Bidi Bidi in northern Uganda is the world’s largest official refugee camp, where survivors of the conflict in South Sudan wait and hope, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
Joseph slipped quietly away on his lunch break, leaving his government department job, starting up his motorbike and making a dash for the border.
He had given his wife the signal earlier that it was time to activate the family escape plan they’d made in secret.
For three days he waited at the border, asking in broken phone calls how close they were now, before finally he saw their faces in the crowd.
For David’s four foster children, the agony of waiting began in the refugee camp, where for weeks they looked for their parents to follow them to safety, before word came that their bodies lay in the bush alongside their young siblings, all slaughtered together.
Lona’s wait was short but terror-filled as she stood with the young mother she met on the road carrying the lifeless body of her five-year-old son.
The distraught woman’s husband dug a shallow grave and laid the child down but they could not stop to grieve. There was no time for tears, Lona told the woman. They had to keep moving.
These are survivors of South Sudan’s latest round of butchery, now living in Bidi Bidi in northern Uganda, the world’s largest official refugee camp, home to 287,480 of those who fled the fighting.
A year and a half ago this massive settlement was empty bushland. Now it has a population greater than that of Galway city and county combined and its vast array of mud huts and makeshift shelters is visible from miles away in all directions.
At the peak of the emergency in South Sudan, some 6,000 people a day were arriving at the border with Uganda. Overwhelmed Ugandan officials had to start moving them somewhere and Bidi Bidi, the city of exiles, was born.
Lona Keji arrived here after a month in the bush playing a terrifying cat and mouse game with pursuing militia.
She and her neighbours fled their home in Lainya county with the clothes they stood up in after soldiers descended on their village.
“I was cooking rice for the children to have tea and the shooting started,” the grandmother of two says. “We ran to the church but when we arrive to the church the soldiers come there and pick out the teacher. They killed him in front of us. It was barbaric. It scared us totally and we ran to the bush.”
Lona ran with her little grandson on her back and her granddaughter by her side, clutching the hand of Lona’s elderly mother.
When they looked back, they saw their houses burning. When others who fled caught up with them, they gave them the list of the dead. It was extensive.
They began making their way as a group slowly southwards to Uganda, afraid to move by established roads stalked by soldiers.
Whenever they came to a road, they found it littered with corpses. Pregnant women had not been spared the slaughter, their bellies split open and their babies torn from them.
“Such things can not make us even think of going back to South Sudan,” Lona says.
Hunger and sickness killed many others. Some had makeshift graves but others had to be abandoned where they fell.
“The men try to bury them but a lot of them just remain in the bush. The army is close like that house,” she says, pointing to a hut about 50 metres from where she sits sheltering from the heat that often hits 40 degrees. “You have to run away.”
She tried to comfort the young mother whose five-year-old son had died, while her husband and brother scratched a hollow in the soil to bury him.
“She was crying but we say you can’t stay to cry. If you grieve, it must be after but not now.”
After a month on the move, a UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] unit picked up the group and brought them the final stretch to the border where they were registered before transfer to Bidi Bidi.
“I left with just the clothes I was wearing. When we arrive here in the beginning, even if you take shower, you look like you don’t shower,” she says of their ragged appearance and the dirt that had burrowed into their skin.
She says many of the children had swollen legs and other afflictions after the hardships of their journey. Medical assistance was provided in the camp, but far from this being the end of the ordeal, another struggle for survival began.
Bidi Bidi is not a typical refugee camp. Instead of neat rows of the UNHCR’s white tents that are the hallmark of crises in other parts of the world, there is what at first appears a random sprawl of mud and straw huts typical of the farmers of this region.
Each hut is sited on a plot 30m by 30m on which the occupants grow the staple crop of cassava, onions, tomatoes and whatever else they can produce to supplement their daily camp rations. The plots used to be bigger until the number of refugees grew beyond all expectation.
The design of the camp is an attempt by the Ugandan authorities to create a more normal environment for families, to allow them some privacy and self-sufficiency.
