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Refugee realities

From northern Uganda, Cathie and John Rutter report on everyday life for the refugees streaming from South Sudan. They work with Kajo-Keji Christian College, which has been forced to relocate from South Sudan to Moyo, Uganda, because of violence.

There are now over a million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, living in large camps, and in addition several IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps within South Sudan. Uganda’s welcoming policy – allowing entry, allocating a plot of land – is now stretched to the limit as are the resources of the UNHCR.

Camps are generally, but not exclusively, organised along tribal lines in order to help build community and not exacerbate tensions between often traumatised and struggling inhabitants.

Refugees are still entering Uganda at the rate of at least 1,000 a day, as violence continues in Central Equatoria (where Kajo Keji is). Bidi Bidi now claims to be the biggest refugee camp in the world, but since Moyo is so close to the border there are other camps nearer to us. Palorinya is a UNHCR centre about an hour’s journey away, along a murram (earth) road – which has to accommodate heavy traffic of food lorries and water tankers – very problematic in the rains.

From Palorinya, we have visited both Belameling (smaller and newer) and Morobi (larger and longer established). The camps are organised into zones, with zone leaders, and then subdivided into areas designated by the water tank number.

Initially families were given 60 sq m of land and 12kg of food per person per month – now it’s had to reduce to 30 sq m and 6 kg. Also a lot of Belameling is in the Obongi area by the Nile – not wanted for cultivation by the Ugandans due to flood risk. The paradox of too much water and yet also too little – when it comes to safe drinking water.

Both staff and students at the college have had to cope with their families being flooded out. And 30 square metres isn’t sufficient, even if the land was suitable, to cultivate enough crops to feed a family. And 6kg of food isn’t enough. On arrival families are given tarpaulin, blankets and other basic supplies to build an inadequate shelter – but desperation and hunger means some sell these to get money for food. Conditions create a lot of health issues, especially malaria, but clinics have often run out of medicines, and black market prices are exorbitant.

Yet ask refugees what their greatest need is, and many will not say food, but education. Schooling is a great concern. Rather than wait for UNHCR to provide for them – probably a vain hope given the size of the challenge – some communities have got organised, and though facilities seem primitive compared to the west, this gives great hope.

Recently we visited a new school building provided by an American church aptly called “New Hope”. Qualified teachers are not only unpaid volunteers, but also the ones helping to build the school! Such is their commitment.

And yet, amid all this suffering and deprivation the South Sudanese retain the ability to laugh, to worship God (churches are growing and thriving), with some individuals exhibiting entrepreneurial initiatives to rise above their circumstances.

On the other hand, there is a high level of alcoholism and need for trauma counselling. And never far from people’s lips is the hope and dream to return to their homeland.

We’ve had the privilege of being involved in two prayer and fasting events at the two camps and it’s hard to put into words the impact of many people crying out to God for forgiveness, for healing, for reconciliation, and for a return from exile.

As is so often the case, while politicians posture and dispute, it’s the people (extraordinary not ordinary) who suffer, and we’ve had the chance to witness this raw reality at close hand.

“Humbling” is not an adequate word…