Tarpaulin tents. Inadequate food. Meager medical care. Boredom and no way to plan for the future. This is how hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees live in resettlement camps everyday.
In its newest class of students, CVI wanted to include South Sudanese girls from the camps, so Richard (the CVI Uganda Director) and Brown (the mechanic and driver) drove out to Arua along the Uganda/South Sudan border to pick them up. I wanted to see a refugee camp, so they let me tag along. We piled into the Land Cruiser and set off on our 5 hour journey. We stopped to visit one of the CVI staff member’s husband who was in the hospital with an ulcer. He had nearly died the day before and was waiting for surgery. Ulcers are a common problem in Uganda. As we drove further, we passed gorgeous scenery of rolling hills and palm trees and men fishing in the Nile. We could even see Congo in the distance, and when driving through Murchinson Falls Park, we saw two hippos sticking their heads out of the water! For lunch, when we passed through a town, we pulled up to a chapatti stall and asked for rolex (delicious fried egg chapatti rollups). The guy already had them made and bagged—we handed our 1000 shillings (30 cents) each through the window and drove away. It was like a Ugandan McDonalds!
The next day, we met Mandela—the South Sudanese man who’s supposed to be running the CVI center in South Sudan, but the center is closed because the country is too dangerous. Mandela and his South Sudanese friends took us to Rhino Refugee Resettlement Camp where we were supposed to interview 6 girls Mandela had identified as possible CVI students. As we drove the 2 hours along the bumpy dirt road to the camp, Mandela and his friends continually pointed and exclaimed, “that used to be a camp!” Back in the 90s, this road was full of South Sudanese refugee camps. Eventually, they were able to return their country, but the war has displaced the South Sudanese again. We passed bus after bus transporting new refugees from the border to the camps. The buses used to carry passengers to Kampala, but now the UNHCR (United Nations High Council for Refugees) emblem rests in their windshields. Thirty buses make the trip from the border to the camps all day, every day, 7 days a week. 3000 refugees cross the South Sudanese border every day. Uganda houses the most refugees of any country in the world; many Ugandans themselves were refugees at some point in their lives. They know it could happen again, so they're willing to accommodate their neighbors in need. The South Sudanese are trying to escape the civil war in their country where at least 10 civilians are killed every day. The government soldiers shoot, rape, and loot whatever and whoever they want. The fighting is heaviest in Yei, a city nearly 50 miles from the border, so many refugees come from there. The roads are too dangerous to drive or walk on, so they walk through the bush at night and sleep under trees during the day. When they finally make it to the border and are bused to a camp, the refugees enter a transit center—a fenced area where they queue in long lines to register. They’re given some water and biscuits and sleep in hot, cramped tents packed together in separate male and female areas. After waiting days or weeks, they’re loaded onto large trucks and taken to their resettlement area. Each refugee is given a 20 m x 25 m plot of land and a white tarp adorned with the blue UNHCR logo. That’s what they use to make their new home.
Once a month, the refugees can go to a food distribution center and receive approximately 10 kg of posho and 8 kg of beans per person—not nearly enough food. If their soil is fertile, some refugees grow small quantities of crops, but for many this is impossible. Tall, metal cylinders are erected throughout the camp as water towers. The refugees line up their jerry cans waiting for the trucks that deliver water to each tower once a day.
When we sat down with the girls and their guardians, they started the meeting with prayer and thanked God for protecting them through the night. I thought, “When do I ever pray to thank God for protecting me through the night? Never. I always expect that I’ll be safe while I sleep.” For refugees, especially girls, this is a real concern. None of the tents have doors, so men often break into the tents and rape girls. As the interview continued and we heard the girls’ stories, most were missing at least one parent. They were either dead or still in South Sudan. When Richard asked the guardians for permission to take the girls to CVI, every guardian wholeheartedly said “Yes, please take my girl. I thank you and I thank God for giving her this opportunity.” They all realized that CVI is offering these girls probably the biggest gift of their lives—a chance to escape the camp, go to school, and receive more than enough food and proper medical care for them and their babies. It’s like a “get out of jail free” card.
In the midst of the discouraging camp setting, one happy moment was meeting the mother of Hanan, one of the South Sudanese girls currently at CVI. I was able to show the mom pictures of Hanan and her boy Joshua; she was radiantly happy and kept exclaiming, “Shukran! Shukran!” (Thank you) Richard even let her use his phone to talk to Hanan for a few minutes. While I couldn’t understand what they were saying in Arabic, the mother’s face was a picture of pure happiness. With her head tilted up, eyes closed, and huge smile, the mother was drinking in and savoring every moment of hearing from her daughter.
