After the heavy rains the night before, she stood carrying a baby wrapped in a pink shawl in her arms. She stood silently, surrounded by the bustle of her neighbours cleaning up. Camera in hand, I waded over to her, a trudging walk in thigh-high sludgy water.
“I’ve been standing holding my baby all night”, she told me, I had nowhere to put my baby down due the height of the flood waters”.
As I made my way back to the main waterway, a man carrying a 100kg sack of grain on his back sank into the sucking clay mud. He struggled upright, never once letting go of the grain, assisted to his feet by another man.
A tussle broke, younger boy’s wheelbarrow drew blood from an older boy’s ankle. Tempers frayed, too little sleep in the site, weary people starting to rebuild again in the aftermath of the storm’s lashing.
Maybe it was just another day in hell for the people seeking protection in Bentiu? They came to live in this swamp in the terrifying days after 15 December 2013 when political unease turned violent in Juba and spread quickly throughout the ten states of South Sudan.
When the people of Bentiu ran to the gates of the United Nations compound and the gates were opened, no one could have imagined how unwelcoming this marshy land could be. But forced to choose between nearly certain violent death or life behind the protective barbed wire, many chose to try and survive. Some days are worse than others, even here.
A section of the Protection of Civilians site that was only very muddy the day before, was now knee-high in water. Dirty, unhygienic water just a touch better than sewage came with the rainy season.
All around, I saw people refashioning mud dam walls against the waters, scooping water to the other side with, at best, a bucket, and at worst, a soup sized dinner plate. Children and adults working together, each household rebuilding a place of safety, at least until the next rains of the season came.
One of the women’s associations in Bentiu site spoke of more difficult choices the women had to make: risk rape and death outside the camp to fetch firewood; or watch their children starve as they had no way of cooking the food their rations card allowed them.
Two days after leaving Bentiu, a UN helicopter crashed, presumably shot down. My heart sank. How long it would be until the life-saving helicopter flights were functioning again? The people at the site are dependent on supplies flown in from the outside.
Towards the end of that day in the site, I went back to find the mother carrying the baby in the pink shawl. She had left to look for drier land to build her shelter. I knew her chances weren’t good. The luscious looking green grass outside of the UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) compound was actually wet with water up to chest level, at times. More swampland.
People live here because they fear what life outside the site would bring them, even if it means standing up through the night.
Christine Nesbitt is UNICEF’s Senior Photography Editor. She was in Bentiu, South Sudan, from 20-24 August 2014.
To see more images from UNICEF visit UNICEF Photography.