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The Tattered Shoes of Sudan’s Refugee Crisis

By Sarah Lipkis

A photograph displays a pair of mismatched flip-flops, one white and blue, the other pink and floral. The shoes belong to Mam Odom Bar, an elderly woman who was forced to leave her village in Sudan in September 2012. Though Mam Odom Bar is not in the photograph, her shoes tell her story of hardship and admiration. After withnessing her village burn down and the murder of her family members, Mam Odom Bar made the twenty-day trip to the refugee camp in South Sudan – wearing these shoes. 

Mam Odom Bar was just one of the 30,000 recent refugees fleeing the Blue Nile province of Sudan in 2012. There, mass violence of Khartoum's military campaign to crush the Souther liberation movement raged on. What began as a struggle for independence in 2005 quickly grew violent and thousands of Sudanese people became caught in the crossfire. 

American photographer Shannon Jensen quickly realized she wanted to capture the strength and dignity of these refugees. Upon arriving in the region, Jensen was moved by the stories of refugees.

The mismatched flip-flops of Mam Odom Bar who walked for twenty days to safety in South Sudan. 

In an attempt to highlight the plight of these people, Jensen began work on her photography series, A Long Walk, photographing the tattered shoes worn by refugees making the journey to safety. According to the artist’s statement, “each pair provided a silent testimony to the arduous journey.” The photography series, which was featured in an Open Society Foundations documentary series, evokes a violent political conflict.

In 2005, the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLA) signed a peace agreement ending a twenty-two year civil war. The war began in 1983, when the government tried to impose Islamic law over the South, including the provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The South resisted the imposition of Islamic law and wanted to become an independent country.

Though the peace agreement did not disband the government’s or the SPLA’s respective armies, the agreement did create the path for a future referendum regarding the creation of an independent South Sudan. South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the site of current violence, have a large population that includes the Nuba tribe who feel more akin to the South than to the North. The two provinces, who fought on the side of the SPLA, were also promised the right to vote in the referendum and become part of South Sudan.   

These shoes belong to Musa Shep, a two-year-old boy, whose mother carried him from their village, Gabanit, to the refugee center in South Sudan. Their journey took 20 days. 

Six years later, in January 2011, South Sudan voted in favor of a national referendum to secede from Sudan. On July 9 of that year, South Sudan declared independence. However, South Kordofan and Blue Nile were not given the right to vote during the referendum, and are still part of Sudan.

With tensions already high, after the oil rich provinces where not allowed to vote in the referendum, violence resurfaced in the South Kordofan region after the SPLA candidate lost to war criminal Ahmed Haroun, who was propped up by the ruling NCP party in a fraudulent 2011 municipal elections. The violence then quickly spread to the Blue Nile province. 

These sneakers belong to Muhammed Hajana. Hajana left his village, Tiful, and walked for a daunting 30 days in order to reach the refugee camp in South Sudan.  

When Shannon Jensen arrived in the area in 2012, the Sudanese government was restricting access to aid organizations and media outlets in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Jensen found a means of covering the situation by focusing on the countless number of refugees arriving in South Sudan.

Accompanying the photographs, Jensen includes a brief description about the owners, including their name, the name of their village, how many days they walked to get to the refugee center, and a small personal history. For example, with an image of a man’s black sandals, Jensen tells the story of Bashir Rumudan, a community leader from Gabanit. After his town was attacked in April 2012, he walked for twenty days in order to reach South Sudan, carrying his grandchild and accompanied by other villagers. The majority of the photos contain such antecedents – either about the actual journey or what was left behind. 

After the village of Gabanit was attacked and burned, Bashir Rumudan, his family, and other village members walked for 20 days in order to reach the refugee center in South Sudan. 

The shoes represent a wide range of age groups, revealing the extent of who was affected by the conflict. Her stories include those of the seventy-year-old woman who made the journey alone; the sixteen year old girl who came with her family; even the two year old boy who, though he understands little about the situation, was brought by his mother to safety.

Jensen views all of these badly broken shoes – sneakers, flip-flops, sandals and others – as an opportunity to capture a critical moment in history. Instead of capturing a sense of grief and misfortune, she honors “the resilience, determination, and perseverance of the people arriving at the camps.” 

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Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[All images courtesy of © Shannon Jensen/Reportage by Getty Images, via Open Society Foundations]

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