How the world’s biggest refugee settlement sprang up in Uganda
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They come in their thousands. Day after day after day. Then they come in their thousands more.
In Africa’s biggest human exodus since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, 1m people have fled war in South Sudan, most of them since last July, for the lush tranquility of northern Uganda. There, they have been welcomed by what has been called the most generous refugee policy in the world, given supplies and a plot of land and encouraged to integrate as quickly as possible into Ugandan society.
In the process, Bidi Bidi, the world’s largest refugee settlement — the word “camp” is frowned upon and, besides, there are no fences — has sprung up in just eight months. Where last September there were just a few scattered huts belonging to local farmers, today there are an estimated quarter of a million South Sudanese who have fled what amounts to ethnic cleansing in their country’s once-peaceful Equatoria region.
In Bidi Bidi’s case, in less time than it takes to grow a crop of maize, a settlement with a population roughly the same as Orlando, Florida has sprouted from nowhere.
There is little to distinguish Bidi Bidi from the rest of the countryside, where a vibrant green landscape of banana palms and mango trees is dotted with little thatch-roofed brick and mud huts. Many of those who cross the border from South Sudan speak Kakwa, the same language as Ugandans in this West Nile region. Only the white-and-blue UN tarpaulin on some of the dwellings, and parched fields with struggling young seedlings of okra, sorghum and peas, provide tell-tale signs that these are the homes of refugees.
For the most part, remarkably, Ugandans seem at ease with the sudden influx. “We are happy they are coming. We are very happy to receive them,” says Sarafina Sofi Sony, a hip 20-year-old in a red knitted cap and long black-and-white dress, whose job is to care for refugee children in one of several scrubland playgrounds that dot the vast Bidi Bidi settlement.
Uganda’s government has pursued its open-door policy towards refugees partly out of a sense of pan-Africanism and partly because it is a way of gaining both international money and recognition. Besides, say cynics, it could not control the borders even it wanted to.
Theoretically, refugee children have the same access to health and education as Ugandans, although in practice schools are few and far between, leaving most of the half a million children who have crossed the border — including those in Bidi Bidi — without proper schooling. Those schools that do exist are jammed to the rafters, with 200 children to a class in some cases, and aid agencies fear that a whole generation of South Sudanese children could be left without qualifications.
“They are in danger there in South Sudan,” says Ms Sony. “We tell the small ones: we are all brothers and sisters united together,” she adds, with a nod to a circle of excited children — most of whom have lost at least one parent — playing a supervised game of follow-my-leader. “Since those people came from a place where there is war, we need them to forget about those bad things.”
Things are beyond bad in South Sudan. Since it became independent after a referendum six years ago, the world’s youngest country has undergone a slow-motion implosion. After a cobbled-together peace process fell apart, the speed of disintegration has accelerated.
Riek Machar, the now-former vice-president accused of leading a Nuer rebellion, fled the country last August, leaving Salva Kiir, the president and a member of the Dinka majority, in charge. Since then, what passed for the country’s central authority has shattered into shards of warring armed factions, mostly formed on ethnic lines, fighting over what is left of the country’s dwindling resources.
“South Sudan is a Humpty Dumpty state,” says Alan Boswell, a writer and expert on the country. “The Humpty Dumpty that fell down and broke into pieces,” he adds, “not the Humpty Dumpty at the top of the wall.”
As South Sudan cracks apart, violence has come to Equatoria, a once comparatively prosperous region close to the Ugandan border famed for its generous soil and fields of vegetables, fruit trees and cassava — a world away from the famine that has seized poorer parts of the country. In February, the UN declared a famine in South Sudan, saying it was in the gravest situation of four countries — with Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen — that together constituted the worst humanitarian disaster since 1945.
Equatoria is now a place of carnage where, according to testimony from refugees in Uganda, armed Dinka militias are sweeping through swaths of the countryside, killing, raping, burning and looting.
“They come with guns, knives and machetes,” says Betty Keji, whose two young children witnessed their father being murdered by Dinka soldiers shortly before they made it to Uganda. “I don’t know why. I don’t know whether they want to kill everybody and take over the country.”
Dinka, say some analysts, may be exacting revenge on Equatoria partly because of suspicion that Mr Machar was allowed to escape through the territory. But Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, says it is mostly about the hunt for resources by a kleptocratic elite that has mortgaged most of the oil revenues and needs money to pay off hordes of angry young men with guns.