The next day we visited Bidibidi—one of the largest refugee camps in the world. We drove for hours and only saw a fraction of it. The conditions were even worse than what I saw in Rhino Camp. The girls looked thinner and some of their babies were coughing and showing signs of kwashiorkor—a state of malnutrition brought on by lack of protein. In the place where we interviewed one girl,the tents were built on a hill of sandy, hard soil. They had tried to dig a pit latrine, but the ground was too hard and rocky. The tarpaulins bake in the sun making the tents unbearably hot inside. Nothing could grow and when it rains, the tents flood. Refugees that had been there for a while had built sturdier shelters out of mud and grass using the tarp as a roof. A few enterprising ones had even made mud bricks to build a small hut. After driving to another part of the camp (through dry riverbeds that will be impassable when it rains) and getting slightly lost in the maze of tents, we visited Mandela’s relatives. Many of the children wore clothes with holes and nearly all their bellies were swollen from worms.
As we drove around the camps, Mandela and his friends kept seeing people they knew. We would stop and they would enthusiastically greet each other as if to say, “My brother, I didn’t know you were here! Thank God you’re safe.” It’s almost as if the whole city of Yei has been transplanted to these camps. We passed a doctor who used to run one of the largest clinics in Yei; he was carrying a tree trunk on his shoulder trying to make a shelter for his family. We talked with men who used to run large businesses now selling tomatoes and drinks on the side of the road for those who still have money. We passed teachers, pastors, and even a judge who left because there is no longer any law or order in Yei. These people used to be well off and have established lives. They had houses, cars, and jobs. Now, they live in tents and don’t even have enough food to feed their families. Some have to walk all day to reach a medical clinic that probably doesn’t have enough medicine. Most of their children can’t go to school. The worst part is, they have nothing to do all day and they have no idea how long they’ll have to live like this. They can’t plan for their future.
While the camps were grim, the stories Mandela, Richard, and the other men told while driving in the car really shocked me—they were almost too terrible to believe. One told of driving through South Sudan over 4 miles of dead bodies that were bloodied, shot, and missing pieces. He had nightmares for eleven months. Another talked of being in Rwanda when the genocide started. He walked to Uganda but remembers watching bodies float down the river turning the water red with blood. As we passed an old building, they told about the time they went to see a movie there, but the LRA started shooting everywhere—28 people were killed. They pointed to a bend in the road and laughed about the time when they had been bicycling and saw their friend driving by at that spot. After stopping to talk, the friend drove on only to be mowed down by LRA bullets minutes later. Mandela and his friends heard the gunfire, turned their bikes around, and pedaled as fast as they could back to town. They joked, “You know those American fiction movies with all the fighting and action and life-threatening scenes? We’ve lived it in real life!” I couldn’t believe they could laugh at situations where they barely escaped with their lives.
After telling these stories, Mandela kept impressing upon me the importance of peace. He said, “Once you have peace, hold onto it; because if you lose it, it will take much time and bloodshed to get it back.” Richard added that although Museveni (the Ugandan president who’s stayed in power since 1986 and should be brought before the ICC for criminal acts) is corrupt and has done some bad things, he’s brought relative peace to Uganda for 30 years, and peace has done more for the country’s development than anything. Both Mandela and Richard kept saying the camps and war are temporary—eventually peace will return to South Sudan, and all the refugees will be able to go home and resume normal lives (at least as much normalcy as they can manage after living through this). They are suffering now, but their children and grandchildren will reap the benefits when they can live in a peaceful, developed country.
Visiting the refugee camps has been one of the most impressionable experiences of my life. I never knew the value of peace before seeing these effects of war. Even a dictator can be worth it if he gives a country peace—something that I've never really thought about in America where we haven't fought a war on our land in over 150 years. Now, whenever it rains, I think of the refugees living in tents. While I'm safe in my hut, their blankets and everything they own are being flooded. Every summer, my family used to love to go camping, but I'll never again see it in the same way. We go for fun, bring lots of junk food, and pack up and go home if it rains, but for these refugees, camping is their home. I left the camps feeling helpless and like there was nothing I could do to help these people. I'm still not sure how I can physically help them, but I will definitely be praying for them and that peace will soon return to South Sudan. In the meantime, there are six new South Sudanese girls and their babies at CVI.