Monday, March 20, 2017

A stark contrast

This week I traveled up to a small dusty, hot town in Northern Uganda called Adjumani with Helen and our girls. Both of us had work we needed to do up there, but not enough time to take separate trips, hence the decision to take Hope and Eva. It was a decision that I quickly regretted. Eva winged through the short flight and the moment we landed we all began to sweat profusely. The temperature was somewhere in the late thirties and our hotel turned off the generator at midnight, so off also went the fan. The girls simply couldn’t sleep, not having been in heat like this before, so of course Helen and I didn’t sleep either. I lay there feeling frustrated about all manner of things until morning. Then I had to go to work. Interestingly, by the end of the week I was glad we’d taken our girls with us. I think in a very small way it helped me to relate to what we saw.

On our first day I spoke to a young boy of perhaps 11 who said he and his siblings and mother had walked for 3 weeks to escape from South Sudan. That’s fairly typical. Many of the oldest and youngest are dying on the way from a lack of water, shelter and food. Internally, I feebly related that to my arduous hour-long flight. Self constructed, tarp-covered stick shelters are the accommodation option out there in the settlements. Blazingly hot in the day, less than rain-proof and small. As we walked through them I considered that their occupants were not camping, these were their homes for the foreseeable future. The war in South Sudan is showing no sign of letting up.

These refugees don’t have jobs to go to when they wake up in the morning. Helen pointed out to me a man lining up for food in one of the reception centers who would have been about the same age as my dad. As I tried to imagine what this would be like for him my mind balked. Most of these refugees were poor back in South Sudan but now they’re poorer. They have walked away from their land and houses and have had to leave behind the possessions they couldn’t carry. No prospect of self-sufficiency for a long time ahead for the man in the queue. Instead he has to put out his bowl and accept what is given. 

A mum that we interviewed had lost one of her children in the fighting. As she said it, I let the weight of that sentence sink in for a moment. What mother should have to lose a young child in some senseless war? What would my response be if one of my daughters were shot? No time to grieve for this lady, until she was an alien in a foreign country.

At our last location Quinn Neely who was doing some filming for us put up a drone to get some aerial footage of Palorinya refugee settlement. Looking at his screen as he filmed from a couple of hundred meters up gave an insight into the scale of this migration. Clusters of shelters stretching out for miles and miles along the banks of the Nile River. Each individual shelter holding a little family, but on the screen they were simplified down to thousands of tiny white dots. This one settlement currently holds 142,000 people and it opened 3 months ago, in December. Had the drone been able to climb higher, it would have picked up the 5 settlements of South Sudanese refugees spread out across Northern Uganda holding over three quarters of a million people. Still South Sudan’s leadership can’t sort their differences out and a bit north of where we stood about 2,000 more people

cross the border each day. My way of relating to that number is to think of my high school, Macleans College, daily walking into Uganda. This has been happening now for 9 months.

As we left, I understood more fully what an immense privilege that is. We can leave. These people are in Adjumani right now because they have, in the words of Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond- 'no choice'. They cannot go home after a few days, and they have nowhere else to go. They have no idea if they’ll ever be able to go home. Home may well have been altered irreparably.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a beautiful house in Kampala with my family intact and safely with me. I have a job. I have choices. What stark inequality. I’ve worked in this space for a few years now, but this week I was hit anew by the gulf between the life of a refugee and mine.


An open diary - South Sudan March 14-18 2017