A week on the ground with South Sudanese refugees

It’s the end of our trip to northern Uganda and it’s amazing how quickly time has flown. Our reporting assignment began last Tuesday, after a short training and the days seemed so long, but now we’re at the end of an intense week spent travelling to environmental sites in pursuit of stories and different refugee settlements gathering the different narratives of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. For me, the sight of a seemingly endless landscape dotted with huts covered with UNHCR tarpaulins is not new, I’ve visited refugee sites in sub-Saharan Africa, but those in Uganda are slightly different. There’s a little more land given and a little less security. Unlike in other countries where armed soldiers man the sites and refugee travel outside the camps is prohibited, Uganda allows a great degree of movement for those who are properly registered in the system. Most countries don’t do this, even in Europe where Germany severely restricts movement outside of the lager [hostel] for asylum seekers.

We’ve visited several camps over the past week and had some insight on the food, health and community dynamics in the refugee colonies. One striking thing about the displaced South Sudanese was their willingness to share their grim stories of escaping the conflict. On foot or by car, people found a way to flee South Sudan’s escalating violence. Some lost family members, others separated from their loved ones in the process and they hope to re-unite with them in Uganda’s settlements. Many pray that those left behind in South Sudan are still alive and safe. But for all of them, starting a new life in refuge has been fraught with hardship and it was not easy hearing this.

Although as journalists our job is to tell people’s stories, it’s hard not to think, what can I do to help? When we first arrived at Pagarinya, a site home to more than 22,000 refugees most of whom have fled the conflict in South Sudan in the past two months, the assistant camp commander told us not to make promises to the refugees because we’d create false expectation and hope. But, when a possibly 90-year-old woman and her daughter tell you they’re living on a thick gruel of red sorghum porridge because food supplies are severely limited, it’s hard not to want to tell them you’ll try and help them. But I didn’t. All I can do is tell their story and pray that one day there’ll be peace in South Sudan.

But even amid bleakness, there is always sunshine and there were some heartwarming moments during the week. On several occasions, I met refugee entrepreneurs who were determined to make a better life for themselves in Uganda. Last Wednesday, another fellow and I went to the International Peace Day celebrations held on 21 September at Boroli Settlement in Adjumani, further to the north-east of Uganda. Long before the countries split in two, Boroli was one of the first settlements where South Sudanese and Sudanese refugees settled. Over 14,500 people live at this settlement, mostly from South Sudan and Sudan, both old and new arrivals. Needless to say, the International Peace Day celebrations were great. Different groups performed traditional songs and each performance was magnetic, I couldn’t stop watching. It’s a shame International Peace Day isn’t widely celebrated around the world, but this is an important day to remember. It was heartening to see how those fleeing conflict observed the day.

While Boroli, home to 37 different tribes, has it’s own history of ethnic tension between refugees and a few heated moments between refugees and their Ugandan hosts, relations have improved. But beyond building towards an amicable co-existence, all refugees need food in their bellies. Over the past few week, I’ve spent time in four settlements and a transit center seeing the different ways in which food and nutrition, or lack thereof, is so central to the lives of the displaced. The 50% cuts in food rations have affected so many of those living in Uganda’s refugee colonies and having been on the ground has made it crystal clear, in my mind at least, that the world needs to do far much more to aid the plight of the South Sudanese.

-Tendai Marima

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