South Sudan’s civil war has driven a quarter of a million people into a Ugandan camp the size of a city – here are some of their stories
By Patience Akumu Photographs by Roberto Salinas
A female refugee with her children in the Bidi Bidi camp in northern Uganda. More than 3 million people have fled the civil war in South Sudan since it began.
‘Where is the money?” Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, asks his deputy, Riek Machar.
“I bought guns,” Machar says.
“Where are the guns?” Kiir insists.
“I will show you,” Machar’s reply is sarcastic.
Kiir is vexed. “I will remove you.”
“We shall meet in the bush,” Machar says, his ego bruised.
“We shall meet in the bush,” Kiir retorts.
Gunshots ring out. People are killed. And so begins South Sudan’s civil war, as interpreted in a play by a class of primary school children. This is how they explain why their lives have been uprooted, why they have been forced to flee their homes, and why they have ended up here, in Bidi Bidi in north-west Uganda, the largest refugee settlement in the world.
For the last five years, South Sudan has been riven by civil war since President Kiir accused his deputy of launching a coup. Since then, around 300,000 people have died and about 3.5 million have become refugees, with nearly half fleeing to neighbouring countries. Many of them have come south into northern Uganda into refugee camps. Bidi Bidi is the largest, home to more than a quarter of a million people.
Here, the assertion that Uganda is the most welcoming country for refugees comes to life. During the day, adults till land that the government and community provide free of charge. Some volunteer with the numerous NGOs. Others own some of the small businesses that are transforming the forest, once infested with snakes and scorpions, into a mini-city. The children go to school to prepare for a future they hope will be far better than the life they fled.
To reach the camp, many of the children had to walk several miles through thick forests – with their parents, if they were lucky, but more often alone. They jumped over dead bodies. They hurried to bury their loved ones in shallow graves, going against their culture. They traded their possessions to pay for rides in old, grunting cars they were not sure could reach the border. They crossed rivers and lakes in rickety canoes. They survived.
At the peak of fresh fighting in South Sudan in 2016, Bidi Bidi received thousands of refugees every day. Now a few trickle in every so often. The settlement has swelled to the size of the city of Birmingham, covering more than 100 square miles.
The winding murram (gravel) roads and villages stretch to the horizon and you could spend all day trying to find a single place. Lush green patches and imposing rocks surround the mostly grass-thatched houses. Only the creative use of tarpaulins from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency – for roofing and carpeting to building makeshift shops and fencing homesteads – reminds you that this is a refugee settlement.
As evening draws in, the kitchen fires of Bidi Bidi start to die down, some still hot and luminous in the gloaming. Betty Dawa’s fire is lukewarm, having been used to prepare the only meal of the day – posho (dried mashed maize) and beans – for her two children and husband, Julius Wani, who volunteers with Fahard, a local NGO that partners with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. They sing about the past and God’s goodness, dancing in circles and ignoring the whiff of beef cooking in the neighbour’s kitchen.
“We do not have much but we have a lot. We have love and we have our culture,” Wani says.
He shoos his children into the house to do their homework just before his “bros” arrive. The bros are a group of South Sudanese men who have overcome ethnic tensions – the conflict between South Sudan’s 60 ethnic groups has resurfaced during the civil war – and now consider themselves to be blood brothers.
“I do not believe in God,” Bosco Yuga, in short dreads and skinny jeans, declares to the disbelief and laughter of others. “I think when we die we remain in the soil.”
Wani straightens his red work waistcoat and turns away from Yuga like he is a little boy who should be ignored. He addresses Emmanuel Atilio, a lanky 18-year-old struggling to fit into the Ugandan school that put him three classes down when he arrived two years ago. “Would you like to leave Bidi Bidi one day?”
Some of the young men at the Bidi Bidi camp, including Emmanuel Atilio, left.
Atilio thinks for a moment. “What is in Bidi Bidi?” he asks. “Even though you play football like Lionel Messi, even though you sing like Chris Brown, nobody will know, if you stay here in Bidi Bidi.” The men nod. Atilio’s words hang with undeniable importance. They say goodnight.
