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AMADI, South Sudan, February 26 (UNHCR) - Would you want to live in a village where dead bodies contaminated the only source of water? That was the predicament that confronted residents of Amadi village when they tried to return home during a lull in the violence that has wracked South Sudan for the last three months.
"When our husbands and the village youth went to check the village some time after the shooting had stopped, they came across the bodies of soldiers and civilians strewn across our cassava fields and in the streams from which we drew our water," recalls Hawa Ladu,* a mother of six.
The tiny village lies 25 kilometres from the South Sudanese capital, Juba, and - luckily for the inhabitants - only three kilometres from Gorom Refugee Settlement, home to 2,500 Ethiopian refugees. It was to prove a safe haven when Amadi village got caught up in the violence that erupted in the country last December.
As Hawa recounts it, for a while the villagers tolerated looting of their food by opposition forces, who stole even "the stew in our pots." Sometimes the soldiers brazenly ordered villagers to carry the looted food to their makeshift camps.
But when warfare engulfed the village in mid-January, it was time to run. "Bullets whizzed through the air and some landed in our walls as soldiers advanced on Amadi," says Hawa. She, her husband, their children and their neighbours fled to nearby Gorom Refugee Settlement.
They regarded Gorom as the safest place to seek refuge "because it is where UNHCR is," she says. More than 730 women and children from the village moved into the settlement's primary school. "When we fled to the settlement, the refugees were generally very supportive and accommodating because they knew what was happening," says Hawa.
Becky Ben Ondoa, UNHCR's community services associate says that even though "Amadi village had become a 'no-go' area, we knew that the school would have to be vacated for the start of the new school year." Once the fighting ended in Amadi, the villagers were told it was safe for them to return home.
But how could they go back when there was no clean water in their village? A UNHCR monitoring mission confirmed what the villagers had already discovered - decomposing human remains were polluting the only source of water.
"It was imperative that we act quickly," says Ondoa. "To encourage the Amadi community to return to their village, alternative water points for the local community had to be found as a matter of priority."
A UNHCR partner, ACROSS, located a water drilling company and in two weeks the village had two functioning boreholes - ready to meet the needs in Amadi. The men came first to check on the safety, then their families followed.
"I cannot tell you how grateful we are for the boreholes UNHCR has provided us - and embarrassed that we continue asking for more assistance," says Hawa. "However, under the circumstances, we have no choice," since their farming implements had been looted along with their food and grain.
The villagers are busy harvesting the last cassava tubers still in the ground - a modest provision to see them through the long seasonal rains.
"Life as we know it has changed for the worse," sighs Hawa. "Even our husbands have become like women - helpless and fearful - as we all wait for the situation in our country to resolve itself. As to how long that will be, only God and this country's decision-makers know."
*Name changed for protection reasons.
By Pumla Rulashe in Amadi, South Sudan.