3,500 refugees cross the border here - every day

The dreams and visions were endless when South Sudan achieved independence in 2011, but after just a few years  a power struggle broke out between the country’s most powerful men.  Today raw violence, liquidation, rape and burnt down houses have driven almost two million people to flee inside the country’s borders while 1.5 million have fled from the country.  Most of them to Uganda that stands ready with open arms.

By Jutta Weinkouff

Dusty, sweating with eyes blank from the effort, women and men struggle up the Koyo River’s parched course. The riverbed marks the border between South Sudan and Uganda and when they have crossed it they are in safety in Uganda.  They have as much with them as they can manage.  Some carry their possessions in big bundles on their heads, others have loaded matresses, water containers and solar panels on bicycles that they struggle to push up the rocks.

“When we heard that all the men in our neighbouring village had been killed, and that many of the women were raped by government soldiers, we decided to flee.  We were a whole group of women that left home together this morning,” tells Mary Magonza.

©Yilmaz Polat

Mary Magonza struggles the way ahead with her child and bicycle.

More than 3,500 a day

It is February 2017 and the influx of South Sudanese refugees has reached its height during the latest months

Some days more than 5,000 South Sudanese come across the border to Uganda fleeing the war, violence and abuse – an average of 3,500 daily.  Most of them, almost nine out of ten, are women and children.  The men stay at home to look after the families’ possessions – or to fight, either on the government or the rebel side.

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Open broders

While many other countries close their borders and try to keep refugees out, Uganda, although it is one of the world’s poorest countries, keeps its borders open.

“We have no upper limit for how many we can receive.  When people flee to save their lives we have an obligation to receive them and bring them to safety,” says Robert Baryanwesiga, the government representative in one of the big refugee camps in northern Uganda.

Uganda accepts the refugees and makes land available where the refugees can live.  Then the UN system and the international community move in with help and support.

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From vegetable market to reception centre

Staff from the UN registers the newly arrived refugees in Uganda in large reception centres. The centre near the Koyo River has been set up in a small market town a few kilometres from the border.  Under the large roof, where fruit and vegetables used to be sold, the refugees are registered with their names and fingerprints, and they get a quick medical check-up and if necessary treatment.

In a former shop that has been requisitioned for the purpose, the children are vaccinated against polio and measles; get a shot of vitamin A and a deworming treatment.

And from the market town’s warehouse, that is now a depot for relief supplies, every family is equipped with sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets, water containers and a tarpaulin to build themselves their first, temporary shelter.

Also see: The Global Climate Threat

Left without her husband

Many of the refugees have had violent experiences and with up to 5,000 newly arrived a day the wait for registration can be long.

Nevertheless the mood in the reception centre is relatively calm.

“There is hardly anyone left in my village.  Yesterday they were shooting right outside the door for the third time in a few days and I didn’t dare to stay there any longer.  My husband isn’t home.  A month ago he went to the capital to earn money and I haven’t heard from him since then.  But I hope that he will soon come down here too,” says 24 year old Sentiya Poni Multar, who has just arrived at the reception centre with just her purse and her little son on her back.

©Yilmaz Polat

Moses Nyaya with his family

"Only dead bodies in that country"

Not far from there, under a roof, Moses Nyaya sits with blank eyes together with his sick mother and his son that he brought to safety.

“They beat me when they came looking for rebels.  If they can’t find rebels they beat the rest of us instead.  Now we have been registered and are waiting to move on to a refugee settlement. I don’t have any hope of going back to South Sudan, not even if the situation changes.  There are only dead bodies in that country,” says Moses Nyaya.

When South Sudanese are registered as refugees in Uganda, they and their possessions are loaded onto big UN trucks and driven out to the areas, which will be their future homes.

©Yilmaz Polat

272,000 in four months

The difference between Uganda’s and many other countries’ refugee policy is that Uganda doesn’t put refugees in camps, but in settlements.  One of the areas the Ugandan government has laid out for refugee settlement is here in Bidibidi.

In August 2016 Bidibidi was nothing.  Just an uncultivated area of bush in one of the poor, northern provinces in Uganda.

