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A long walk to safety

12 February 20140 comments
Photographer: Shannon Jensen

Photographer: Shannon Jensen

A series of extraordinary pictures of the shoes worn by some of the one million people fleeing the recent conflict in South Sudan have captured the essence of the refugee crisis and painted a poignant picture of what is a major human tragedy.

Taken by freelance photographer Shannon Jensen, the images show the footwear used by dozens of displaced men, women and children as they trekked to safety for up to six weeks carrying food and water across a parched landscape.

After her standard documentary-photojournalism style pictures were rejected by magazines and newspapers, Shannon decided to try a different tack. She went through her photos again, looking for ways to make them more effective, and she noticed the shoes. About half the refugees had nothing on their feet, but the shoes tell a remarkable visual story.

“I noticed there was a huge diversity of shapes and colors, many of them showed a huge amount of wear, that paid testament to the arduousness of their journey, the trek they had made. Many of them had these small repairs, stitches, pieces of melted plastic, that paid testament to the determination, the persistence, necessary to get through, to get to safety,” Shannon said.

“People understood intuitively what I was doing, and of the hundreds of people I asked, only one or two of them actually declined to have their shoes photographed. They clearly understood, the shoes were a testament of their journey and what they’d been through,” she said.

Shannon’s pictures were published by Newsweek magazine – in a feature entitled “A Long Walk.” Now, they’re part of an ongoing exhibition in New York.

As many as one million people have been displaced in the recent fighting in South Sudan and international organisations urgently require funding to meet the needs of those who have fled their homes, said a senior U.N. official.

In January, less than three weeks after launching an initial $US360 million appeal, the U.N. asked for additional funding of $US99 million for humanitarian crises in South Sudan and Central African Republic. $59 million of the new funding is intended for South Sudan.

“The crucial thing here is funding. These are people who fled with nothing and are living in a very difficult situation,” a UN spokesman said. “We can do our work if we’re adequately supplied with resources, but the resource needs are huge.”

Fighting between South Sudan’s army and rebels led by former Vice President Riek Machar, which erupted in mid-December brought the world’s newest nation to the brink of civil war and triggered mass displacement. The two sides signed a ceasefire on January 23 but sporadic clashes have continued.

“Even though the shootings have largely stopped you have people who don’t feel secure to go back to their homes,” the spokesman said. “We work on protection issues, in particular structures for monitoring issues like sexual and gender-based violence. There are special protection needs of children. We are worried about child soldier recruitment,” he said.

Around 80,000 displaced people have sought refuge at UN bases. Thousands of people have been killed in the worst violence since South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011.

At least 3.2 million people in the country – more than a quarter of the population – face food shortages and aid agencies say insecurity is hampering their operations.