Moyo, Yumbe, and Adjumani, Uganda – Edina Itaya shakes under the scorching sun in northern Uganda . Mechanically, she describes her oldest son’s final day in South Sudan . “They came to our house and took my son, drowned him in the river. That is why I fled,” Edina whispers calmly, before describing the four days in September when she was raped by government soldiers.
In the Bidibidi settlement in northern Uganda – one of the largest refugee settlements in the world – Edina is surrounded by clay huts, filled latrines and naked children. The settlement is home to 272,000 South Sudanese; some of the 800,000 who, according to the United Nations, have escaped to Uganda.
Fleeing south from their home, Edina and her three remaining children made it to the town of Baji, where they, along with other women and children, were captured by government soldiers. “They took us to a pile of bodies. The soldiers took off our clothes and raped us, the soldiers were everywhere,” she says.
For four days, Edina and the other women were kept locked in a room, separated from their children. Every day, women were picked out, taken to the bush and raped by multiple soldiers.
In March 2016, the UN documented more than 1,300 rapes in just one of South Sudan’s 10 regions, describing how rape is used in lieu of salary in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), South Sudan’s army.
The SPLA formed as an armed movement in the 1980s and helped South Sudan obtain independence from Sudan in 2011. But civil war broke out in 2013 when President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe and commander-in-chief of the SPLA, claimed that Vice-President Riek Machar from the Nuer tribe was plotting a presidential coup, throwing the country into a state of civil war and Machar into exile.
A peace deal was reached in April 2016 and Machar was reinstated as vice-president, but in July conflict broke out again.
Today, the same army that fought for the independence of the people of South Sudan commits crimes against them.
“My husband is still in South Sudan, he fights for the SPLA,” says Edina. “I don’t sleep at night, I just think,” she says, staring blankly.
Nothing but bodies
The war in South Sudan was previously concentrated in the north, but has recently moved further south, reaching the town of Kajo Keji in the Central Equatoria state, forcing thousands to flee across the border to Uganda. Most say they fled in fear of the government forces as they hunt for rebels.
Anyik Chaplain left Kajo Keji only a few days ago, after witnessing four people being killed when rebels clashed with government forces near his home after attacking a police station. “It was at night, at 6am, when I heard the gunshots,” he says. “Half an hour later I was told that the police officers were dead. Then we watched the fighting with our own eyes. We had to move.”
He says that he feared both the government forces mistaking him for a rebel and the rebels suspecting him of helping the army.
“There is no schooling, no food, no services, no authorities, no market – it is a ghost town,” Anyik says.
Luka Lemi, 43, also escaped Kajo Keji last week. “On Sunday, during prayers, they came,” he says. “A person came in and said, ‘The soldiers are coming’. Both rebels and government forces. We left while they were fighting. Four people were killed.”
Many refugees cross the border illegally, escaping the patrolling government soldiers, whom they say demand one last sacrifice before the civilians can leave South Sudan: three American dollars.
Refugees say they try to avoid the soldiers, travelling through the bush, down the hill, across the dried out Kaya stream separating the two countries, up the hill, and into safety.
“They [soldiers] beat me when they came looking for rebels,” says Moses Nyaya . Moments earlier, Moses and his family had registered at the temporary reception centre in the town of Afoji, five kilometres from the border.
Thousands of South Sudanese crossed into Uganda each day in February, peaking on February 1, when about 6,700 crossed over, explains Babar Baloch from the UNHCR. Baloch says that the levels of migration are comparable with when fighting broke out in July 2016.
“I have no hope of going back, even if the situation changes. There are only dead bodies in that country,” Moses says as he waits to be transported to a nearby refugee settlement. Soon, a truck is filled with people, bicycles, pots and pans.
The lorry will go to one of the refugee settlements in the region. Moses will build a new home there on a plot of land – in theory 30 square-metres – that the Ugandan government provides for each refugee. The UN and the international community deliver aid, of which 30 percent must go to the local hosting community.
However, plots of 30 square-metres are hard to spot. Houses and tents are in close proximity. Holes in the ground serve as toilets – not far apart.
Refugees describe how the aid provided by the UN and the international NGOs does not suffice. Last year the rations were cut in half and the diet is meagre and repetitive.
In February the UN declared a famine in South Sudan – the first anywhere in six years. It is a direct result of the conflict.
