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South Sudan refugees stranded between floods, ethnic fight

GAMBELLA, Ethiopia — Given a choice between braving floods in her refugee camp in Ethiopia or returning home to war in South Sudan, Martha Nyakuk prefers the deluge of water.

Nyakuk, 70, came from the city of Malakal in February after Africa’s newest nation plunged into civil war, ignited by a rivalry between President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer. Two of her children survived the violence, while her husband died and a daughter and two sons are missing.

“Floods are better than war,” she said in an interview at the camp in Leitchuor, about 30 miles from the South Sudan border, which Medecins Sans Frontieres described in September as a “lake dotted with islands.”

Nyakuk’s dress was drenched from walking through water, balancing on her head a rusty pot she uses to brew alcohol to sell to her fellow refugees and local Ethiopians. “It’s better to live in a flood than go back to South Sudan,” she said.

Nyakuk is hoping international aid agencies can find her a drier place to sit out the war. Almost 200,000 mainly ethnic Nuer have fled three northeastern states in South Sudan to the Gambella region in Ethiopia, where they’re given shelter, food, water and medical treatment by Ethiopia’s government, the United Nations and charities.

In Leitchuor, women wade through waist-high water carrying firewood, while children splash around outside the gates of an inundated Danish Refugee Council compound.

About 80 percent of the facilities in the camp such as huts, road, toilets, grinding mills and wells have been ruined, said Matthew Binyiri, the U.N. Refugee Agency’s field officer at the site. After the road flooded, the area is only accessible by a U.N.-run helicopter or cargo boats from Gambella that chug along an overflowing Baro River.

Despite concern about possible epidemics of malaria, flu and diarrhea, “surprisingly, the health situation of the refugees hasn’t deteriorated as much as you’d expect” around Leitchuor, said Brice Garnier, the deputy head of mission for MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, in Ethiopia.

About 1.4 million people have fled their homes inside South Sudan, more than 10 percent of the population, according to the U.N., while 469,000 more have gone to Ethiopia and other neighboring countries including Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.

Almost 100,000 refugees who arrived in the first half of this year live in the Tierkedi and Kule refugee camps, about 30 miles from the border town of Pagak. The area is largely dry, the refugees have access to water, toilets and schools and live in evenly spaced huts with walls of bamboo and mud and roofs made from U.N. Refugee Agency tarpaulins or grass.

Those in flooded Leitchuor and new arrivals face a more uncertain future.

Refugee arrivals have slowed from thousands a day to a trickle in the past two months as relocations to camps stopped and rains restricted movement of people and fighters, said Henok Jafar, a medical worker from the South Sudanese side of Pagak. Inside Ethiopia, there are 18,500 refugees waiting to be placed in camps, according to the U.N.

Many of the Nuer are frightened about Ethiopian government plans to send them to a camp near Dima. The camp houses the Dinka, a rival ethnic group.