Elegu, Uguanda – Akech Garang wears an expressionless face. She is drained and worn out. She has not seen her two children, two girls aged 12 and 13, and their father since the fighting broke out in South Sudan in mid December.
“It was about 3 am. We were trying to escape. We were walking and running. There were too many people fleeing. At first, we moved together but then they disappeared. I lost my two children that night,” she explained. As she talks, her eyes dart around, hoping to spot them in the crowded refugee transit centre in Elegu, Northern Uganda, where she just arrived after a two-week journey.
“I cried for a long time,” she said, now she just looks exhausted. She is among what the UN says is over 200,000 people who have fled fighting in South Sudan between government forces and rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. Garang is one of the luckier ones, having now made it over the border to the safety of neighbouring Uganda.
The violence started in Juba in mid-December. President Salva Kiir says Machar launched a coup against him – an allegation he denies. The conflict then escalated and spread to Garang’s hometown of Bor, the capital of the restive Jonglei state, and the largest and most populous one in South Sudan. She fled, beginning her journey on foot, and later crammed together with other refugees on the back of a truck.
Traumatised and exhausted
The transit centre in Elegu is just meters from Uganda’s border with South Sudan. A barbed-wire fence keeps refugee arrivals separate from the rest of the once-busy frontier town. Just weeks before scores of trucks would pass daily, carrying food and other export-goods from Uganda to the oil-rich, but relatively undeveloped, South Sudan.
The UN says the centre receives nearly 3000 new arrivals every day. Many, bedraggled and traumatised, become impatient and shout at officials, demanding their turn to be taken on trucks to the refugee camp, another 37 kilometres inside Uganda.
Doka Mudathir, a UNHCR field officer, deftly juggles competing demands, using his power as the master of access transport to bargain with angry refugees, and keep control of the situation. “The majority here are from Jonglei, especially Bor, where there have been many clashes,” he said.
Many of the refugees have had to walk tens of kilometres with whatever possessions they could carry, including mattresses, blankets, food and other supplies before finding vehicles. Those with cars have managed to drive to the camp and beyond while aid agencies transport whoever is found along the way.
. I can swim and that is how I made it across. But there were bodies everywhere in the water.”]
When their turn comes, the refugees are crammed onto trucks once again, for the hour-long journey to the camp, along a bumpy, potholed dirt-road.
They arrive at the reception centre, a primary school in a village called Dzaipi, which was completely overrun with arrivals during the first days of the fighting. Now, over 26,000 people are camped out in the surrounding fields, typically waiting for days before they are registered.
Gabriel Deng, 19, waits impatiently in the relentless dry heat for his turn to register. After that, he can expect to be allocated a plot of land 50 by 100 feet, in a long-term refugee settlement, and given some food plus seeds and tools to start farming.
He, like many, went through a horrific journey to get to safety. “We were running over bodies,” he told Al Jazeera. He managed to swim across the White Nile, but says many drowned in the river. “We kept hearing gunshots while we crossed. I can swim and that is how I made it across. But there were bodies everywhere in the water.”
Deng had returned home to South Sudan after completing his secondary education at a school in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, at the end of last year. Many South Sudanese, if they can afford it, study in schools and universities in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda, rather than at home. On coming home, his life immediately turned upside down. “I went home for holidays and was planning on visiting my relatives in Bor but then the fighting started.” He stated he has not seen his two brothers since.
While at the camp, Deng recieved more devastating news – his uncle, who had been paying for his education in Uganda, had been killed in the fighting. “My sponsor is dead. I have no where to get school fees,” Deng, who had planned to study for a university degree in agriculture, told Al Jazeera. Losing a relative was painful enough, but losing the sponsor for his education, one that would have one day enabled him to earn a living, has destroyed his hopes for the future too.
Ajak William, sitting under the shade of a nearby tree, also recounts painful memories. He says he watched his five cousins being shot dead by the rebels when they attacked his village near Bor. “I heard the gun shots. My cousins were seated under a tree. I was nearby and I hid in the bush. They killed them straight away.” He was lucky to get away with his mother, brother and sister.
Record number of refugees
The refugees arriving in Uganda come from various ethnic groups but the majority are Dinka, as is William, and also South Sudan’s President Salvar Kiir. Kiir’s opponent, Machar, and many of the soldiers loyal to him belong to the Nuer ethnic group. “I don’t know what happened because Riek and the president were in one government,” a confused William told Al Jazeera. Like many here, he said they were attacked by Machar’s troops because of their ethnicity.
Many people belonging to the Nuer ethnic group have also fled into Uganda. Humanitarian agencies record the arrivals’ ethnicity, and separate them, they say to prevent violence. The Nuer refugees have already been taken to a different site.
The UN says about a thousand people have been killed in the violence in South Sudan thus far. The International Crisis Group claims the figure is much higher, at around 10,000 people. Some African countries and the international community are trying to pressure both sides into a ceasefire and peace talks in Addis Ababa. So far the process has stalled. Both sides failed to agree on ceasefire terms, and continue to push for more territory on the battlefield, to gain greater bargaining powers if or when the time comes to negotiate. Meanwhile Uganda’s army has joined in the fray, supporting Kiir’s Government forces. There are many reports of Ugandan fighter jets bombing the rebels, although the Uganda government only confirms the presence of ground troops.
The thousands of refugees now waiting at the Dziapi reception centre are relieved to be safely away from the fighting, but their struggle goes on. A lucky few have tents. Others wait under the shade of the few trees and sleep there at night, or put up simple structures using bed sheets and blankets. It is hot and dusty. Every time a car or truck passes on the dirt road it leaves behind clouds of dust which settle on the refugees’ possessions still strewn all over the camp. Many of them have visible flu-like symptoms. Children have dried mucus on their upper lips. Adults clear their blocked nostrils noses onto the scorched ground.
people because the pressure is too much and we want to decongest this place.”]
The facilities are inadequate. Aid agencies and the Ugandan Government, caught unawares when many had gone on leave for Christmas, are now trying to bring in more tents and food for the increasing numbers. At the few water taps dotted around the camp long lines of jerrycans, basins and saucepans wait to be filled.
Trucks keep ferrying in more refugees every day, but officials have only been able to relocate a few hundred each day to the plots of land that will become their new homes. They are trying to speed up the process.
“Very soon we shall start moving between 1300-1500 [each day] people because the pressure is too much and we want to decongest this place,” Godfrey Byrauhanga, the settlement manager from the Ugandan Prime Minister’s Office told Al Jazeera. Pregnant women, disabled persons, the sick and the elderly are meant to be given priority but it is hard to see how staff can even identify all the needy cases.
Many try to get in touch with relatives, who they have not seen for weeks, while they wait. Two Ugandan men selling mobile phone SIM cards to the refugees say they have sold thousands, at an increased price. Communicating with family is paramount – not only for tracking down loved ones, but also for contacting wealthier relatives working in Government and elsewhere who can provide essential financial support.
But unlike others, Akech Garang has no way of reaching her husband. He has not called. She is hopeful but also knows the worst could have happened to him, and her children when they fled. “There were several dead people and I couldn’t identify anyone. Many also drowned in the river so I don’t know,” she said. “I will go around the camp asking people if they know where my children and husband are. But now I don’t have anything. I have nothing.”