But in the course of four months, from August 3rd to December 8th 2016, 272,000 South Sudanese refugees were resettled in Bidibidi.

©Yilmaz Polat

The UN’s refugee organisation UNHCR and 25 international NGO’s, among them DanChurchAid, quickly started to make roads, measure up small plots for refugees, establish water tanks and latrines and organise the distribution of relief.

In four months Bidibidi became the third largest refugee camp in the world.  On the December 8th, UNHCR stopped access to Bidibidi and a new area was laid out to receive refugees.

Scroll with the mouse (or use the arrows) over the air photos of Bidibidi that were taken in August 2016 and four months later.

Source: Cartong, photos by Bing and Airbus Imagery for OSM

"We can't chase them away"

Just beside the Bidibidi settlement is the village of Koro where about 120 poor Ugandan farming families live.  They seem to think that it is OK that persecuted South Sudanese are allowed to settle down in their area, because people in need should have help.

But they don’t think it is OK that the authorities give the refugees the land that people in Koro already cultivate or that the refugees chop down the trees in the area to make poles for their huts.  Those trees are the ones the local people cut branches off themselves when they burn charcoal to earn a little money.

“We can’t chase them away.  We won’t do that.  They must be allowed to be here, but the authorities should plan better.  We have suddenly got less land to cultivate and we can just sit here and look up at them,” says Amaru Maliamungu, one of the village women and looks up the hill to Bidibidi.

The hillside is covered with the refugees’ temporary huts covered with the characteristic light blue UNHCR tarpaulins.

©Yilmaz Polat

The local people also get wells

To avoid conflicts between the local Ugandans and the many refugees, the government is trying to combine help to the refugees with development of the local area that receives them.

In practice that means that every time the international community bores a well or builds a school in a refugee camp, the Ugandan government requires that a corresponding well is bored and school built in one of the surrounding villages.

©Yilmaz Polat

Hard to find plots

The goal is that every refugee family gets a plot about 30 x 30 meters or slightly less than a handball court.

The idea is that the refugees, in addition to space for a house and latrine, should have enough land to be able to plant a small kitchen garden and thus, at some point, be able to feed themselves.  But in practice it is hard to find plots that are 30 x 30 meters here in Bidibidi.

The temporary houses and tents stand so close and the latrines are just next door.  That the settlement is in a location with a water shortage makes it hard to see how the gardens can really get going.

So most of the refugees are completely dependent on the UN.  But the UN effort in Uganda is badly underfunded.  In 2017 the UN estimates that the effort in Uganda will cost 500 million US dollars.  By the middle of March the member states had only donated seven percent of the requirement.

The way ahead

Even though the financing isn’t covered, the wear and tear on the countryside is hard and some of the local people who have to receive the refugees groan, the Ugandan government maintains that the many refugees are a potential asset for the country.

“When people have fled to save their lives and have reached safety the rest of their lives begin. And the refugees are fuel for our economy, not least here in the poor northern part of the country” says Robert Baryanwesiga, who is the government representative in the refugee work.

There is some truth in that.  About 90 percent of the people who take part in the practical work in connection with transporting relief supplies to the camps are from Uganda and they have a welcome opportunity to get a job and an income because of the refugees.

And if the conditions in South Sudan at some point change so much for the better that the refugees return home again, the Ugandans who live in the area can move into well designed towns with schools, hospitals and a greatly improved water supply.


DanChurchAid is one of the about 25 humanitarian organisations that assist the UN system in Bidibidi and work on, among other things:

Salary for work – we call it Cash for Work 

DanChurchAid has employed young refugees to build temporary houses for the weakest refugees; sick, elderly, handicapped, single mothers and unaccompanied children.

Cash relief and help on credit cards

The UN’s food rations are just barely enough to survive on.  Especially pregnant women and nursing mothers don’t get enough nourishment.  As a supplement to better nutrition DanChurchAid distributes relief in the form of cash and on a kind of credit card.

Starting kitchen gardens

In order to improve the refugees’ state of nutrition even more, DanChurchAid teaches young people and women about how they can grow crops on their small plots.

Basic skills training

With a basic training the refugees get a chance to set themselves up and earn a living