"In the 1990s this place was completely deserted, everyone fled from war. Our home became a battlefield," said David, a native of Bunj who returned in 2008 after living in exile in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Like David, most of the county's residents have only returned home recently after living in exile in present day Sudan and Ethiopia.
Furthermore, during this time of relative peace, people from Sudan travelled up to 100 kilometres to seek refuge in Maban. More than 130,000 refugees fled Blue Nile state in Sudan to Maban, South Sudan, between 2011 and 2012, before the advent of the current conflict in South Sudan. They have no choice but to call Maban home for as long as the Sudanese government's aggressive bombing campaign continues in Blue Nile.
According to Nuba Reports, "in the first half of 2014, 300 bombs were dropped on Blue Nile, many hitting civilians… This is more than double the number of bombs dropped over the previous six months... These attacks continue for hours and blanket the region."
The small town of Bunj transformed from a place from where thousands previously fled into a place of relative sanctuary, surrounded by chaos – a crossroads for refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons alike.
However, while Bunj remains safe, violence within other parts of Maban county is now displacing and affecting thousands. Last August, five humanitarian workers were killed and NGO staff evacuated from four camps in the county. From January to March of 2015, an estimated 10,000 of the 60,000 residents of Maban fled their homes to seek safety in another part of the county and now live in informal settlements which are, for the most part, largely unattended by humanitarian agencies.
"The situation in Maban is very fragile. People expect that an attack can happen at any time," said David.
Shared challenge of survival. In addition to fear of renewed violence, those residing in Maban struggle with basic survival. Securing food is particularly difficult as planting and harvesting seasons have been interrupted by fighting. Land for cattle grazing is under increasing demand.
"One of the greatest differences between our lives now and in Blue Nile is the loss of freedom. We used to be free to cultivate land, to move, but here we now have no right to movement, little access to education, no access to work," said Baluela, a refugee attending the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) teacher-training programme in Maban.
Government-run education and health care systems barely function. Non-governmental organisations try to fill this gap while community members make concerted efforts to rebuild their lives together.
Awad Worugu, an umda, or Islamic religious leader from Maban, is no stranger to refugee life. He returned home after living in exile for 17 years.
"As refugees, life was terrible. There was no work and we would have to go to the forest to collect firewood to survive, which is very dangerous," he remembers.
Most of the refugees from Maban returned home after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, but Awad remained in exile as a community leader until all the refugees returned.
"The host community wanted me to stay; they said without me, problems may arise between the communities, as I was able to bring everyone together. We had no problems with other tribes."
Awad brought the experience he gained as a community leader working with diverse communities in exile home to Maban. He focuses much of his energy as a religious leader on promoting tolerance within the community.
"Today in Maban many different ethnic groups work together, stay together, eat together and play together to develop our community. My own children visit Doro refugee camp…I welcome refugees in my home. We are one nation, the same people, so let us be together," he said.
For the children of tomorrow. JRS supports both the host and refugee communities to promote peaceful coexistence and address the needs of those receiving limited support from other agencies.
In the host community, JRS supports a nursery school which educates 95 children, where volunteer teachers from the local community teach in the mornings for a monthly stipend. JRS supports the local community in their efforts to construct classrooms for the nursery school and provides teacher training to 40 teachers who work in the few functional primary schools.
"In Maban, JRS educational and psychosocial activities serve both Christians and Muslims alike, without discrimination. When I visit the JRS nursery school or English or teacher training classes, and realise that both Christians and Muslims are seated side by side, learning together, I am filled with hope. A brighter future is possible.
"Maban was in the past heavily affected by conflict, framed as a religious war of an oppressive Muslim regime versus the Christian population. Today members of both groups are laying the foundation for a united future," said JRS Maban project director, Pau Vidal SJ.
Awad reiterated that education is the only way to lay this foundation of peace.
"The leaders of South Sudan are fighting for a throne. While they kill civilians and the poorest of the poor, they are dividing us. We as civilians don't want war, we just want education, but they don't care about our wants or see value in educating our people.
Let us come together as one nation. Whether you are a Christian, come to school; whether you are a Muslim, come to school. This is for the children of tomorrow," said Awad.
Had national leaders in Sudan and South Sudan emulated local leaders like Awad – leaders who prioritise education and promote unity among ethnic and religious communities – years of conflict could have been avoided.
Fortunately, civil society members throughout South Sudan are taking the initiative to ensure their children do not repeat the mistakes of their leaders.
Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer