South Sudanese refugee Elisabeth Nyapal on the Ethiopian banks of the Baro River - with her homeland just across the water.
Copyright: WFP/Leo Okach
During a May pledging conference in Oslo, the international community committed to step up its humanitarian response to the crisis in South Sudan - including helping refugees, who are crossing by the thousands into Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries.
BURBE, Ethiopia — One week ago, Elisabeth Nyapal made the short boat ride across the sparkling Baro river to safety. Scrambling up the steep, muddy bank, a mattress balanced on her head, Nyapal joined the ranks of roughly 130,000 South Sudanese refugees now sheltered in Ethiopia.
"I'm coming because of the conflict," said Nyapal, a mother of six who hails from South Sudan's Nasir county, just across the narrow waterway. "A lot of people have died. People are running in different directions. There's no food, no water."
The sleepy river town of Burbe, where Nyapal landed, is the latest epicentre of the exodus from South Sudan. Since the beginning of May, more than 16,000 refugees have arrived here, transforming this grassy corner of southwestern Ethiopia into a sprawling transit centre.
"The majority of the refugees are women and children - but we also see a lot of men," said Pereleth Othieing, WFP field monitor in Ethiopia's western Gambella region. "There are a lot of hungry and malnourished people. The overall situation is very bad."
South Sudan's five-month-old conflict has killed thousands of people and displaced nearly one million within the country. Nearly 350,000 others have sought refuge in neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. Despite two ceasefire agreements, the fighting continues. And the refugees keep pouring in.
In Oslo this week, donor nations doubled their humanitarian funding pledges for South Sudan to more than $1.2 billion - two-thirds of the $1.8 the United Nations has requested to respond to an escalating food crisis through March, 2015. Famine is not predicted in the next three months, but it will become a serious risk later in the year unless adequate humanitarian assistance can be delivered.
At border points like Burbe, WFP is distributing High Energy Biscuits and two weeks of food rations to the new arrivals as they wait transport to refugee camps, which are expanding to meet their mounting numbers. WFP also conducts monthly distributions in the camps of wheat or sorghum, vegetable oil, pulses, sugar and salt, along with nutrient-packed food supplements for the most vulnerable, including young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Humanitarian officials now predict Ethiopia could host up to 300,000 South Sudanese refugees by the year’s end, and WFP Ethopia will need $30 million in funds in the coming months to meet their needs.
“Along with the Ethiopian government and our partners, we are committed to serving those who are arriving here hungry and destitute,” said WFP Ethiopia Country Director Abdou Dieng. “So we hope the international community will continue to reach into their pockets and give generously.”
At Burbe, small wooden sailboats and motorboats criss-cross the Baro bringing the South Sudanese to Ethiopia. On the banks, local women sell candies and home-cooked meals outside small thatched-roofed huts. But the new arrivals are too destitute to buy the food. They head on to a vast field nearby to be registered as refugees. Humanitarian officials have erected barn-like shelters of wood, metal and plastic sheeting to protect them from the burning sun—and, increasingly, the pounding rains.
Inside, aid workers vaccinate toddlers and check for signs of malnutrition and sickness among a crowd of new arrivals. Families walk away carrying boxes of WFP's energy-packed biscuits, and nutritional supplements for the most vulnerable.
"We're getting up to 1,000 people arriving here daily," said Tesema Ergetie of Ethiopia's refugee agency ARRA, who oversees the humanitarian response at Burbe. "The wounded come here. The malnourished come here. Many, many people are coming here."
They include Meren Anuar, who fled her home in Upper Nile State's Ulang county. She and her five children walked 15 days before crossing the Baro into Ethiopia. "We don't want to go back to Ulang," she said. "The area is very insecure. There is no food."
On the river banks, newcomer Elisabeth Nyapal offered a similarly grim assessment of the conditions back home.
"For us, everything is destroyed. We women are especially affected, because our husbands and our brothers are dead," she said. "We are asking the international community to help us get a better life."