It is also an acknowledgement that this is no temporary arrangement. Even if the destruction of South Sudan was to end tomorrow — and there is no chance of that happening — the country is in such ruins after so many years of war that many of these refugees would have nothing to go back to.
Benson Lopia was a baby wrapped in a sling tied tight to his mother’s back when she had to run with him into the bush to escape marauding troops during one of South Sudan’s earlier conflicts. When he was 12, his family ran again, this time during an escalation of hostilities prior to the 2003 peace talks.
Now 28 and a father himself, it haunts him to see history repeat itself in the lives of his own three children, and he is determined that the baby his wife, Annet, is expecting will know no such peril. A plumber and small farmer, the decision to flee was made for him after both his father and brother were murdered.
His brother lived in the relative safety of the capital, Juba, but had come to visit family in the home village of Buri.
Juba is the base of the ruling president and Benson believes his brother was deliberately targeted by opposition forces simply for residing there. “They know he has arrived and in the night they killed him,” says Benson.
He can find no such reasoning behind the death of his father. “My father’s house is like that one,” he says, pointing to a hut just shouting distance away.
“In the morning I was calling him to come and take tea with my family but he did not come. Then I find he is already dead.”
Reluctant to leave his home and work, Benson stayed put, but in constant fear. “They shoot and they slaughter like a goat, like a chicken,” he says, drawing an imaginary line across his throat. “They take you away from your home and slaughter you and leave your body to rot in the bush.
“They will come anytime. The soldiers move in a small group so you will not see them coming.”
The day they came, Benson was alone at home and had to run for his life with soldiers in pursuit. When they gave up the chase, he waited some time before returning to his house. “They burned everything — my documents, my motorbike, my cows,” he says.
He paid a truck driver to bring him and his family to Uganda, calling his mother to gather the others together and leave immediately.
He has been in Bidi Bidi just over a year now and he speaks with an air of frustration that Lona Keji says is common in the camp.
In South Sudan, she was a community development worker and instinctively notes the welfare of those around her. She feels their sense of loss acutely.
“I had a concrete building,” she says, her voice a mix of pride and pain, “but it was also destroyed. With my education, I would be at a very high grade but now I am taken to zero level.”
Her skills were noted by Irish charity Trócaire and she was encouraged to stand for election as women’s representative of village number 4 in the Bidi Bidi settlement, which has been split into five zones.
Her work, which is unpaid, sees her advocate for women struggling to adapt to life in the camp, or who haven’t managed to make their small plots productive and can’t get by on the rations of beans and rice that the camp provides.
She also intervenes in cases of domestic violence. The camp’s population is almost 80% women and children, due to the disproportionate number of deaths and detentions of men in South Sudan and the decision by some to stay hiding in the bush or join local militias.
But where couples have made their way here together, the stress of what they have experienced and the inability of many men to find work can lead to tensions.
“The man is just sitting waiting for the wife to make food. They have nothing to do and nothing to say and they become frustrated. The children don’t recognise their fathers,” she says.
Lona is also concerned about the children.
Malnutrition is evident in some and the spontaneous playfulness and giggling curiosity that so often greets a foreign visitor in such settings is noticeably absent.
“They don’t forget what they see,” says Lona. “You can see them imitating what the soldiers do — they are preparing guns with sticks, drawing guns, they say they want to shoot somebody. They are making the sound of the machine gun. They are practicing what they see in South Sudan.”
She worries that the camp schools are overcrowded and under-resourced and won’t be able to deliver the education that she believes will be the salvation, not only of the children but of South Sudan itself.
“We are going to lose our children’s education and this is going to bring another war again in South Sudan,” she says. “When people are educated, at least they can reason. So we are begging the NGOs to get our children good learning so that when we go back to South Sudan we have good leaders.”
But going back to South Sudan seems a distant hope. “I am a forceful person who can talk and challenge any bad things. The government doesn’t like people who challenge so if I go there I will challenge them and then they will kill me,” she says.
