Sunday, April 6, 2014

A day at the office

Last week I travelled north from Kampala to a small, remote settlement near the border between South Sudan and Uganda. It was my fourth visit and each time I go I’m impacted anew. Adjumani is a tiny community that has been inundated with South Sudanese refugees since war started in their home country on December 16th 2013. 
The vast majority of those crossing Uganda’s northern border (87%) are women and children. They have fled from horrific inter-tribal and political violence. The killing has not been restricted to soldiers shooting soldiers. Civilians are often targeted.In late January a ceasefire was signed between the two warring parties but this has not translated into peace on the ground. The fighting has continued and, in places, escalated in intensity. About 400 new South Sudanese asylum seekers are still arriving in Uganda daily.
Hearing these people speak of what they’ve been through has highlighted the gulf between the life experiences of those in the world’s poorest places from my own. When small challenges arise I’m easily unsettled and disturbed. These people have been through things that I simply cannot relate to. Below is an example of how war traumatises individuals and wrecks societies. Jacob* is a 22 year old man who showed very clear signs of psychological trauma. He agreed to tell me how the war affected him.

"I come from South Sudan. Last year I was studying in my first year of high school and helping my family to farm cattle. My mother, sisters and I were supported by my older brother as my father died just before I was born in 1991. In December of last year I was out working in the fields when the rebel soldiers attacked my home village. My mother and sisters ran with many others but lots of people were killed too. I arrived home from the fields and the village was deserted. I found my older brother and my uncle among the dead. My blind grandmother had also been shot in the head. I stayed there for 2 days with my dead relatives as I didn’t know where to go. The government soldiers and Ugandan troops pushed the rebels out of my area and another uncle was able to make it back to my village where he found me. We left together and walked for 3 ½ days to seek refuge. We passed through more fighting and in a small fishing village we were caught up in it.  As we were running out of the area someone in front of me was shot and they were so close that their blood hit me. After making it to Juba we caught a ride to the border with Uganda. I have been here in Uganda with my uncle since the 3rd of January. My mother and sisters are still in South Sudan. I’ve spoken to them once but we cannot reach each other while the fighting carries on. The hardest thing for me has been the loss of my brother. I think about what I saw in the village often. I’m also worried about the future, I am not going to school and I don’t know what will happen to me. I’ve even thought about taking my life." 
*Name changed
His story is a representation of just one situation created by this war. Today there are 52,000 others registered in Adjumani. Obviously not all have been through as much as Jacob but many have lost loved ones in the fighting (about 10,000 people are estimated to have been killed); all are aliens and have little control over their future. Some of the symptoms of this kind of psychological trauma are insomnia, nightmares, depression and increased suicidality.

For Jacob and others like him, Tutapona’s program is a lifeline. The trauma rehabilitation work and counselling we are doing will help him process the things he’s seen and to move forward with his life. Today, Jacob is in the program and I'm keeping up to date with his progress. The need is massive and urgent. We have two full time staff there (and other staff working with the victims of different conflicts) but would love to employ more.
A lot of people have asked us how they can help out with this work. Tutapona is registered for LiveBelow The Line this year. To understand one aspect of what it’s like to be a refugee I challenge you to try living on $1.50 for your food for 5 days. Get your friends and family to sponsor you. I can assure you your support will be well used and you'll probably drop a belt size into the bargain.
We’re registered in the States but people living anywhere can sign up with us here

 Live Below the Line so people like Jacob can rise above it. 

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