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:
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.