Suddenly overcome, Lona’s forceful voice shrinks to a near whisper.
She is caring not only for her elderly mother and the grandchildren of one of her own four grown-up children but her brother’s children too, after they were sent to join her.
“When you are given a big responsibility, sometimes you don’t know what to do,” she says, tears filling her eyes. “I am handling a lot of responsibility.”
David Mutamuta is also carrying a big responsibility. He had to leave his home after his brother joined opposition forces and the former lab technician, 29, is now caring for two of his sister’s children and four orphans, while learning to survive off the land for the first time in his life.
His own wife and two children are in another camp waiting to join him, and his mother helps out with the other youngsters. “They see me as their father now and I must look after them,” he says.
The four orphans are from two families whose parents were given plots of land adjacent to David and asked him to watch them while they travelled back to South Sudan to see if it was safe to return.
Both couples were killed soon after, along with the breastfeeding baby and toddler they felt they couldn’t leave behind.
“It was not an easy moment when I had to tell the children about their parents,” says David.
“They were asking when are they coming and I had to start slowly and explain to them the world is like this — anything can happen, and their mum and dad may not be joining us.
“One day I gathered them and told them we need to first pray, and then I explained that if somebody dies they can rise again if you believe in God. And that is when I told them their parents were dead.”
Their distress put David’s parenting skills to the test. He is firm with them about their schooling and homework but says otherwise he is as gentle as he can be with them as they deal with their dreadful loss.
David built the children their own hut on their parents’ land and has attended farm training courses supported by Trócaire. He will soon farm their plots too, to give the children a start in life.
He has developed his own irrigation system, sold surplus crops to buy ducks, and now has one of the most productive plots in his village. He says he relies on a motto: “If in life A fails, you move to B, and if B is not all that good you go to C.”
Jackline Sitima, 25, has also had to reinvent herself. She used to support herself and her two young children selling vegetables and beans but has now trained as a seamstress and has been supplied with her own sewing machine. Business is not booming yet but she is excited for the future.
The oldest of 10, she left South Sudan with her entire family after hearing gunshots close to their village. “My brothers saw some people shot and some people cut with pangas (machetes),” she says.
On the road south to Uganda, soldiers stopped them and took all their belongings but they felt lucky to escape with their lives. “Life here is good. You don’t hear gunshots, you don’t hear about people dead. I don’t want to go back. I don’t miss anything,” she says.
Joseph Taban, however, misses much about South Sudan and hopes one day to return. The 33-year-old father of three — the latest a baby boy, Daniel, just three weeks old — worked for a government department in the provincial city of Yei and was horrified watching the government turn on its own people. “The government, which is to look to the welfare of the people, deciding to arrest the people without reasons, killing people without reason, that is why I decided to leave.”
His fears were well-founded. His home village was raided and burned and his best friend, a co-worker in Yei, has been missing since last month after being ‘arrested’ by national security. Joseph is tired. He spent most of his own childhood in refugee camps. “And now my children again are in a refugee setting. I don’t feel happy,” he says.
He is now an elected representative of village number 3 in Bidi Bidi and, unusual among the refugees, he freely speaks of politics, suggesting that the further division of South Sudan into three separate regions along tribal grounds may be the only way to bring peace.
Until such a time, he says he will raise baby Daniel to know he is South Sudanese, despite his birth on Ugandan soil. “Nationality is important,” he says.
For Benson Lopia, adjusting to life as a newly-trained metal worker and trying to sell simple bed bases and shelving, returning to South Sudan is less important to him than securing his family’s future.
“I don’t want to be poor. I want to be rich so my family will be ok,” he says. His eyes are weary and his face drained with the long, hard wait for peace. He looks to the ground and sighs. “I am tired of war,” he says.
