They are more than a million, and their number continues to increase every day; refugees, from South Sudan, who have poured into Uganda. I am visiting the camps that welcome them in the North. At the edge of nothingness…
from ARUA (Uganda)
Nora is 16 years old and left home alone. The family sent her away, ahead of the rest of the family. Better the prospect of a refugee camp than the insecurity of Juba. Better to live in a foreign country than to die in the hell of South Sudan. “At least I can study here” Nora whispers shyly, “Here no one tries to kill you.”
Nora is one of the thousands of kids who joined the endless flow of South Sudanese refugees. Refugees who continue to pour into Northern Uganda. It began with the outbreak of the civil war in December of 2013 and seems to never end. More than two million have left the country; more than half of them are in Uganda, every day new ones arrive.
At the entrance to the Imvepi Reception Center in the Arua district, in the West Nile region of the country, a white United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) bus has just arrived. Slowly and quietly mothers, children, elderly, and very few young people get off; they have nothing with them, only small bags. Evacuees escaping with what little they could take along.
Doctors without Borders welcomes the group, they manage the Center’s first reception area. The procedure is well-tested. “In past months we would receive more than two thousand refugees a day” explains Shaban Osman, DWB team supervisor, “now they are much less, but we think that this decline is only temporary. With the start of the dry season the fighting could resume and the flow of refugees is likely to increase again.” Shaban moves with ease among his colleagues who take care of new arrivals lined up in front of tent number one, set up for health checkups. All receive a tablet for intestinal parasites; then the children are given the vaccine against polio and measles; then, they go for screening for tuberculosis.
Some children cry. Mothers are a bit disoriented. Still the bulk of those who arrive here: women and minors represent 82% of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. Osman leads them to the next tent, where their stories are gathered. He speaks gently, and above all, he speaks their language. “I’m one of them” he admits, “I was a refugee myself. I arrived here as a child in ‘89. That was another war, between North and South Sudan, but the victims are always the same, ordinary, innocent people.” Osman grew up and completed his entire education in Uganda. He graduated in technology and logistics. He has worked for DWB for a year and a half. He is happy and proud to give back to his people some of what he has received.
This story, which again disrupts these northern Uganda regions, is a story that repeats itself: seemingly endless streams of refugees from neighboring countries, but also internally displaced persons and Ugandan refugees. A land marked by conflicts within, but also by the continuous arrival of people from without. Urua is a poor area, much more than the rest of Uganda; for years abandoned and neglected yet surprisingly welcoming. Here, successive waves of people fleeing from Sudan have stratified during the war between North and South: an enormous flow of desperate people fleeing from the youngest African country, devastated by a fratricidal war. A short period of time saw this flow reversed, during the brief season that preceded the South Sudanese independence of July 2011, a season of fleeting hope that led thousands to return home.
And so, the old sad plight started again, this time worse than before. “Today many escape not only from war, but also from hunger,” says Twaha Yabata, a nutritionist at Medical Team International. The two things are obviously related. The drastic changes in climate are also complicit. Today in South Sudan, five million people risk dying from lack of food, almost half the population. “Children,” Yabata points out; “are particularly at risk. Also because they often make long and dangerous journeys on foot, during which they eat what they can find. Or nothing.”
To intervene immediately in these cases there is a team of Cuamm-Medici for Africa, the NGO from Italy that has been present in Uganda for almost fifty years and has returned here to make a contribution in this huge humanitarian emergency; setting care of mothers and children as their top priority. “From February to today,” says Dr. Damasco Wamboya, team leader of the CUAMM of Arua, “in this Center a thousand cases of malnutrition have been reported. We started operating last September with a stationary presence, which allows us to identify critical cases and to intervene immediately, providing nutritional support for a week. Then we continue to follow the refugees even after their transfer to the settlements.” Without forgetting the local population: “We work with six districts and 81 health centers in the West Nile, some of which are accessible also to refugees,” Dr. Wamboya specifies.
Inside the Imvepi Reception Center there is also a discreet place for women who have suffered violence. There are many of them, even though they often hide it. Now that rape is a weapon of war. Rape is used without restraint and shame, even in South Sudan, where thousands of women were raped; there could be many more undocumented cases. Unfortunately, these women are not completely safe even once inside the refugee camps. “They are alone and they are particularly vulnerable” explains Richard Okoni, head of the Siripi health center, “and so, often thanks to alcohol, there are those who take advantage of them.” One consequence is the greater spread of AIDS among refugees compared to the local population. “Many have never even heard of it …” adds Okoni. And so, even when they should finally feel safe, these poor women run the risk of having to face a new vexing trial.
After all, settlements are “open” places; this is both a positive and a negative thing. Immense, endless expanses of little shacks and huts spread out as far as the eye can see. The open door policy implemented by the Kampala government provides for a “widespread” reception. Maybe it could not be otherwise, given the huge number of refugees, who are not “locked up” in camps – if not only for the very first days – but are then edistributed throughout the territory. Each is assigned a plot of land, given the necessary things to build a shelter and manual implements to cultivate the land. The United Nations provides rations of corn (26 lbs per month per person), beans (nine lbs), oil, salt and little else; then, all manage as best they can.
Healthcare, school and social services are the same as in the local community, which has made land available for free, in return for the benefits received by refugees. It is not much, but the attitude, for the moment, seems one of sharing rather than one of opposition.
It is this aspect that is most striking: poor people welcoming other poor people. Certainly there is no lack of conflicts – between Ugandans and refugees, and among refugees from different ethnic groups – but they are very limited. It seems like a miracle.
The district of Arua has a population of about 800 thousand inhabitants and receives 256 thousand refugees on average. In some settlements, those in which the South Sudanese have been transferred to long ago, it is difficult to tell the houses of the local people apart from those of the refugees. All, without distinction, can attend healthcare centers and schools. However, not without great stress on the Ugandan system, which is already fragile by itself; but now with all the added possibilities for glitches in the system caused by the managing of an enormous influx of aid from abroad.
Robert Titre Apangu, program coordinator of the Arua district, serves as the link between the local government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, confirms this quite frankly. He coordinates this enormous humanitarian machine; which still needs a lot more funds: only about 24% of the 675 million dollars allotted has reached its destination. It is also a machine that shows many inconsistencies and inadequacies; these weaknesses are present, above all, where there are most visible.
Robert Titre Apangu began this work in 2009 when a vast project of assisted repatriation of South Sudanese refugees was being carried out, in view of the country’s independence. Now he is managing an even more enormous, complex and dramatic situation. “The government policy is to offer refugees the land, an identity card, freedom of movement and work, with the exclusion from public services and in compliance with the laws of the country. The goal is to integrate them as soon as possible with the local population. It is a great undertaking, with some critical points, such as the supply of water to such a large number of people.” Faced with an estimated need of about five gallons of water per day per person, you can only get 1-2, especially through tank trucks, which must travel roads and tracks often in very bad condition conditions. “We are proceeding with the construction of wells,” adds Robert Titre Apangu; “but the process takes a long time and is more expensive, even if more sustainable”.
The issue of water is also crucial for sanitation, as well as to cultivate the small plot that every family of refugees has available. A challenge that seems huge when approaching a settlement like that of Bidi Bidi, a little further to the north, which is the largest in the world with 285 thousand refugees. It is an impressive sight. It seems endless. Here there are also many Nuer people, one of the two ethnic groups most involved in the conflict. The other is that of the Dinkas, that were sent elsewhere.
Although the Ugandan government tends to “mix” refugees, Dinkas and Nuers are prudently separated. After all, the wounds of the war that is fought a few miles away are still visible, in the body and also in the soul. Outside the gate of the UN base of Bidi Bidi, a young Nuer, Nihal, is eager to share his story. On his forehead he shows not only the six scarification lines that make him immediately recognizable, but also the scar of a wound. “They shot me right here” he says, pointing to the center of the forehead, “miraculously, I’m still alive!” He arrived from Jongley State, one of the northernmost in South Sudan, thousands of miles from here; one of the most devastated by the war, along with the Upper Nile and the Unity State, or the territories of the oil wells, the real bone of contention in this new, horrible war. Nihal seems a little lost and restless: who knows if he’ll ever go back home. He thinks for a moment, shrugs his shoulders and looks down.
It is still a remote prospect for this segment of humanity kept “on hold.” As soon as they were given a country, they had to flee to another. Apparently, a decent future is absent, if not impossible in these settlements, especially in those settlements where refugees have recently arrived, like that of Palorinya and its surroundings. They seem forsaken by everyone.