In the last week, Hels and I have been with some of the 36,000 South Sudanese Refugees currently pouring over the border into Uganda. It’s been an eye-opening experience as we see first-hand the realities of life for these victims of war.
It all started when a friend of ours who works for the UN invited us up to Adjumani on the border of South Sudan Our drive north from Kampala towards South Sudan was along atrocious roads- it took us 10 hours to travel 448kms. Every few minutes we passed isolated communities made up of half a dozen round mud huts with straw roofs. Many of these villages were the sites of IDP camps from the days of Uganda’s civil war. The people living out there are very poor. The only connection with the outside world is the odd MTN (local mobile phone network) sign and an occasional rusty bodaboda (motorcycle). Red dust covers everything and it’s extremely hot. It is into this landscape the South Sudanese are fleeing.
South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation is now the setting for Africa’s latest war. The fighting is mostly between the two biggest tribal groups, the Dinka and Nuer who are each backing their political leaders. For a good article with a more in-depth explanation of the causes of the conflict go here.
The fighting started just before Christmas and since then, there have been about 10,000 killed, mostly civilians. Half a million more have been displaced. Of the displaced some have left the borders of South Sudan where they’re being intercepted by the Ugandan army and UNHCR workers. They are then put on trucks and sent to the registration centre outside the town of Adjumani. We were told that 36,000 people have arrived there since Dec 16th and hundreds more are arriving daily. We felt so privileged to see the entire process live in action before us- from when a refugee arrives, to being registered, to the transition centre and finally the camp where they will live. Helen did a number of interviews on radio about it and you can listen to one of them here.
On arrival we came across a mass of tents lining one side of the road and crowds of people sitting under trees. We climbed an incomplete two storey, brick building to get a view of the surrounding countryside and the people living there. A crowd of children followed us upstairs. From this elevation we could see hundreds more tents, close packed, stretching back from the road. We found out that these were the illegal refugees, people who had fled across the border but had not registered themselves with the UNHCR. They’re still provided with tents and some basic facilities but cannot be processed and moved on until they’ve registered. These asylum seekers were mostly sitting in any shade available. All the while we were there the crowd of children around us grew. For many of them we were the first white people they’d seen.
We left the registration centre for the
place the refugees are being settled ten kilometres down the road. Formed on the 3rd of January this is the newest refugee settlement in Uganda. To date 16,000 South Sudanese have been moved here. Once this settlement is full they’ll start another one. Each refugee family is given a plot of land (30ftx30ft) and some basic equipment such as gardening tools and plastic for roofing. Then they are left to start a new life, permanently if they want to. Again the quality of the land looked fairly terrible. The vegetation has been burned off. For now food is being supplied for these people too but the idea is that through time the quantity will diminish as the new community starts growing crops. While we were visiting some of the women were complaining that they didn’t know how to build a house and had no men to help them. There are very few men. We had it explained to us that many of the men accompanied their families to the Ugandan border before leaving them to go back and protect their houses or to fight. The vast majority of these refugees are women and children. Sadly, I don’t know how many of these families will be re-united.
A few things stood out to me as I processed all of this:
Firstly I was struck by the idea that the refugees have nothing to do, especially before they are settled. We saw them sitting in their tents or under trees, waiting. Some were playing cards, some were cooking food on charcoal fires but most were doing very little. I think boredom must be one of the hardest things for these people. Some will be waiting like this for some months, maybe longer. The heat is intense, the land scorched and the people uncertain for what the future holds.
We were very impressed by the work being done by the aid agencies up there and the UN. Refugees only started arriving a month ago and already many of them have been processed and moved to permanent refugee settlements. A massive number of tents have been brought in and set up. Food stations and water pumps are more or less keeping up with the demand- no small task. The general feeling was one of relative calm not desperation or chaos.
So what does all this mean for us and the organisation we work for? At present Tutapona has a team delivering the trauma rehabilitation program in the region around Gulu to those who were traumatised by Uganda’s civil war, but not yet to these new refugees. After a lot of prayer and careful consideration - Helen and I are moving up to live in Adjumani in one weeks’ time. We’ll be based there until the end of February and are tasked with working with the Office of the Prime Minister, the settlement commander and the UN to set up Tutapona and get our program off the ground. We can’t wait!