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This town in South Sudan has no name. It was never supposed to exist. Now 21,000 people live there

It is a throbbing, jostling town with no name. Wander down the dirt street, and you’ll see a hubbub of boys playing ball, women selling small bags of sugar or charcoal, children selling plastic bottles of milk and cooks dropping dough balls into hot oil.

There are dogs on every corner, and hardware shops selling shiny pots and electrical cords. There are hookah shops, tailors, bakers. And then there’s John Gai’s shop. He expanded his business last year and recently added a new awning of grass matting.

“It’s taken three years to get my shop to this stage,” Gai says. “It started small, small, and I built it up.” Out front, rows of dried fish, crawling with flies, are stacked on a table. Disks of flatbread are piled in plastic bags. He sells tea, pasta, flour, milk. He even has a fridge.

As with refugee camps the world over, the place exudes the uneasiness of dispossessed people living in limbo. But the camp also is a reminder that the displaced find a way to carry on — they buy, they sell, they make a living. Even here, the entrepreneurial spirit survives.

Whenever Gai saves enough, he expands and makes his place bigger, better, so it feels more permanent.

But it is not supposed to be permanent. It was never supposed to be, at all.

It is a displaced persons camp in the South Sudanese capital of Juba that sprang up when ethnic fighting in the world’s newest nation broke out in December 2013. It’s known as U.N. House Compound or PoC 2 and PoC 3 in U.N. bureaucratese. 

It is home to 21,000 people, and the buzzing commerce, schools and community workshops send out tendrils of hope. The place exudes heroic persistence. In a shed, women sing and take part in a workshop, before applauding each other and breaking into laughter. 

But there’s no escaping the adversity that threatens the optimism: A fence guards the perimeter, no-one feels safe enough to leave, and war threatens to return. After South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan, two rival leaders competed for power and the young country spiraled into civil war. 

The people here, mainly people of the Nuer ethnic group, fear a repeat of 2013 attacks by government soldiers aligned with a different ethnic group, the Dinka. The attacks rapidly spread to other parts of the country, with both sides responsible for ethnic attacks and abuses, according to human rights groups. 

Fear took hold once more in July, when heavy fighting erupted just outside the camp for five days and bullets flew, killing at least 13 camp residents and injuring dozens.

Amid concerns that South Sudan may be sliding back into war, the camp is unlikely to be dismantled any time soon. There are now 200,000 people in displaced persons’ camps across the country. 

When the first of two sprawling camps sprang up in 2013, narrow walkways quickly turned to black, oily canals when it rained. The battered suitcases people carried as they fled were piled in the corners of small plastic tents. Chiefs sat on chairs under a tent on one side of the camp, meeting and talking. Tent clinics were erected. Digging equipment clawed the earth, building latrines and showers.

Almost from day one, shops opened, selling anything that a frightened family who left nearly everything behind would need.

Zalanam Shamalo, 20, an Ethiopian, was living in northern South Sudan when fighting broke out. She and her husband now run a tea shop here. 

She boils water in a huge kettle over charcoal. She dumps a few generous spoons of sugar into a small glass, trickles in some strong tea, then sloshes in boiling water. Sometimes it’s so hot, the glass breaks. Her husband, Doeleso, 28, ran a big sugar business in the northern town of Malakal, but looters destroyed it. He’d saved more than $30,000, all of it gone.

“I came here so that the U.N. can take care of me,” he says. “I came to start a new life.”

Down the muddy street, Chuol Mut, 35, has a phone-charging business, consisting of little more than a wooden board with rows of power sockets, wires and chargers, and a couple of huge speakers blaring music. He lost everything when he fled the town of Bor with his brothers more than three years ago: his large grocery shop, destroyed; the big generator he had scrimped to buy, gone; his sister Nyeri and older brother, Bub, both killed.

"Those who came to kill randomly took everything,” he recalls. “The shop is completely destroyed. They came and destroyed all 123 shops."

Mut arrived at the camp penniless, but managed to get a few days’ work with the U.N. and earned enough to set up his charging business. People pay just a few cents to charge their phones off a car battery, but the money adds up, enough to feed his family. 

“If I get enough money, I’ll start another business. I will expand this business or do something similar with electronics. But I have no money,” 

Sometimes Mut thinks about all the things he lost. He wonders if his house is still standing, or if someone has taken it over. “I think about it, but this is what is happening in the world,” he says.

Across the way is Gai, who wears a coat with a hole in the lapel. He abandoned his market stall of 23 years at Juba’s bustling central Konyo Konyo market in the 2013 fighting and found safety at the U.N. camp, where he set up a small stall. 

When it’s calm, Gai leaves the camp for Konyo Konyo market to buy stock, but when the situation is tense, he calls a motorized rickshaw to bring stock to the gates of the camp.

“It’s all right doing business inside here because I feel more secure,” he said. “I sleep well at night.” But there are not as many customers here as at Konyo Konyo. “Less than half,” he says. 

Occasionally he allows himself to think about the future. He’d like to go back to the market and start a bigger shop. He dreams of one day starting up a factory.

His best days are those when he feels safe enough to leave the camp and hurry to Konyo Konyo market in a motorized rickshaw, to plunge into the noisy chaos, bargain and haggle and buy his stock.

“I like bargaining, especially in Arabic,” he says. “What I love about bargaining is that you sit down and you convince one of the traders to give a good price. When I get a good price, I’m very happy. He’s not taken much of my money, but we agreed the price.

“It’s my sweat. It’s my own work. It’s my own business.”

Across South Sudan hand-painted signs beckon customers to shops and cafes. Not here. Shamalo’s tea shop and Mut’s phone-charging business are identified just by the aroma of tea and a tangle of wires.

In the town with no name, the awning of Gai’s shop bears no name either.

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