On the ground with South Sudanese refugees Tendai Marima A day after a late evening arrival in Gulu, northern Uganda, we hit…

On the ground with South Sudanese refugees

Tendai Marima

A day after a late evening arrival in Gulu, northern Uganda, we hit the ground running. The environmental group went their separate ways, some sailed along smoothly and got their stories, while others had to deal with long waits for clearance to access certain places. Our crew of five fellows, spent long hot days spent travelling to different refugee settlements gathering stories on the South Sudanese. 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 this week and to get an inside view on the food, health and community dynamics in the refugee colonies. One striking thing about the displaced South Sudanese is 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 have 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 not been easy. It wasn’t easy hearing how people had escaped a terrifying conflict only to face a life of hardship in a new country.

Although 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 who’ve 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 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.

Our second reporting day was a little more uplifting for me. 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 days I’ve spent time in the other settlements and seen the different ways in which food and nutrition, or lack thereof, is so central to the lives of the displaced. Cuts in food rations have affected hundreds of thousands of people making it crystal clear, the world needs to do far much more for the South Sudanese.

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