Thu | Jul 19, 2018

Fleeing war, South Sudanese create booming camps in Uganda

Published:Tuesday | December 27, 2016 | 12:00 AM



"I don't want to go back," James Issac declared, just minutes after becoming a refugee. "I don't want to die."

For two days, the slender 30-year-old from South Sudan's Equatoria region navigated his way out of civil war, riding a motorcycle along dirt roads and avoiding government soldiers who, according to accounts by refugees to The Associated Press, have taken aim at civilians.

In his last steps on South Sudanese soil, Issac passed a group of rag-tag rebel soldiers and crossed a rickety bridge into Uganda, and safety.

"I am happy," he said, as Ugandan soldiers searched his belongings for contraband. "There (are) no problems here."

He is one of 440,000 refugees who have fled South Sudan's spiralling conflict into Uganda this year alone, creating some of the world's largest refugee camps in just six months' time.

More than one million refugees have fled South Sudan, spilling across borders in East Africa as the international community warns that the conflict and its ethnic violence could destabilise the region.




Since fighting erupted in South Sudan's capital, Juba, in July and left a peace agreement in tatters, the world's youngest country has experienced ethnic cleansing and teeters on the brink of genocide, according to the United Nations.

Those fleeing have turned Uganda's northwest from an empty bushland into a sprawling complex of refugee settlements. The largest, Bidi Bidi, is a pop-up city that holds roughly 260,000 people weary of war. Last week, the UN announced that the Bidi Bidi camp had stopped taking new arrivals because it was full, and it directed South Sudanese to nearby locations.

The refugees "were in critical condition. Bullets remaining in their legs. Others had come with parts amputated. Others were severely bleeding", recalled Rufaaaya Asiyati, a nutrition specialist working at the border crossing for the Ugandan government. Roughly 20 per cent of those under five years old are severely malnourished, she said. Most of the refugees are women and children.

When the refugees arrive in settlements set up by the UN, some, like 18-year-old Harriet Guo, are alone and must fend for themselves. The refugees are given supplies to build shelters and must set them up themselves.

Like others in the camp, Guo tells stories of brutal violence that forced her to flee South Sudan.

"There is war there, and here there is peace," she said.