KODOK, South Sudan — “I’m living in darkness,” says Abuk Aban. Rustling through her belongings lying in a pile of dirt under a tree, the 35-year-old retrieves a small, beat-up cell phone from her black knapsack.
“They’re blocking our communication,” she says, pointing to the “no service” message on the screen. “I have no idea if my mother’s dead or alive.”
Since South Sudan’s bitter civil war broke out in 2013 between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition troops faithful to former Vice-President Riek Machar, the country has descended into a mixture of constant chaos and tragedy. Both sides have been accused of committing war crimes and grave human rights violations, including systematic rape, looting, and the use of child soldiers.
Mass displacement and the forced separation of families has been one of the more consequential effects of the conflict. Since the war began, an estimated 1.8 million people have become refugees in neighboring countries, with another 1.9 million internally displaced.
Every time fighting breaks out, families are forced to scatter and separate in search of safety. Often they never see one another again as communication can be challenging, especially when phone lines are purposefully blocked by the warring parties.
Aban is worried. Since fleeing her hometown of Wau Shilluk, she hasn’t had any contact with her mother or sister — who lives in another town — and has no idea if they’re OK.
“I used to speak to my sister every day,” says Aban. “Now I’m not allowed to.”
In January, when South Sudan’s government forces attacked Wau Shilluk, she and her seven children narrowly escaped with their lives. With bullets flying around them, the family grabbed what little they could carry and fled. They walked for seven days, through the bush, navigating potholed dirt roads in 140-degree heat, before arriving at the tiny village of Aburoc — a rebel-held, desolate, desert town, and the last frontier before crossing into Sudan.
More than three months later the single mother remains homeless, living under a tree with her children and the few belongings they were able to take with them. She’s among some 15,000 people who also escaped the recent clashes and went to Aburoc. On Tuesday, April 25, fighting broke out between government and opposition forces around Kodok. Thousands more are expected to flee to Aburoc in the coming days, exacerbating the village’s already dire humanitarian situation.
Crouched in a sliver of shade, Aban surveys her neighbors — some have “tree houses” of their own, but others aren’t so lucky, forced to set up their belongings on the cracked earth with no respite from the sweltering sun.
Situated in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, Aburoc lies just 18 miles from the civil war’s front lines. As government soldiers encroach on the rebel-held territory, the opposition has turned to increasingly defensive measures. In a strategic move, they cut off the region’s phones lines at the end of January.
“We blocked the phones because of spies,” says Johnson Oman Yor, the opposition’s acting governor for Fashoda state. “People are often recruited to work for the government through the phones as spies.”
Due to South Sudan’s shoddy infrastructure, and the high price of fuel needed to run the generators that power the cell towers, it’s not uncommon for areas across the country to have little to no phone service. However, it usually comes and goes.
“This period it’s been off far longer than in the past,” says a source working in the area. “The opposition government has deliberately shut it off.”
This lack of access is preventing thousands of people from connecting with their families.
“I feel locked in,” says Barnaba Tipo, a resident of a nearby town. “I’d feel a lot calmer if I could speak to my wife and children and be informed,” he said.
For people like Aban, who have been recently estranged from their relatives, this second separation is making an already painful situation worse.
“I heard about it when I got here,” says Aban. “The situation is really bad and we need help.”
The opposition government says they have more pressing things to handle.
U.N. officials continue to warn that South Sudan is at risk of genocide. More than 50,000 people have been killed in the three-and-a half-year war. Renewed fighting this month in the town of Wau reported the deliberate killing of at least 16 civilians by government soldiers based on their ethnicity. But the government has denied such reports. As both sides squabble over who’s responsible, those suffering the most are the local populations caught in the crossfire.
”The phone network isn’t a priority for us,” says Yor, the acting governor of Aburoc. “The real issue is that there’s a genocide being committed by the government, and the world is silent.”
But access to a working cell phone has taken on new meaning when forced separation is so common and can be the difference between knowing if your family members are dead or alive.
As part of an initiative to help families communicate, the International Committee of the Red Cross offers “Thuraya phone days,” where individuals from surrounding areas can use the organization’s satellite phone to make three-minute calls to their relatives.
“There’s a huge demand,” says Katie Weir, an ICRC field delegate. “We go through hundreds of calls a day.”
But these events only take place every few weeks, with only a few phones servicing thousands of individuals desperate to connect. The lines are so long that people often tire of waiting and give up.
Aban says she plans to try to speak with her sister the next time ICRC makes its satellite phones available. She wants her to check in on their ailing mother.
“No one is there to give her food,” says Aban. “She can’t take care of herself,” she pauses before continuing. “My mother’s most likely dead.”
Sam Mednick is a freelance journalist currently based in South Sudan.