One Ugandan cleric is striving to convince South Sudan’s warring parties it is in their own interests to put down their arms.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama helped turn the world’s attention to his native northern Uganda during its devastating war, when he risked his life to meet rebel warlord Joseph Kony and plead with him for peace. He also slept on the streets with children who came in from the bush to the towns each night to avoid abduction for Kony’s army of child soldiers.
Now, the doughty 70-year-old is trying to bring attention, and peace, to neighbouring South Sudan.
In recent months, he has trailed representatives of the various warring factions to the half-hearted peace talks that have taken place, turned up uninvited at meetings of African leaders and delivered impromptu speeches, urging them to play a stronger role in ending the conflict. He even made the perilous trip to the South Sudanese capital, Juba, to try and coax the president and his chief rival to talk with him.
“There is a saying in many African languages: When two elephants are fighting, the grass underneath suffers,” he says of the ordinary people whose plight spurs him on.
“The story I carried with me to South Sudan was the cry of the refugees,” he explains.
“I said I have gone to the refugee camps and I have seen and I have listened to their crying and their suffering.
“They are saying stop the war so that we go back to our country, rebuild ourselves and join in rebuilding the whole country. So, I am here like an emissary of the refugees from South Sudan. There are nearly a million in our country. It’s not OK.”
He didn’t get the two top men, but he did get two ruling vice-presidents and a late call-up from the opposition as he boarded his return flight, so he despatched a local cleric in his place.
“I told the two vice-presidents and other groups: When you have the house of your neighbour burning and if your house also is in grass, it may also catch fire. So, we in Uganda are also interested in the peace of South Sudan.”
Odama knows the challenges are immense, despite the shared heritage and ambitions of most who live and aspire to rule there.
He has a theory about this kind of conflict: “When two closest relatives fall out, the relationship becomes bitter. The more close they are, the more serious it is.”
Odama was integral to the setting up of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), an interfaith group of clerics, long supported by Trócaire, who worked for peace in northern Uganda and continue to nurture inter-community relations. Both Trócaire and the archbishop believe it could have an important role to play in South Sudan, by acting as intermediary and getting real negotiation under way between the factions.
Meanwhile, Odama sends out messages he hopes will give the fighting parties something to reflect on.
“If they don’t [put more effort into peace], they will perpetuate suffering for themselves. I was told that many people are working without salary for some time now, so there is suffering even for those who are in power and, if the insecurity is going, on it will also be an insecurity for themselves, eventually.”
He also has a message for South Sudan’s neighbours. “The good of South Sudan must occupy their heart. They can put their country number one, but number two must be South Sudan.”
He pauses for thought. “It’s a challenge. It’s a big one.”
Ian Dolan, Trócaire’s country director for Uganda, sees no chance of peace breaking out anytime soon. “The prospects for peace in South Sudan are pretty poor,” he says.
“First of all, when they became an independent state, they weren’t in a very good position to take up statehood,” he says of the lack of talent in government - a consequence of decades of war and sporadic education.
“Also, oil (which South Sudan has) often is a curse, rather than a benefit because you get all this easy income; you don’t have to build up your economy and society.
“Many South Sudanese have been displaced three or four or even five times and I think when they got independence they thought this is our chance now and so for a lot of them hope is gone and it’s going to take many years to heal all those wounds and build a country.”
South Sudan is the product of a bitter 50-year on-off civil war with its northerly neighbour, Sudan, which together used to form one country.
The two areas formally split in 2011 after a vote on independence as part of the peace agreement intended to bring an end to the years of horror.
However, in South Sudan, the inaugural unity government that was meant to bring the diverse people together quickly developed cracks as a power struggle developed between the president, Salva Kiir, of the Dinka tribe, and his vice-president, Riek Machar, of the Nuer tribe.
After two years, it imploded and unleashed hostilities that go way beyond political rivalry. The UN, in trying to characterise the situation, says the fighting encompasses “inter and intra-communal conflicts, the reigniting of historical localised conflicts and fresh battles over land, resources and power”.