Roughly 5.5 million people, or about 50 percent of South Sudan’s population, are expected to become severely food insecure and at risk of death in the coming months, said the UN report.
Organised rapes, mass killings of civilians, and recruitment and use of child soldiers has caused Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to describe the situation in South Sudan as one of the most dire human rights situations in the world.
South Sudan’s refugee crisis is, according to the UN, the biggest in Africa and the third largest globally, as 1.5 million have left the country. Another 2.1 million are internally displaced. Only Syria and Afghanistan produce more refugees.
For men who have fought in the conflict and then fled, there is no escaping their past – regardless of allegiance.
Gunshots occupy Emmanuel Malice’s dreams, and sometimes the bullets hit him. “I joined the government forces when I was 11,” he says, at a safe distance from his neighbours in the Bidibidi settlement.
He is one of several former SPLA soldiers in the settlements, who fled the war they previously fought in.
“I entered the army in 1997 and left when the fighting erupted in July 2016,” says Emmanuel. What should have brought peace to his country turned into an ethnic conflict. “I killed when we liberated South Sudan, but never civilians,” he says.
His last memory from South Sudan is of the murder of his brother. “He was a priest, he was killed by government forces,” Emmanuel says.
He has no physical scars from the war. “All my injuries are in my mind, my family was killed,” he says, regretting that he ever fought in the war. He finds moments of peace under a makeshift awning, shared with neighbouring refugees.
Frazer Lucky’s handshake is firm, even though the fingers on his right hand are missing most of their joints. They were blown off during battles in the South Sudanese town of Yei in 1997.
Frazer – a pseudonym he uses, fearing the SPLA will find and kidnap him – fought in the government forces before changing sides to the rebels.
“I joined the SPLA when I was 11,” he says. There were many boys his age in the war; the children’s faces haunt him in his dreams.
“I fired my weapon many times in the name of freedom,” says Frazer. He left the government army in 2008 as he was dissatisfied with going unpaid and with how he says members of the Dinka tribe were favoured. “It is all about power, I have seen tribes being slaughtered,” he says.
He joined the rebels – forces loyal mainly to the former vice president, Riek Machar. But his will to fight was gone. “In the middle of a fight, I gave my weapon to my commander and said; I have had enough, I am tired of fighting, I have fought since 1990. Now I will leave this country.”
Frazer, his wife and their seven children walked 150km to the border. “South Sudan is moving backwards,” he says, drawing in the sand with a stick. “My future is in Uganda.”
His children surround him, while his wife gathers water along with the other women in the camp.
The 86 percent
Rose Tamaka is due to give birth to her sixth child any day now. Her husband is still in South Sudan. He went back to get his mother, but Rose has not heard from him in a month. She reminisces about her home. “We had land back there,” she says quietly.
Rose and her children are among the 86 percent of South Sudanese refugees who, according to the UN, are women and children.
“Here, I have a bit of land to cultivate but water remains a challenge and the boreholes are broken,” she says, cooking one of two meals the family shares a day.
The many long-drop toilets in the area – basically holes in the ground – have to be moved monthly, making it hard to plant crops. When combined with water shortages, land cultivation becomes a challenge.
“We are not reaching our 20 litres a day per person target, we are at 14.6 [litres] right now,” says Joao Sobral, team leader of the UN unit in the region.
Rose rises at 6am every morning, cleans her small plot and cooks flour porridge for her children.
“I am bored during the day, and I cannot sleep at night. I am tortured by thoughts of home,” she says. “[The children] used to ask: Why are we here? We want to go home. I told them about the violence and killings in South Sudan, and then they understood,” says Rose, as the sun starts to set on the thousands of families in the settlement.
After the Bidibidi settlement in Uganda closed to new refugees on December 8, having filled up in only four months, the Palorinya settlement opened in the Moyo region. Palorinya’s population grew to 111,000 people in only two months.
Uganda’s ongoing open-door refugee policy has received praise from the international community, especially from the UN, for being progressive and forward-thinking.
At a reception centre in Yumbe, local UN representative Frederick Jackson Oculi labels the Ugandan refugee policy “second to none”.
The east African nation is among the 10 countries in the world with the highest refugee population – hosting around 865,000 by December 2016.
