Bunj: Arguably, the Worst Place in the World Right Now

Here’s a grim parlour game: explain why place X is, excluding North Korean prison camps (which would otherwise “win” every time), the Worst Place in the World Right Now.

I nominate Bunj, in Maban County of South Sudan’s notoriously screwed up Upper Nile State. The miniscule village is really nothing more than a clump of maybe three dozen huts – here’s how it looks from the air:

from the air
Old Bunj. The village is of course dwarfed by the nearby UNHCR Refugee Camps.

Yet Bunj is the epicenter of such an unlikely accumulation of calamities right now it’s hard to think what else could go wrong.

In late 2011, the first of two waves of refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile State started arriving there en masse seeking refuge from a brutal air bombing campaign by the notoriously sociopathic Al-Bashir regime in Khartoum. The humanitarian response to the refugee crisis was always going to be chaotic because Bunj is in a logistics blackspot: it’s not just that there are no proper roads, and certainly no airports, it’s that there’s no river access either. You basically can’t get there from here.

So UNHCR had to scramble to set up camps for tens of thousands of refugees it hadn’t been expecting in a place nobody could get to. A supernatural feat of bureaucratic efficiency would’ve been needed for the response to be minimally adequate, but supernatural feats of bureaucratic efficiency were not forthcoming.

Instead, MSF has carefully documented a series of cockups in the 2011-2012 refugee crisis response. The result was refugee camps sited in places where the was nowhere near enough safe drinking water, nor any reasonable way to bring it. The mortality rate seemed to spike among refugees after they reached the camp, pointing to appalling sanitary conditions. And then, just as the humanitarian situation was starting to stabilize, South Sudan’s own civil war broke out.

So now you have 125,000 Sudanese refugees who left their own communities to escape war trying to survive in a series of refugee camps in another country that’s now also at war, and alternates between dust-bowl conditions and knee-deep mud on a six-monthly rotation.

Oh and did I mention it’s 43 degrees celsius?

The second half of 2014 is not turning out to be kind on Maban County. The rebel forces that the international media insist on saying are “led by former-Vice President Riek Machar” are increasingly evidently fragmented, with nobody really in command. In very isolated places like Bunj guys with guns roam around under loyalties that are hard even for the locals to discern.

Two days ago, one of these groups struck. Calling themselves the “Mabanese Defense Force”, they murdered six humanitarian aid workers hired locally purely because they were Nuers. In effect, the Mabanese Defense Force is now a roving death-squad picking off ethnic Nuers, even if they work for the agencies. And the agencies have freaked out in response, evacuating expat staff en masse, with 220 relief workers now on their way out.

Except this happens right as an outright famine is on the verge of being declared in Upper Nile State, where there’s been so much violence that neither the locals nor the refugees have had much chance to plant anything and the harvest this year is likely to come to very little indeed.

Don’t forget, 125,000 Sudanese refugees are stuck in the middle of all of this: with no roads, no river access, no food, no aid workers, no medical care, no blue helmets, no means of protecting themselves and any number of fly-by-night militias roaming the countryside.

That’s Bunj, folks. Quite possibly: the worst place in the world right now.


5 thoughts on “Bunj: Arguably, the Worst Place in the World Right Now”

  1. My husband and I live and work in Doro right outside of Bunj. We happen to love being there and the work we are involved in. The refugees had not much choice of where to flee so the UN did the most humanitarian thing of setting up camps for them. Your words are callous and filled with sarcasm. I’d like to know if you have even been there or to South Sudan at all. The world’s worst place can be many different places where any kind of hatred and unfounded violence is taking place. How about Mosul (i lived in Iraq 3 years so I ca mention this), how about Libya, Syria, North Korea……? There are many ugly places in the world and your article just made it uglier. We should be vessels of love and grace and I don’t hear much of that in your blog.

    1. Hi Cathy,

      Sorry we had a bit of a stylistic impasse there. Words of love and grace are admittedly not really my strong suit. But I hope you do get that I’m writing to bring attention to a bit of the world most Westerners just never hear about, and using a bit of gallows humour in the process.

      Still, I admire you to bits for sticking it out. I haven’t had the pleasure to visit Maban yet, our project is in Torit, but it seems like a rough old place. How are the camps doing after the evacuation of the aid workers? It seems like conditions are about to get pretty extreme – even more so – now.

  2. Thank you for your response, Francisco. We have been to the camps a lot and, yes, the conditions aren’t the best, but the UN and NGOs are doing their best to care for these amazing and resilient people with what they have to work with. It isn’t the easiest place to live and work, but please be careful in what you write especially in light of the fact that you haven’t even been there. We invite you to come and visit and then write something a little more positive on your blog.

    I have lived in Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chad, and many other places which are also some of the most dire and difficult places, yet I try my best to look for the beauty that resides in the people that God has sent me to serve. My husband and I have served in Sudan (Jongelei, Upper Nile, and Khartoum) since 2006 and wouldn’t want to go anywhere else at the moment. There are some absolutely amazing people (North and South) that inhabit this part of the world.

  3. I too have just left Maban after working there for 4 months with the refugees and was surprised by your article. Firstly, both of you photographs do not represent the situation there. A lot of work has been done to the airstrip there and it is one of the best in South Sudan- landable in rainy season, even with large cargo planes. Bunj town is a vibrant shopping market which refugees, locals and neighboring Ethiopians have developed with great ingenuity. Its true that locals live in very basic mud huts without power and refugees live in tent cities with limited sanitation. There are so many NGOs plus the UN that have come to provide people with assistance to help them recover from the trauma of leaving their homes and life is not easy- that is sure. But there is a lot of humanity in the camps there and the people are resilient despite all of the hardship they have been dealt. The locals too deserve recognition for their welcoming of the refugees and the difficulties they face with this all happening on their doorstep. They work alongside each other for the most part, despite some inequities that would not be tolerated by most humans. Im not sure who is behind the latest ethnic based killings in Maban, but it is a symptom of a very sick nation that is used to war and divisions. I certainly would rather be in Maban at the moment, than Gaza, Iraq or any number of other places. While it is a very challenging place, and I appreciate your eforts to highlight the plight of the people there- who do need ongoing help, it is most certainly not the worst place in the world right now. Salaam.

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