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A South Sudanese woman stands beside her home after the recent floods in Maban (Pau VIdal SJ / Jesuit Refugee Service)
Maban, 30 October 2014 — As the World Food Programme (WFP) flight evacuated 240 humanitarian workers from four camps in Upper Nile State, South Sudan, Pau Vidal SJ remembers looking down at a crowd of refugees congregated on the airstrip. The evacuation came after violence erupted in Maban county in August, killing five humanitarian workers and an unknown number of civilians.

For the more than 127,000 refugees from Sudan living in four very large camps, a temporary absence of critical organisations, like the WFP, meant that many families went without essential needs, particularly food, but also without education, medical care and other important services.

Two and a half months later around 20 agencies, including the Jesuit Refugee Service, have resumed most of their activities in Maban and life seems to be getting back to normal; everything seems peaceful for now.

"Most children in the refugee camps are back at school, the market is busy, and NGOs have restarted their programmes. Life goes on," said Fr Vidal.

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Activities resume, despite adversity. For Fr Vidal, teachers are some of the people most dedicated to instilling a sense of normality in the camp, especially for primary school children.

On Monday, 27 October, JRS restarted the teacher-training programme for 150 refugees and locals working in four schools, three in the camps and one in Bunj town. The need for training is great, as an estimated 80 percent of teachers have not had the opportunity to finish primary school.

"This intensive course is aimed at building the capacity of those who can have the biggest impact in the society: teachers."

In addition to education, sports and psychosocial activities are also underway to help people cope with the trauma of displacement and bring together groups of people from across ethnic boundaries.

This year's rainy season was longer than expected, and consequent flooding has caused displacement and damage to arable land and infrastructure, particularly in areas surrounding Bunj town.

"I just met with a local from Maban who had been a refugee himself in Ethiopia. He came back three years ago, but this is the second time since 2012 that his house has been completely flooded, causing him and his family to seek refuge with friends and relatives. The sight of a flooded Bunj town and families hurriedly building temporary shelters is hard to digest."

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Appreciation for small joys. Despite the flooding, JRS team members are continuing to regularly visit 200 refugees in their homes in Doro camp who are in particularly vulnerable situations, such as single mothers, widows or widowers, orphans, persons with disabilities, elderly or sexual violence survivors.

"Each visit is sacred; we enter into somebody else's life and witness his or her daily struggle to survive in very precarious conditions, but still their efforts to celebrate life in the midst of exile are inspiring.

Three weeks ago I met Mary*. Deaf and mute, the 20-year-old mother of four is also responsible for her two younger brothers on her own. She regularly collects firewood in the bush to make ends meet, a place where women are often attacked and sexually abused. Despite the challenges, she perseveres and greets me with a smile."

Refugees like Mary appreciate the joys in life. At the beginning of October, JRS staff were invited to a celebration marking the peak of the modest harvest season, with music, dancing and, most importantly, a communal meal.

The elders of the community have reminded younger generations that once they have shared a meal with somebody they can no longer turn against that person.

During the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha, guests share from one big platter – eating kisera and hudrush, sponge like bread and slippery greens, with their hands – symbolising strong bonds shared around one plate.

An uncertain horizon. Despite hopes that this period of peace will become the norm for the Sudanese refugees and local communities who have already suffered so much, instability caused by 10 months of conflict and the ongoing presence of armed groups signals precarious days ahead.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), approximately 1.4 million South Sudanese have been internally displaced and a further half a million have sought asylum in nearby countries. Four million people are in need of emergency aid and 235,000 children suffer from malnutrition across the nation. The situation is particularly precarious in Upper Nile state, where violence disrupted the most recent planting season meaning the next harvest will be meagre at best.

"Armed groups in the country have used the starvation of civilians as a conflict strategy for decades, as far back as the 1990s. Widespread attacks on civilians, theft of property and aid, have created conditions for mass starvation… Coupled with a meagre supply of seeds and difficulty in accessing land, food insecurity is likely to become an even bigger threat," said JRS Eastern Africa Advocacy Officer, Beatrice Gikonyo.

After three failed peace agreements in recent months, eastern African leaders continue pushing for a sustainable peace agreement. Those who will suffer most are both the civilians and refugees caught up in the senseless violence. Unless a compromise by armed gimroup and political leaders is reached, innocent civilians and refugees will continue to lead a precarious life.

"People live from day to day; they celebrate while they can, knowing violence, floods and famine may be just around the corner. People invest the little hope and energy they have left into living each day, embracing their joys and sorrows," said Fr Vidal.

*Name has been changed for reasons of security

Angela Wells, JRS East Africa Communications Officer