Robert Baryamswesiga, Uganda’s Bidibidi settlement administrator, describes how attempts are made to put the refugees to work. One of the working refugees is Charles Moro, who proudly shows off some of the 754 shelters he helped to build. “It feels good to do something, to contribute,” he says. Other men are digging holes in the ground that will serve as toilets or boreholes.
“They are like gasoline to our economy,” Robert says.
He explains how refugees, in principle, have free movement. “We have gotten them to safety, now they must live,” he says.
However, Chris Dolan, director at the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Uganda, says there are limitations. “Those living in settlements are supposed to seek permission to travel inside Uganda, and for many of them who do not have experience in farming, being caught in the settlements up north is a problem,” he says.
Dolan asks, rhetorically, what choice Uganda had when South Sudanese initially sought safety: “How are you going to stop one million refugees crossing an extensive land border?”
The process is not entirely smooth, Titus Jogo, an administrator responsible for implementing Uganda’s open-door policy in the Adjumani region, admits. “We are struggling with poverty here, we need support,” he says.
According to the World Bank, Uganda is one of the world’s poorest countries and about 20 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day.
Most of the poorest Ugandans live in the country’s northern region, which shelters hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Despite the challenges, Titus Jogo insists local businesses have benefited, and a 2016 study conducted by researchers from Davis University and the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) backs Jogo’s claims. The study found that “when a refugee household receives cash from the WFP, the annual income in the Ugandan economy increases by $1,100 – and by $850 when the assistance is given in the form of in-kind food”.
It took time before the local community felt the benefits. Isaac Vuchiri lives in Egge – a village bordering the Adjumani settlement. “There is improvement, like in medicine and healthcare, and lots of schools constructed. There was one school before, now there are 15,” he says.
Beatrice Eimani, another villager, describes how hunger has come to Egge. “We used to get porridge for breakfast, and then dinner. Now it’s only one meal a day.”
“The hunger affects us a lot. My children do not get enough to eat and they ask for food. I try and calm them down and give them just a little bit,” says Beatrice – pointing to where she previously harvested crops on fields that are now populated by Adjumani settlement inhabitants.
Isaac describes how water shortages were exacerbated as the refugees arrived, explaining how recently constructed boreholes – paid for by the UN and the international community, like all aid in the area – have improved the situation.
More boreholes will soon be needed. On February 23, the Imvepi settlement opened in the Arua region, and will accommodate another 110,000 South Sudanese refugees – some of the 925,000 the UN expects will arrive in Uganda this year.
In December 2016, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “the risk of these mass atrocities, which include recurring episodes of ethnic cleansing, escalating into possible genocide is all too real”.
In a letter seen by Reuters news agency and sent by a former government army general, Thomas Cirillo Swaka, he described the military raping and killing civilians, and a network of secret prisons where torture is endemic.
According to Swaka, the government has systematically transformed the SPLA into a tribal army, while “terrorising their opponents, real or perceived, has become a preoccupation of the government”.
The former general describes how the government has used decrees to de-populate oil-rich regions, some of which are Nuer tribal heartlands. The military, police and other security branches systematically recruit and post Dinkas to support a policy of land occupation, he wrote.
Some point out that it is not only members of Nuer tribe who are suffering from government violence.
“The politicians talk about Dinkas and Nuers, but I only see South Sudanese being killed,” says Simon Marchiek, a member of the Dinka tribe and one of 160,000 inhabitants of the three-year-old Adjumani settlement.
“Everyone complains about the government army, including the Dinkas. South Sudanese are suffering under President Kiir’s rule,” says Marchiek .
While the South Sudanese government has not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, Ateny Wek Ateny, a spokesman for the presidency, told the South Sudanese newspaper, the Sudan Tribune, that reports of genocide and violations of human rights are merely an attempt to garner international sympathy for sanctions and embargoes on the country.
The victims say they have no means of reporting the assaults, murders and rapes by the government forces. “There is no justice,” says Edina Itaya, back at the Bidibidi settlement.
She scans the settlement when asked what the future holds. “My children might have a future, but I do not have one. I do not know how long I will be on this earth. Not for long I think.”
Edina is in pain when she eats – the beatings she received while being gang raped have given her chronic kidney problems and an ulcer.
As long as the killings continue in South Sudan, Edina does not want to return. She would rather live here, in a temporary structure, with the stench of urine, faeces and sweat, among hundreds of thousands of compatriots, she says.
“At least here, there are no sounds of gunshots at night.”