Flight across border achingly familiar for some South Sudan families

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Refugees from South Sudan arrive at a UNHCR collection centre on the South Sudan border in Egelo, Uganda.  © UNHCR/Will Swanson
Refugees from South Sudan arrive at a UNHCR collection centre on the South Sudan border in Egelo, Uganda. © UNHCR/Will Swanson

ADJUMANI, Uganda – Lucy Lul says she realised war was coming when she heard there was a convoy of vehicles on the road from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to Uganda.

She and her husband packed a bag with their children’s clothes, she grabbed her handbag and they ran to join the line of vehicles.

A primary school teacher near the town of Pageri, about 40 kilometres from the Ugandan border, Lucy had been struggling to keep the local children in school as food shortages worsened in recent weeks.

“We don’t even have flour to cook with. Instead we’ve been eating vegetables from the bush,” Lucy said. The price of essentials rose as security declined.

“Since the fighting started again in Juba two weeks ago, the soldiers who are meant to protect us are the very ones who are harassing us in the village,” said Lucy, 30. “They have looted the markets.”

he most recent fighting in the world’s youngest country has forced thousands to flee their homes. UNHCR estimates that nearly one in four South Sudanese citizens are displaced within its borders or to neighbouring countries. The total number of South Sudanese refugees could exceed 1 million this year.

Before it became independent in 2011, South Sudan witnessed a long period of violence and instability. For many refugees this is not the first time that they have had to flee.

“It seems like every 10 years we are coming back as refugees, so we never progress.”

“I was raised in Uganda as a refugee,” Lucy said. “I returned to South Sudan in 2005 at the time of the peace agreement. I feel like crying because we built a home and school, which was very difficult. It seems like every 10 years we are coming back as refugees, so we never progress – we’re stuck at the poorest level.”

In the chaos of the journey, Lucy was separated from her husband, Francis, a building contractor and pastor.

They called each other before their phone batteries ran out and were reunited when Francis arrived late at night at Elegu Refugee Collection Point, a few hundred metres over the bridge that divides Uganda from South Sudan.

Red-eyed with tiredness and with her clothes dirty, Lucy said: “Last night we slept on the ground. It was severely cold and I haven’t eaten anything, but UNHCR and World Food Programme are giving out high-energy biscuits”.

It started raining heavily and Lucy, Francis and their two children huddled together as they lined up to begin the process of becoming refugees again.

New arrivals are given a basic medical check, children are vaccinated and people with special needs are identified before they are registered. Then, they are ready to begin the next stage of their journey on UNHCR vehicles to a transit location where they will stay for one to two weeks before moving to a refugee settlement in northern Uganda.

Pagirinya settlement in Adjumani District, the main location for South Sudanese refugees, is rapidly reaching capacity, and the authorities are scrambling to find and allocate new land to cope with the influx.

The Ugandan Government has been praised for its generous policy towards refugees, who are given a plot of land and access to public services such as health and education, but the vastly increased numbers are putting a strain on the country’s resources.

Halimo Hussein Obsiye, head of the UNHCR West Nile Sub-Office, said the situation remained manageable but they were “approaching humanitarian crisis point”. More than 7,220 refugees arrived on Tuesday, according to a Ugandan Government spokesman, and Obsiye said many more were expected. “What the refugees are saying is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. More refugees will come even tomorrow.”

“I put my hand over the children’s mouths to keep them quiet. They shot any man who said something to them.”

Grace Juru, a 25-year-old waitress from Juba, who arrived at Elegu on Tuesday 19 July with her two children and her nephew, agreed. “Many people from Juba want to get out but it is still dangerous to move,” she said.

“When the fighting started I took the children and ran to the Catholic Church near to Juba airport. We had to jump over dead bodies in the street.

“We spent three days in the church and when we thought the fighting had ended the Red Cross helped us go back to our house.”

Although fighting between rival political factions led by President Salva Kiir and first Vice-President Riek Machar had stopped, soldiers had begun looting.

Grace said troops loyal to Kiir went door-to-door looting everything. “I put my hand over the children’s mouths to keep them quiet. They shot any man who said something to them.”

Grace was separated from her husband, an engineer who she believes is still in Juba. Without a phone she has no way of contacting him.

Grace managed to secure a place on an overcrowded truck leaving for Uganda. On the road they met a convoy organized by the Ugandan military to evacuate its citizens and joined it, but at one point in the hasty exodus their truck struck another vehicle, nearly causing them to crash.

Clutching her baby, Grace seeks out acquaintances or people speaking her language at the refugee collection point to exchange snippets of information. The surroundings of the mud-caked ground and lines of people seeking help are sadly familiar.

Grace also grew up as a refugee in Uganda and she is grateful for the security it provides. “I feel safe to be back in Uganda because I don’t hear guns, but it would be better to be home in our motherland.”