head teachers are emphasizing this issue in school and advising students not to steal. This is projecting a negative image of the school but luckily the teachers are aware and are trying to fix the problem.
Although the situation in Ajuong Thok is not always bearable, young boys and girls are so committed to their studies. I believe that one day, these students will become the new heroes of the Nuba Mountains. Long live our motherland. I hope we can all continue to study until there is peace in our land.
This boy is cultivating his land. He is energized and has the power to grow crops.
Peter Adam is a student at Meroe Primary School in Ajuong Thok. The first time he went to class his teacher gave him seven exercise books. He was surprised, thinking that his teacher miscounted and gave him two extra and decided to sell the extras to a classmate.
His classmate asked him “why do you want to sell your books?” Peter said he had extra. His classmate informed Peter that here in South Sudan, students study seven subjects, not five like back at home. Peter thanked his classmate and told him that he was a good friend.
Matuga Marid Jula, 20
When you return from school, lunch would already be on the table. You could take some seconds or even minutes to rest. Then you would go back to your schoolwork and your notes. This would motivate children to be more focused and concentrated on their studies. This is how it should be for children. Their parents would help them to focus on their studies. They would take care of their children; they would make sure they were clean and healthy and keep them from sickness. They would grow old, and never be forgotten.
Cry, cry crying. Because of the war in the Nuba Mountains, there were many problems facing the people. Problems like poverty, lack of education, high rates of death because the bombs were falling day and night.
I am telling the story of being a refugee without parents. How hard is it? Suppose this boy was with his parents. He wouldn’t have to think about anything apart from school. Many children are giving up school in Ajuong Thok because they don’t have their parents with them. He may go to one or two classes, but then he starts thinking about his duties, and counting all of the work that will be waiting for him when he comes home from school. Because of this, he can no longer understand anything from the teacher.
In Nuba, children like these ones are not in school. Even today, to read “A B C D E” would be difficult for them. People today are afraid to send their children to school, to have them gather together in school because of the ongoing war in the Nuba Mountains. Nuban children are still very behind in education. You can find a man who is 28 years old, who has still not finished secondary school. This is a great disadvantage to the Nuba Mountains.
But in Ajuong Thok, even if the conditions are difficult, any child can enroll in school. Free education is the best reason that helps me to stand firm and bear with the tough conditions. We need to education our people and educate our children. How can we help ourselves, the young Nuban generation to progress with our education?
War! War! Think! Think! After I saved my life, what now? Still, my life is incomplete, since the war started in the Nuba Mountains, we are scattered. My parents, some of my children. I don’t know where they are.
Even today, I still do not know. Back at home, I had heard about a refugee camp in an unknown place. I just thought it would be better to go, even if I got lost along the way, than to die. If you try to stay, death stays too.
Now I am here in Ajuong Thok, my life continues and my children’s too. But I still worry about those whom I left behind. Are they alive or not?
Why won’t the war stop? What can we do for our future? We are praying for peace, we really want peace to come to Nuba.