BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda — Two of her five children died as Pauline Nyaluok navigated her way from war-torn South Sudan to this refugee camp in northern Uganda where she expected to be welcomed with open arms.
Uganda is celebrated around the world for its generosity toward those desperately fleeing violence. Unlike other East African nations like Kenya, where refugees are restricted to camps, Uganda in the past gave refugees land to farm and build a home, plus free health care and education.
But a three-year civil war has sent 700,000 South Sudanese refugees fleeing, many to their southern neighbor. Refugees also are escaping violence in nearby countries such as Burundi. That is putting pressure on camps in Uganda, which can’t provide enough shelter, food, water and medical care, leaving the most vulnerable struggling to survive.
“I haven’t eaten anything for a week now,” said Nyaluok, 43, while holding her 2-year-old. “There’s not enough food, water and toilets. I have been skipped twice for a monthly allotment of grains, because of the huge number of people living here. My children are feeling very hungry, and I have nowhere to live.”
A year ago, only a few huts dotted the northern Ugandan town of Bidi Bidi. Today, more than 200,000 South Sudanese refugees live there, according to the United Nations. The camp — now one of the largest refugee settlements in the world — opened last summer after a new round of clashes erupted in South Sudan.
“We don’t have enough food to feed all the refugees, and some are getting half rations of corn meal and beans,” said Apollo Kazungu, a Ugandan commissioner in charge of refugees. “We are very hospitable as a country, and our people are friendly to refugees. But allocating them plots (of land) may not be possible if they continue to arrive daily due to violence. We are now building dormitories for them.”
Kazungu said the government is set to build three more refugee settlement camps in northern Uganda to house more South Sudanese refugees, but the situation is dire. The U.N. refugee agency recently said South Sudan’s fighting has created the third largest refugee crisis, after Syria’s civil war and Afghanistan’s chronic conflict.
“The people of South Sudan are suffering, as we’ve seen by the record numbers that have fled to Uganda and other neighboring countries in recent weeks,” said Bornwell Kantande, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative to Uganda.
At the Bidi Bidi camp, 64% of the new arrivals are children, and around 20% are women. Many people still have bullet wound scars from the fighting in their home country.
Jasina Nyapal, 28, from South Sudan’s capital of Juba, said militants attacked her family this year as they targeted tribes. Ethnic violence in South Sudan has a long history among its varied groups.
“My husband was shot dead because he was from a Nuer ethnic tribe,” Nyapal, a mother of three, said as she began crying. “I had to flee on foot with my children until I found buses taking people across the border to register as refugees in Uganda. We passed several groups of rebel and government soldiers on the way who could demand that we identify ourselves by our tribes. I saw soldiers raping young girls and shooting anyone on sight.”
South Sudan is the world’s youngest country after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. But civil war ensued at the end of 2013. South Sudan was on track last March toward peace, but violence rocked the capital again in July when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with those loyal to former vice president Riek Machar outside the presidential palace.
The renewed violence led Nyaluok to vow that she would never return to her native country, no matter how many challenges she faces in Uganda.
“I can’t go back home,” she said. “I would rather die here of hunger than face bullets and rape.”