Bonded by spilt blood, | Sunday Observer

Bonded by spilt blood,

Children at one of the camp’s purpose-built schools. It is hugely overcrowded, with classes of more than 300 pupils at a time. Pic: Peter Caton/UNHCR
Children at one of the camp’s purpose-built schools. It is hugely overcrowded, with classes of more than 300 pupils at a time. Pic: Peter Caton/UNHCR

This, then, is a family. There is 23-year-old Gloria Keoji, the only adult, and six children. The oldest is 17, the youngest three months. There are five girls and a boy. The ties that bind them are made more of blood spilt than blood shared but, they insist, they are a family nonetheless.

All have their tales of violence, told fast and quietly while looking at the red soil between naked and calloused feet, or staring into the vast blue sky above the bush. These memories are too fresh to confront face on.

Fighting between militia factions and government forces in South Sudan, the world’s youngest state, over the past year has created the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.

On Thursday, the number of people fleeing across the border to Uganda passed a million, the UN’s refugee agency said. Another million have fled into Ethiopia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most were women and children escaping “barbaric violence”, according to the UNHCR.

Over the past year, an average of 1,800 South Sudanese have arrived in Uganda every day. Some crossed the border with the rest of their family, but not many.

Zubeida Flores describes how she hid under a bed as her father was shot dead by government troops outside her home during a night raid on her village in Equatoria province in February. The 14-year-old fled into the bush and eventually reached safety in the camps in Uganda that, for a year, have welcomed refugees as they limp across the border. Here, in Imvepi camp, she met Gloria.

Her new sisters are Margaret and Betty Tomalu, aged 16 and 17. Their parents, farmers with no interest in war or politics, disappeared in a rebel night raid on their village in March. The girls hid, then retrieved a few possessions and began walking.

As the teenagers talk, Sharon, aged three, falls quiet. Keoji saw the child standing alone among the burning homes of her village in Yei River state during the raid in which soldiers took her own husband. Sharon’s parents had also been rounded up on to army trucks, and the troops were returning.

Without thinking, Keoji seized her as she fled with her own children, aged two and three months. They walked for 60 miles (100km) and crossed into Uganda. Now Sharon clings to her as the group sits and talks outside the small shelter they have built as a home with tarpaulins and wood provided by NGOs.

“We are one family now. Yes, we argue, and there are many difficulties. But Gloria is in charge. I have lost so very much. I will not lose what God has given me here,” Zubeida said.

At the reception centre in Imvepi, 30 miles from the border, officials have logged 1,400 children who have arrived unaccompanied, and 5,400 separated from their families. They include a 14-year-old who had led five younger childrenacross war-torn forest and fields for weeks, a seven-year-old who made it entirely alone, and an abandoned three-year-old who has yet to be identified because he cannot describe his family.

Few among the refugees have mobile phones, and given that South Sudan has almost no roads – let alone internet, mobile network or even a postal service – separation can last a lifetime, whether premeditated or simply a consequence of an instant decision taken in a moment of confusion and fear.

In the camps, new families form to replace those destroyed by flight and war. Some form as children seek protection and care, often offered by adults who have themselves lost sons or daughters.

Others are brought together by World Vision, an NGO which works in Uganda to place unaccompanied children in new families under the responsibility of “foster parents” among the refugees, and then monitors their welfare.

“Most people who come here have so much hate and so much hurt. We try and put the communities back together,” said Evelyn Atim, World Vision’s child protection coordinator.

Some such new families are very large, in part because of the necessity of putting children with others from similar ethnic and linguistic groups.

Besta Awadiya, who was separated from her husband as she fled fighting in her village in Yei River state with her six children, now has a total of 24, aged from three to 17. Nine are the children of a brother whose whereabouts are unknown. Four more are brothers brought out of South Sudan by the oldest, a truculent 16-year-old. The remaining five were led to Imvepi by Nuela Etaku, 17.

“I take all the children as my own,” said Awadiya, 34.

Etaku returned from school with her best friend in March to find their village devastated by an unidentified armed group. Corpses littered the ground, and there was no sign of their parents. She gathered three younger siblings who had fled terrified into the bush, and followed neighbours. A month later, they reached the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Etaku decided she and her charges would be better off in Uganda and brought them, after more long days walking, to Imvepi.

“It is hard to be in charge, because I am young. But I try to do my best for the others,” Etaku said.

Uganda has a generous policy toward refugees, allowing them to work and travel. Families get a 50 by 50-metre plot of land to farm and build a home.

They are unable to return home, however, until the government decides conditions are right for repatriation en masse. This is partly to stop factions in South Sudan, particularly opposition forces, recruiting among the vast numbers of idle and angry young men in the Ugandan camps.

This would not be hard. There are problems with gangs and alcohol. Some men had already fought before fleeing to Uganda.

Authorities keep a watchful eye for radicalisation and “political activities”.

“We have our own network in the camps and we are very well informed,” said Dennis Imbaguta, the Ugandan official who runs the Imvepi camp, now home of 135,000 refugees. Few anticipate, or desire, an early return to South Sudan. The children go to schools which though rudimentary and overcrowded are still better than anything in their homeland, even in times of peace.

Nor do many expect much from the future. The boys talk vaguely of learning skills, and Ekatu wants to be a nurse or a teacher. But the psychological wounds are deep and World Vision and other NGOs can only provide limited support.

Theguardian

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