Three main armed forces are involved: the official South Sudanese army, the SPLA; the portion of that army that is loyal to Riek Machar, known as the SPLA-IO (SPLA In Opposition), and another faction taking the same name which split from the SPLA-IO and is loyal to vice- president, Taban Deng, who succeeded Machar after Kiir sacked him.
None will give up the name as all claim to be the legitimate defenders of the South Sudanese people. Each group is backed by a variety of militias, divided mainly on ethnic and tribal differences.
Some 40 armed groups in total are now believed to be involved in the fighting, chiefly in the southern part of the country, with others emerging as the conflict spreads to new areas.
All use guerrilla tactics rather than conventional battles. Numerous attempts have been made to calm the situation, brokered by international bodies. The latest Cessation of Hostilities Agreement came into effect last Christmas Eve but it was broken within a day.
The government has set up a national dialogue to try to bring all parties to the table but its influence has been negligible. Of the estimated 12m population, 1.9m are now internally displaced and 2m are refugees in neighbouring countries.
Uganda has been much praised for giving example to the world on how to deal with a refugee crisis.
First and foremost, it accepts refugees under the open door policy of president Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni may have ulterior motives for this largesse but observers say Museveni also truly believes in a united Africa with co-operation between neighbours. It’s no harm to curry favour internationally when your record on human rights is abysmal.
Either way, Uganda is getting applause for taking in such huge numbers and for granting them freedom of movement and the right to work and access public services. However, it is also getting the largest refugee influx of any African country and it is not without impact on the poorest region of one of the world’s poorest countries which is only a decade clear of its own brutal war: — 1.5 million have come mainly from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, one million from South Sudan alone, into northern Uganda.
While the land where Bidi Bidi and newer refugee camps was unused, much of it is in community ownership. Only lack of manpower and irrigation left it unviable to farm.
However, population growth in Uganda is dramatic — currently 30m, it is expected to double by 2030 — and pressure on land will rise with it.
Already the education and healthcare systems in the north are stretched, sanitation is non-existent or poor, water is sourced from rivers or boreholes, roads are dirt tracks, communications are sporadic and electricity is a luxury that only the larger towns have, and then with frequent outages.
To top it all, the collapse of South Sudan’s economy has lost northern Uganda a valuable export market.
So will Uganda remain open to refugees despite the drain on its limited resources and the potential for conflict with local communities? Robert Baryamwesiga, a settlement commandant with the Office of the Prime Minister in charge of Bidi Bidi camp, is adamant that it will.
“We may not be a very rich country but our hearts are big. We still believe that in limited resources, we can’t chase away our own brothers and sisters. We have that obligation to save lives from danger,” he says.
Those are fine sentiments but the commandant does not deny the practical difficulties.
He says international donors have been slow to respond with funding, often with “flimsy excuses”.
And he says care must be taken not to create conflict with host communities. The Office of the Prime Minister stipulates that 30% of all donor funding must be invested in services in the host communities and he says that helps ensure equity between both groups.
He utterly rejects suspicions thrown up by a recent internal UN probe that refugee numbers may have been inflated in places to attract extra funding, although the Office of the Prime Minister is co-operating with a new headcount.
“There is a lot of ignorance about how refugees are registered. You can’t have fake numbers. It’s not possible. Refugees are physical people. So I am waiting for the exercise to end so those who say there are ghosts can show me where the ghosts are,” he says. Work goes on in the massive logistical task of supporting the refugees, and the commandant acknowledges it will be a long-term commitment.
“We are doing our best to keep their lives running normally. We want to empower these people as soon as possible to stop depending on handouts,” he says.
“As I talk now I have not seen any credible efforts to return peace to South Sudan so we are continuing to support refugees until that time. I guess it will not be very soon.”
Caroline O'Doherty travelled to Uganda with Irish charity Trocaire which was one of the first organisations to respond to the needs of the South Sudanese refugees who began pouring into northern Uganda in late summer 2016.
Trocaire's annual Lenten campaign is currently underway. Donations can be made online or over the phone by calling 1850 408 408.