Mud, Sticks and Stones:
Rebuilding Sustainable,
Resilient Shelters for the Displaced in South Sudan

A returnee to Kolom, Abyei, South Sudan measures out the structure of a resilient tukul. Photo: Ashley Mclaughlin/IOM 2018

Life for many people in Abyei, South Sudan, is one of displacement and return. This is something the people of Kolom know all too well.

The population of Kolom, today about 330 people, has witnessed years of violence. Abyei remains disputed between Sudan and South Sudan without political resolution since 2005.

In a 2011 attack by the Sudanese Armed Forces, 110,000 Ngok Dinka — the ethnic group inhabiting Kolom and most of Abyei — fled south toward South Sudan. The entire Kolom community fled, leaving everything behind.

Most of Kolom was looted or destroyed in the aftermath of the 2011 attack. Photo: Ashley Mclaughlin/IOM 2018

Since 2015, the Ngok Dinka community slowly began returning to Kolom, with the majority returning in 2017. The opening of dialogue with the Misserya community, often facilitated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and in the presence of UN peacekeeping patrols, through the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), increased the community’s confidence in the security situation.

“I used to have four tukuls for my family. When we had to run, all were destroyed behind us,” recounted Santino, a 40-year-old father of six.
Santino (right) speaks to IOM staff about his experiences in Abyei. Photo: Ashley Mclaughlin/IOM 2018

Wary of security, women and men do not walk far into the woods to find building materials. With a lack of basic supplies and a fear of investing too much into their shelters, should they be forced to run again, this community, like many returnee communities in Abyei, had been living life on hold.

There was once a primary school here, but it was looted and destroyed. With livelihoods lost and difficult to regain, there is little to no money available to rebuild, let alone seek medical care, food or other basic needs.

Theresa, a mother of seven in her fifties, lived her entire life in Kolom until the fighting began in 2011. She returned in 2015 to find little left.

Theresa’s grass shelter, which her family built when she returned to Kolom. Photo: Ashley McLaughlin/IOM 2018
“Four people sleep in the rukuba,” she said, pointing to a teetering shelter made of bamboo, grass and covered with sticks and grass.
“If it rains, we do not sleep,” she said, as water leaks through the roof into the home.
Theresa walks past her her new resilient shelter while it is under construction. Photo: Ashley McLaughlin/IOM 2018

The community also experiences seasonal conflict with Misseriya pastoralists, who pass through Abyei from the north throughout the dry season in search of water for their animals. This leads to periodic conflicts over scarce resources.

During the dry season women typically collect elephant grass from the bush and men wooden poles from the forest. But, three years after returning, the community of Kolom still struggles to access food and basic services, diverting the time and energy necessary to collect construction materials and build tukuls. On the heels of several successful community shelter projects in South Sudan, IOM piloted a cash-based shelter construction project in Kolom to help the community rebuild.

Returnees to Kolom work on a shelter with guidance from IOM. Photo: Ashley McLaughlin/IOM 2018

Focused on the use of local materials and community involvement, the project’s main objective was to provide safe shelter and enhance resilience for returnees by reinforcing traditional construction systems.

From February through March of 2018, the entire Kolom community benefited from the construction of 113 tukuls, based on traditional models with modifications designed to enhance the longevity and safety of the shelters.

A woman uses a traditional method to reinforce the walls of her shelter. Photo: Eva Samalea/IOM 2018

The project, funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), also afforded the community with new economic opportunities. Approximately half the population received cash-for-work grants and 10 local suppliers provided construction supplies.

IOM led the project, designing homes while keeping the Kolom community’s specific needs and building traditions in mind. Everyone in the community took ownership by actively participating in the construction of all 113 shelters. Community engagement was crucial to the project’s success and the sustainability of the shelters. The IOM team provided continual advice and mentorship throughout the construction of the tukuls.

A member of the project team holds a design and instruction infosheet for Kolom’s resilient shelters. Photo: Ashley Mclaughlin/IOM 2018

An IOM team of shelter experts and an architect worked alongside the community to ensure the project was complete before the onset of the rains. A team of three experts, comprised of an international architect, national engineer and national operations assistant, were deployed to Kolom. During the last month of the project, a humanitarian “cash” initiatives expert also joined the team.

Additionally, IOM trained the people of Kolom to build their own new resilient shelters and carried out market assessments, making agreements with local traders to ensure the community had appropriate building materials.

IOM South Sudan is also supporting the community with transition and recovery activities, such as peacebuilding.

This shelter project was the first pilot of a durable solution and resilience intervention for returnees to Kolom. An IOM community-led settlement project in Wau will build on the lessons learnt from Kolom and will provide support to 5,000 returning internally displaced people.

Women thatch the roof of their community’s new tukul. Photo: Eva Samalea/IOM 2018

As the South Sudan peace process continues to advance and displaced communities feel safe enough to return to their areas of origin, IOM plans to replicate the same model in other areas throughout 2019 to ensure more people can return to a dignified and safe home.


This piece was written by Ashley McLaughlin with inputs from Olivia Headon, Media and Communications Officer in South Sudan.