Fist fights continue in S Sudan refugee camps

Fighting within South Sudanese refugee camps happens daily and sometimes with fatal conclusions.

    The Nyumanzi refugee settlement in northern Uganda houses 21,000 refugees [AFP]
    The Nyumanzi refugee settlement in northern Uganda houses 21,000 refugees [AFP]

    Adjumani, Uganda - As dozens of South Sudanese refugees gathered on May 27 to watch a Champions League football match, no one expected deadly violence to erupt.

    But when two young men haggled over a chair, the quarrel soon escalated into a fight, and other onlookers in the hall took sides. Although most of the men ran away, John Mathew, 20, fought until he lost his life.

    "We were told he had died in the morning at around 6am when police came for [Mathew's] body," said Lega Martin, a cousin of his.

    Mathew was staying in a hut with his younger sister after they had fled violence from Jonglei state in South Sudan. Lega said their parents - who had stayed in Jonglei - were distraught upon learning the news. They had asked their son to stay in Uganda and enrol in school.

    Everyone who goes into refugee status is escaping a conflict and wants to live in peace.

    - Lodo Jacob,
    a local tribal elder

    Fights are nothing new for people stuck in places like the Boroli refugee camp in northern Uganda.

    Thousands of Southern Sudanese refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda, since the world's newest nation plunged into a civil war along ethnic lines.

    Since December of last year, Uganda's Adjumani district alone received 71,000 new refugees - on top of the 11,000 refugees already living there from the previous conflict, when South Sudan gained independence, according to Titus Jogo, the head of the refugee desk at the office of the prime minister in Adjumani.

    The refugees have been sent to live in 14 different settlements, with the Nyumanzi refugee settlement housing 21,000 people and Ayilo with 20,000.

    In response to the death of John Mathew, Jogo said authorities are urging all refugees to restrain from using violence.

    "On Sunday we went with my team and held group meeting with all the refugees in this camp," said Jogo. "I told the crowd that as much as we had a mandate to keep them safely in these camps, they also had a responsibility to maintain the peace and that we were not going to tolerate violence of any sort."

    'Daily' fights

    There are no specific figures of how many fights have been reported to the police in different camps. Most fights have probably gone unreported. Nevertheless, several refugees told Al Jazeera that fights were frequent, occurring on an almost daily basis.

    Godfrey Nkuttu, 30, a shop attendant in the Nyumanzi camp, said fights often broke out in the camp, even though most of the refugees were from the same Dinka tribe.

    He said the fights mostly involved men, and that small things like a shopkeeper telling a short-tempered refugee that a product is too expensive could spark a physical altercation. The fights are often broken up by community leaders and occasionally the police - but only if they are in the area, said Nkuttu.

    But Jogo, the government official, disagrees - asserting that violence in the camps is not common and that the authorities have taken appropriate precautions, keeping conflicting tribes such as the Dinkas and Nuers in separate camps.

    Yet even so, fatal fights have been reported among people of the same tribes and families.

    In Nyumanzi refugee camp, a family dispute left a teenage girl dead earlier this month. The girl's uncle was fighting with her mother, and when she intervened to stop the fight the uncle grabbed a knife and stabbed the girl to death, according to Kiir Junior, another refugee in Nyumanzi.

    Jogo confirmed that the incident occurred, and said the uncle had been arrested.

    In response to the violence, a group of elders have teamed up to go around each settlement encouraging people to live in harmony with others. Among these elders is Lodo Jacob, 70, who himself was a refugee in the Eastern Equatorial region of South Sudan from 1979 to 1986.

    "The only message we want to pass on to them is that once you are a refugee, you live together with everyone," he said. "Everyone who goes into refugee status is escaping a conflict and wants to live in peace."

    Benson, 35, a supervisor on one of the bus services that connects Adjumani to Kampala, said refugees often fought on the bus. "For us, we cannot tell whether they are of different tribes as we see them all the same," he said. "We cannot even separate them because [we] simply don't have enough buses for each tribe."

    Benson said the solution was to create more awareness among the refugees, so that they are able to "co-exist even with the people they think are enemies".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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