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Battle-worn South Sudan copes with refugee health crisis

Last year, after years of fighting over oil-rich territory, South Sudan seceded from Sudan to become its own independent country. But even though the war has ended, the people of the new young country still do not have the infrastructure to support all its residents and the refugees escaping the continued violence and food shortages in Sudan.

“We have the world’s youngest nation and people are enthralled by it, but there are still issues to deal with,” said photographer John Stanmeyer.

Stanmeyer first visited Sudan in 1992 with his wife, a writer, in the middle of a civil war when the country was writhing from fighting and famine. He returned this August to South Sudan to document the current health crisis in the country at the Yida refugee camp, where more than 60,000 people seek protection, and followed workers for Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF, known in English as Doctors Without Borders.

Stanmeyer said people’s well-being had greatly improved. It was much safer to move around.

“People are happy, there are great opportunities, but in small steps because it’s new nation-building,” Stanmeyer said.

However, he said today’s problems - fighting and famine - are still staggeringly similar to those he saw 20 years ago.

The town of Yida, which borders Sudan, had a population of only 700 people before it became a hub for refugees, according to MSF head Philippe Le Vaillant. In April the population grew to 24,000, and because of fighting in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, more than doubled to 65,000 in May and June, Vaillant said.

“People came during rainy season in a place not ready to welcome such a rush: no shelter, not enough clear water, no latrines,” he said.

With no shelter from the rain, people were infected by pulmonary diseases. They defecated in the streets, and the rain spread the waste, causing people to suffer from diarrhea and other water-borne diseases, the main causes of death in the area. Seventy percent of the refugees are under 18.

In July, one of every five discharged from MSF’s hospital died,Vaillant said. MSF and other NGOs have worked to distribute food, clean drinking water and health care, and currently there are two casualties for every 100 visitors.

Rainy season has prevented ground fighting, but bombing has not ceased in the Nuba Mountains, Vaillant said.

“So as it is ending now, war events occur again and some may fear them to get growing,” Vaillant said.

Stanmeyer hopes that his images will bring awareness to the continuing crises in South Sudan. When he worked on contract for Time Magazine, his photos would be printed in the monthly edition and he would receive no feedback from the readers. With social media, however, Stanmeyer can see viewers’ reactions and conversations around his work.

He had poor Internet connection in Yida but still managed to post iPhone photos to his personal Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as National Geographic and MSF’s social media accounts. He recalls one image on National Geographic’s Instagram of a malnourished 7-year-old lying on a mat after visiting the MSF clinic that had more than 800 comments.

“I’m a photographer for one specific reason, and that’s communication,” Stanmeyer said.

Having worked as a photojournalist for more than 30 years, he said people tend to shift toward madness far more often than they move to peace. He shoots and shares in hopes of getting people to think.

“Forget the idea of changing the world individually,” he said. “We’ve got to work collectively.”

On November 2, the United Nations refugee program announced that it would be relocating the Yida refugee camp as soon as the conditions during the rainy season allow. Technical experts will be setting up new camps for the Yida refugees and others that are expected to arrive.

- Lauren Russell, CNN