The next evening, the apprehensive Atilio morphs into “Lil Ton”, a local musician who captivates audiences with his soulful voice. The theatre is Yuga’s compound, now swept and decorated with flowers he worked for weeks at a restaurant to be able to buy. Wani is Lil Ton’s “mentor”. He tells him over and over again that he must earn money. And music might be the key to the magic future he is looking for.
“We want a peace. We want a peace. Peace in South Sudan,” sings “Fabulous”, Atilio’s brother with whom, off stage, they share a name. Atilio and their friend, John Njoga, join in as the music changes into a funky Ugandan tune. Together, the three young men form the group Super Talent, who made it to the semi-finals of the last “Bidi Bidi’s Got Talent” show.
While the girls of Bidi Bidi are still in school, they study, dance and sing like the boys of Super Talent, but once they leave school, there are expectations. They will probably marry, have children and dedicate their entire lives to raising a family.
This culture is hard to question, according to Christine Onzia Wani, who was working as a journalist in South Sudan when the war broke out. Onzia says it is strange being a refugee when she once covered stories about refugees.
Sex. Menstruation. Rape. These are all taboo topics. Here, the stigma of being a woman who does not walk the straight path of chastity and obedience is heavy. “They raped a woman who went to collect firewood. Her friends saw her being raped but when the police came, she denied that she was raped,” Onzia says. “She eventually ran away from Bidi Bidi because she could not live with everyone knowing.”
Those taboos are only broken under the cool tarpaulins woven together to build Baraka, a shelter for women and girls. The women gather here on Wednesdays for counselling. On other days they come to talk, to encourage each other and to sell their craft bags and mats. Some saw their husbands being killed. Others were raped on the way. Many are still routinely raped by husbands who believe a woman must never say no.
“I come here and listen to their stories and I say I am a little better,” says Lucy Ateyi, who translates what the women say to Celia Akankwantsa, a Ugandan counsellor.
Lucy Ateyi, a refugee now working as a translator at a women’s group in the Bidi Bidi camp.
Before Ateyi came to Uganda, she was an accountant. She narrates her escape to no one in particular, almost as if in a trance: “It was a hard journey and I am happy to be alive, but this is not what I am used to.” Soldiers turned her away twice when she tried to reach Uganda. The third time, with her elderly mother-in-law, sick husband and three children in tow, she wailed in fear and frustration.
“They said: ‘Why are you leaving South Sudan? Why do you want to go to Uganda?’ ” Ateyi says. “Everyone around us was dying and I cried because I could not take it any more. I know there were many in my situation but I had reached my limit.”
Her voice is full of remorse for being the one who got away. At Baraka she found a group of women battling demons even worse than hers. Demons they have replaced with drawings of flowers and positive messages on the wall.
“When I asked for money for soap, my husband told me: ‘This is a camp. Your husband is the UN now,’” says Sandia, a regular at Baraka. Her friends break into giggles. “Then in the night he said: ‘I need you.’ He was dirty and smelling and he had not bathed for days. I said no and he raped me.”
“No situation is permanent,” Akankwantsa counsels the women. “We are empowered.” It is a cry for the women to remain hopeful. “What a man can do a woman can do.”
But Herbert Wani, Onzia’s husband, thinks that the women of Bidi Bidi need more than a counselling centre. The refugee women are raped when they go to collect firewood because the community is angry and resources are shrinking, he says. Women have long been pawns during conflict.
Wani, a lawyer and self-made agro-forester, plants trees to reclaim the environment, which has been changed dramatically by the growth of Bidi Bidi, and offers them as a peace sacrifice to the community. “Tree is life,” he says. “Tree is food. Tree is medicine. Tree is conflict. Tree is peace.”
Unlike Super Talent, who dream of one day performing on a big stage in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Wani and Onzia say they love their life and are content to stay in the camp until the war ends and they can return to South Sudan. “We just want to go home. Not to Europe. Not to America. Why should we go there to wash dirty plates when there is so much land for farming?” Onzia says. “We shall one day go home.”
Patience Akumu was a guest of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation