On being stuck in Bentiu: CARE humanitarians in South Sudan

Sandra Bulling
CARE nutrition officer Demelash Habtie centre with colleagues in the flooded CARE nutrition centre at Bentiu camp © CARE / Josh Estey

Sandra Bulling, CARE International Media and Communications Coordinator, describes the terrible conditions – and the huge challenges – that CARE humanitarians overcome every day

Last week, I was scared to be stuck. Not in traffic, not in the office  – but in Bentiu, a small town in South Sudan.

A town that has experienced drastic fighting and horrific massacres in the past six months, but where about 50,000 people are now living in a compound protected by UN peacekeepers.

Protected by peacekeepers: and yet that’s exactly where I feared to be trapped.

Raining all night

It was raining all night. And when the rain comes the air strip floods and transforms into a lane of red and sticky mud. The tiny white Cessna planes can’t land anymore.

When I opened the door of my sleeping container in the early morning hour rain still fell silently from the dark grey sky. It subdued all sounds. Besides the soft dripping from the container’s roof, I only heard the squeaky cries of a mongoose family rushing by. They were on the hunt for snakes, sniffing under the elevated container floors. Cobras, Black Mambas; the aid worker compound is shared by humans and serpents alike.

Everything was flooded

As the sun rose it gave way to a grim sight. Everything was flooded. The mud was shinbone-deep. No movement was possible without gum boots.

I brushed my teeth at the filthy toilet box, staring gloomily at the couple of brown bugs which found their death overnight in the drowned sink. I thought, I could not handle the terrible conditions any longer. The mud. The polluted latrines. The vultures sitting on top of the compound lamp-posts.

50,000 are trapped here

Then I looked around me and realised that there are about 50,000 people who do not have the luxury of leaving. Who came to the UN camp to seek safety. Who venture out only to search for firewood and food. (And then it’s mainly women who do that job because they ‘only’ get raped instead of being downright killed.)

Many people who sought shelter here lost family members, friends, colleagues in the fighting that started in December. They might be safe now from the conflict. But they are in stark danger of diseases, trauma, violence.

Risk of cholera

As we walked through the camp, faeces swam by my ankles. CARE has been operating two clinics in Bentiu, and diarrhoea is a major health issue even in the dry season. Other parts of South Sudan have already reported an outbreak of cholera. In Bentiu, we have been building a cholera treatment centre as a precaution. I worry that soon, precaution will transform into reality.

Our nutrition centre has been flooded. Malnourished children and their mothers did not get any support here today.

That’s how I got over my moment of self-pity. I stayed only two days. The displaced families have been here for months –  and no one knows right now how long they will be stuck in Bentiu.

My admiration and thanks

While I could finally leave on a helicopter ride, my colleagues stayed behind. I can’t even express my deep admiration for CARE and all other humanitarian staff who are out there every day. Who work against the rain and time to avoid the outbreak of diseases. Who feed malnourished children. Who vaccinate, bandage, consult and treat sick people. Who are there to make the terrible living conditions somewhat inhabitable. Thanks.

Sandra Bulling's picture

Sandra Bulling is Media and Communications Coordinator for CARE International