In the western part of Equatoria, says Mr de Waal, the Nuer have also come looking for land and timber, driving a separate, if much smaller, exodus into the Democratic Republic of Congo. He calls the flood of refugees to Uganda — which echoes previous movements across the porous border, including in the other direction when Ugandans were fleeing Idi Amin in the 1970s — unprecedented “in scale and suddenness”.
Christine Komoni, a poised 21-year-old, had been studying at the Yei Teacher Training College in central Equatoria, where she was completing her third year of studies. One day last November she heard shooting near her parents’ home, but when she got there they had already fled. She picked up her younger brother and started “footing it” towards the haven of Uganda, three or four days’ walk along a red-earthed road where there was a constant danger of ambush by armed Dinka. “If they get you they don’t play around,” she says. “They don’t sympathise with anyone’s life.
“Most of my neighbours have fled to the bush,” she adds. “I don’t know whether they were killed or they are alive. Everyone has run away.”
When she reached the Ugandan border, she was bussed to a reception where, at that time, up to 5,000 refugees were being processed each day. That flood has since slowed; but some 1,500 people are still arriving daily, calling into question Uganda’s capacity to cope. Friction with the local population, though, has been minimal.
At a “Refugee Solidarity” conference in Kampala this month, to be attended by António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, organisers hope to raise $2bn to keep Uganda’s progressive policy going.
For the moment, an atmosphere of calm — even relieved happiness — prevails at the well-organised reception centre where new arrivals are registered, vaccinated, given a medical check-up and a hot meal by the hodgepodge of NGOs and international agencies operating there. After a few days, like other refugees, Ms Komoni was allocated a plot of land and given rudimentary materials to build a house and dig a pit latrine. Resourceful and ambitious, she has landed on her feet and secured a job with Save the Children as a supervisor at the early learning centre.
Apart from leaving her parents behind in Yei — which is now blockaded by government troops [from Juba] according to reports she has picked up — what Ms Komoni regrets most is abandoning her education. “It is very important to continue improving the lives of others,” she says earnestly of her work with young children, “even if mine is destroyed.”
Brechtje van Lith, country director for Save the Children, contrasts the mostly warm reception refugees get in Uganda with the situation in her native Holland where, she says, those fleeing conflict are often cold-shouldered. “We all know immigrants are the most resourceful and entrepreneurial people in the world,” she says. “They do well if they’re allowed to. That’s something we could learn from in Europe.”
Yet although Bidi Bidi is huge — some 250 square km — it is full. Moses Eli Batali, a 27-year-old who also fled from Yei, wonders how long the goodwill towards refugees can last. Firewood is running out, he says, prompting refugees to stray further in search of trees to cut, putting strain on the environment as well as on relations with host communities. Arriving refugees now get smaller plots of land, 30m by 30m, down from 50m by 50m earlier, and the quality of soil is not always good. Monthly food rations, distributed by the World Food Programme, have been cut in half to 6kg per person, which leaves people hungry.
Dennis Mbaguta, the quietly spoken commandant at a neighbouring refugee settlement, also wonders what will happen when all the land has been allocated. His Imvepi settlement, which opened in mid-February, has already taken in at least 80,000 people. “What happens when we are full?” he asks, raising his hands in mock surrender.
Jennah Isabu, the deputy refugee desk officer of West Nile region, recognises the problem but says Uganda will go on receiving refugees as long as they keep coming. “Of course tensions arise over scarce resources like water,” she says. “But the South Sudanese who we receive speak the same language. We are the same people. It was you British who caused the partition. Before, we were all together.”
Ms Komoni, who abandoned her teacher-training in South Sudan, wonders whether she will one day go back across a border that exists more on paper than on the ground. For the moment, she says, she will stay in Uganda. “There’s no more life in Equatoria,” she shrugs. “Maybe it will improve. But in which year, I don’t know.”
Timeline: war, ethnic cleansing and famine take their toll on South Sudan
December 2009 After decades of civil war between north and south Sudan, Khartoum agrees that the south can hold a referendum on independence
January 2011 The people of South Sudan vote 98.8 per cent in favour of independence
July 9, 2011 South Sudan gains independence
March 2013 Sudan and South Sudan agree to resume pumping oil after a long dispute over pipeline fees
July 2013 President Salva Kiir dismisses entire cabinet including his vice-president Riek Machar
April 2016 Riek Machar returns to Juba after long absence to resume vice-presidency
August 2016 Riek Machar flees country after fragile truce breaks down
December 2016 A UN commission says ethnic cleansing is taking place in parts of the country
February 2017 The UN declares famine in South Sudan, calling it a man-made catastrophe. Says 100,000 face starvation and up to 5.5m severe food shortages