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Escaping South Sudan violence

Despite suffering violence and loss, those hat manage to get out of South Sudan are the lucky ones.
Last modified: 12 Jan 2014 13:09

The village of Dzaipi in Northern Uganda, about 35km from the border with South Sudan, is small even for rural Uganda.

There are a handful of permanent buildings, a scattering of huts, a health centre and a primary school. When we arrived there were people everywhere – all of the buildings were overrun, many were sitting in the shade under trees, and many more sitting on the floor out in the open.

It is the temporary home to more than 20,000 South Sudanese refugees, who have fled the fighting in their home country, as they wait to be registered by aid-workers and taken to a long-term settlement.

Many told harrowing stories of the violence they fled at home, and had seen loved ones killed, or gone missing during the exodus.

They brought with them what possessions they could – mattresses, saucepans, bags of clothing. Most had travelled all the way from around the town of Bor, in Jonglei State, crammed onto the backs of trucks.

Over the days we spent there what started as handful of stalls belonging to Ugandan traders, selling food and other goods to the refugees, rapidly boomed into a thriving market. There were traders selling snacks and bottles of water, others started cooking food on the roadside, then more came selling all kinds of clothes, new and second-hand.

Local villagers slaughtered cows, cut them up and started weighing out portions of beef to an ever-growing number of customers. Some even more ambitious entrepreneurs brought a fridge, a generator and a sound-system, and constructed a bar from a wood frame and UN tarpaulins, which immediately filled up with customers.

It dawned on me that, while the refugees here were far from wealthy, many of them seemed to have a bit more cash to spend than other populations of displaced people I have seen in this region – South Sudanese, Congolese, Ugandans.

But in Dzaipi refugee camp we were more than 400km from Bor, where the worst of the recent fighting has taken place. More than 200,000 people have been displaced by the violence, but only a minority of them have made it to the safety of Uganda, or other countries.

I realised in Dzaipi the people we were meeting were the ones who could afford to pay for a space on the back of a truck, the ones who could get away. Amongst all those who are affected by the fighting, and in spite of their suffering, they were still more fortunate than others.

There is a small handful much more fortunate than that. In Uganda’s capital Kampala, the luxury vehicles of Juba’s elite can now be seen around the city, their owners having fled their own capital when the fighting began. Those who benefited directly from the inflows of aid and oil money in recent years are spared the discomfort of the refugee camps, instead driving or flying straight to other countries.

But for the tens of thousands of displaced people still in South Sudan, unable to afford transport to a safer place, their situation must be the worst. The UN has only been able to reach about half of them, to provide assistance. We spoke to people who had hidden in the bush for days before they would get onto a truck. In South Sudan, there must be people who have been living in the bush for weeks, and are still struggling to survive there now.

Those that are able to, flee to safe places – for example Dzaipi, in Uganda, or UN bases in South Sudan. For the same reasons, those places are easier for us journalists to access and publish their stories, and for humanitarian agencies to help them too. The stories of the displaced people suffering the most are probably yet to be told.