Almost three years ago I wrote about how the newest nation in the world, South Sudan, was on the cusp of destiny when it separated from Sudan. Over the last few weeks it is becoming clear which direction it is tipping in. South Sudan is imploding and fast. The roots of the conflict in South Sudan lie in the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and the ex-Dy President Riek Machar. On December 15, an armed confrontation erupted at the presidential palace in Juba – a confrontation between army officers loyal to President Salva Kiir and disgruntled soldiers backing his ex-deputy Riek Machar. Easily exploitable ethnic markers, particularly in the form of the Dinka and Nuer, are being employed for political gains and dominance within the SPLM party. Thousands have already been killed, and tens of thousands displaced along ethnic lines. This conflict is starting to deteriorate into an all-out civil war. Relationship between the Government of South Sudan and the United Nations is at its lowest ever.
Last week, I visited Uganda on the invitation of the Oxfam program there. I was involved in the evaluation of the Oxfam response in Uganda to the South Sudanese refugee crisis. I jumped at the chance. It would be great, I told myself, to go back and revisit old haunts. What I saw was heart-breaking.
As of March 12th, over 70,000 South Sudanese refugees have poured into Uganda. Each day more continue to come over. For some it is a familiar place – they had been here when the South Sudanese were fighting the Khartoum regime in the 1980s and 1990s. For some, it is the first time. Majority of the refugees are the elderly, women and children. There are hundreds of unaccompanied minors, sent over by their families to a safe place. The men have stayed back in South Sudan; they are either hiding in the bush, fighting or tending to their livelihoods in difficult circumstances.
The Government of Uganda, through the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the UNHCR, INGOs and local NGOs are battling hard to provide relief and support to the refugees. Even as they work hard, the impossibility of the task reminds me of King Canute. Mind you – the OPM has lots of experience in dealing with refugees – they are dealing with the Congolese refugees even now on their eastern borders.
When I was in one of the camps, a fresh load of 373 families came in 4 trucks. People standing / sitting in the back of the trucks. The aged, disabled, little children, pregnant women and a few men. They descended from the trucks, with all the possessions they had left in the world tied in small bundles, bewildered and nowhere to really go. They sought shelter from the merciless sun under trees on the side of the road. They will be allotted plots on which they will build their houses, bathing areas and latrines : eventually.
The constitution of Uganda does not allow for refugee camps, only settlement camps which means that the refugees get a plot of land to build their house and develop a small farm plot. More dignified for sure but also prey to vagaries of land availability. The day they came in, they were to get some immediate WFP rations (which arrived when I was there), tarpaulin, food, cooking vessels and rope. They have to first build shelters because it could rain anytime (I understand that it did rain later that day). Wonder how they coped, especially those who could not build their shelters on time.
The refugees will settle in. They know they are in for a long haul. With reports, unconfirmed, of other tribes joining in the fighting, it is only going to get uglier as South Sudan gets (further) Balkanised. None of those I spoke with (through torturous communication that went from English – Arabic – Dinka and back), had any hopes of going back for at least 4-5 years, if at all. An old man told me that he would probably never see South Sudan again.
All the time I was wondering……… If I ever had the misfortune to be in that state, I would not know what to do. I have no skills that are useful in these circumstances. I have few survival skills; I cannot build a house, cannot make fire and cook in open and cannot brave the elements. I am just lucky that I have not been thrown in this situation, so far.
Seriously… there but for the grace of God go I………