Untold sufferingHundreds of thousands of people have fled South Sudan for Uganda
The young country’s southern neighbour provides refuge as famine and violence mount
(The Economist) – “THERE was fighting which took place almost in my village in which six innocent people were killed,” says Pastor Kenyi. “We had to come on foot and we slept on the way for six days.” Mr Kenyi, a bishop in South Sudan’s Kajo Keji county, fled with his wife and six children before crossing the border and finding safety in Goboro, a UN-run reception centre in Uganda. A well-built man with a camouflage cowboy hat, rosary beads and crucifix around his neck, Mr Kenyi is among more than 785,000 people who have fled violence in South Sudan for refuge in Uganda.
In the first week of March as many as 3,000 people were crossing the border each day to escape fighting between forces of the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir (who are mostly Dinka), and rebels loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar (who are mainly Nuer). South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, but civil war erupted in 2013. Although a fragile peace agreement was signed in 2015, violence started up again in July last year. Since then it has taken on more of an ethnic character, with murder, rape and torture of civilians rife, in part an attempt at ethnically cleansing parts of the country. Earlier this week a senior UN official warned that the government was engaging in “population engineering” to redraw the country’s ethnic map.
The testimony of those in the refugee camps would seem to support this. “These soldiers of the government wanted to slaughter us,” says 29-year-old Cecilia, waiting in Goboro with her eight-year-old daughter. “I don’t know where my sister or mother are.”
The miseries of war have been compounded by hunger—famine was declared in the country (as well as several others in the region) on February 20th—and economic mismanagement. Inflation topped 50% a month at one point last year, though it has since fallen back somewhat, and the currency has collapsed.
The large numbers of people crossing the border have rapidly filled up existing refugee camps. The Palorinya refugee camp, where Kenyi and others were housed, had to stop accepting people when it filled up with over 140,000 people at the end of February. Another, the nearby Bidi Bidi settlement, was closed to new arrivals in December after it had taken in 272,000.
Yet for now the system is working. On arrival people are given basic accommodation, food rations and water. Uganda has a long history of welcoming refugees and is home to thousands of people who fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi. Last year it accepted many more people from South Sudan (489,000) than crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe (362,000). It may have some lessons for others taking in refugees and migrants.
Many of the families who arrive are given plots of land to farm, and local services such as schools, clinics and markets are run by refugees. Robert Baryamwesiga, the settlement commandant at Bidi Bidi, says Uganda’s refugee policy offers a lesson in morality and leadership to other countries. “You cannot accommodate refugees unless the leaders have a good attitude towards refugees,” he says. “Ugandans are very good at accommodating other people, they have these open hearts to accommodate their colleagues.”