For Sudanese Refugees in Uganda, a Struggle to Survive

Cheating Death

Sudanese refugees
More than 4 million people have lost their homes in Sudan's 20-year-old civil war (Photo: Marco Longari/AFP-Getty Images).

It’s dusk at the Robidire refugee settlement outside the northern Ugandan town of Adjumani, and Michael Ochiti’s three little children have just finished their only meal of the day.

The children ate so rapidly that the meal lasted just a couple of minutes. Not that there was much to eat anyway—as usual, the meal consisted of a stew made of dried green leaves and boiled cassava, all served in one big tray. The children attacked from different angles, and soon it was over.

“Things are tough around here,” says Ochiti, after the children have all left the small, grass-thatched mud hut that serves as bedroom, dining room, living room, and family business.

He is one of hundreds of Sudanese refugees living at the Robidire camp, a settlement that hosts refugees driven from their homes in southern Sudan by the civil war, the world’s oldest war, there. Since fighting broke out between the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLA) and the Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum more than 20 years ago, the war has claimed more than 2 million lives and has forced millions of people from their homes.

Nearly all of the people in the camp hail from the Madi tribe, a small group that hails from the Sudanese-Ugandan border. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in Uganda, most of them settled in camps scattered around Adjumani district.

Ochiti and his family used to live at the Ma’aji settlement not far away, but they were forced to move to Robidire in 2002 after rebels from the notorious Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacked their camp, looted their food, and burned down their houses.

A few of the refugees burned to death in their houses. Many who escaped the fire were hacked to death with machetes.

The savagery of the LRA—or the Tong-Tong, as LRA leader Joseph Kony’s supporters are casually referred to here—shocked most of the survivors into fleeing.

“First we fled to a nearby village, but the LRA followed us there,” Ochiti recalls.

The displacement of Ma’aji’s former residents has had a profound effect not only on those who formerly camped there, but also on refugees in the other camps. Ma’aji used to grow and supply many of the other camps in the area with the staple foods—cassava, potatoes, grains, and sesame—they needed to survive.

“The land at Ma’aji was good for food, it was fertile,” Ochiti explains. In contrast, he says, Robidire, with its rocky soil, barely produces enough to provide one meal a day for its inhabitants. The loss of the Ma’aji breadbasket, coupled with a harvest ruined last year by drought and grasshoppers, have exacerbated the plight of the people in the camps. Meanwhile, the World Food Program (WFP) is phasing out its modest handouts to the refugees.

Sometimes, says Ochiti, “The elders opt to go to bed hungry so that the children do not starve.”

The WFP still provides assistance, albeit on a much smaller scale. This comes in the form of corn, beans, cooking oil, and other items, but the quantities are so small they do not have that much of an impact. A single family of as many as 14 people, for example, receives some 100 pounds of corn a month and the oil is distributed in small tins, according to the refugees.

Salt, sugar, and soap are not on the WFP’s list of items to distribute, so more often than not, the refugees are forced to sell a portion of what they get from the WFP in order to purchase these essential items.

“Yes, the food distributed is not enough, but there are other equally important needs as well,” Obulejo Moses says. “It’s hard,” he adds. Moses’ face attests to the difficulty of life in the camps. He’s only 20, but he looks twice his age. Most of the refugees’ faces are weathered and hollowed by hunger.

Ochiti’s wife pops her head through the hut’s small door and greets those inside. She’s just returned from collecting firewood, the only source of fuel for cooking in the camps. She had spent the entire previous day foraging for wood and had turned up enough for only two bundles. Today, she made two trips into the wilderness to bring them home.

“Women here have to walk long distances, often barefooted, in order to collect firewood, as all the nearby trees have already been cut,” one of the camp women explains. Sometimes there is a surplus that they can sell—the money pays for other necessities, such as paraffin for the tin lamps widely used in the camps.

Nearly all of the people in the camps have no steady source of income, except for a few traders, and even they can only fare well if the refugees have money to spend. Between the harvest and the planting season, most try to search for work outside of the camps, doing all sorts of odd jobs for their hosts, the Ugandans.

“I go dig pit latrines and mould bricks for them so that my children do not sleep hungry,” says Ochiti, stealing a glance at a small bag of dried cassava—his last—tucked away at one end of the mud hut.

Water also continues to be a major problem in the camps, especially at Robidire, where officials have resorted to rationing. Here, each family is allowed about 40 liters of water in the morning and in the evening from the only well in the camp, regardless of the size of the family. This must provide them with all they need for everything from cooking to bathing. Each family is also taxed Ush200 [$0.10] per month for using the well. It may seem like a small amount, but to most of the refugees it is a significant expense. 

From time to time, the refugees and the local population come into conflict when the locals prevent the refugees from letting their animals drink from nearby streams. This means that the refugees must drive their cattle and goats to the Nile River for water. Refugees say this is a bad option because the Nile is far away and there is always the danger of animals getting stuck in the mud there.

“Food and water are our biggest problems,” Ochiti notes—assuming no one in the family becomes ill, that is. Then the problems begin to multiply.

There is only one health center in the area, at the Alere II camp. Run by an international aid agency, it serves thousands of refugees from the area and beyond. Many seriously ill people have to walk, or be carried, for miles in the blazing Adjumani heat to get to Alere II. When they get to the health center, the queues are so long some have to wait for hours to see a doctor.

In most cases, remedies for their ailments are not available at the center, and the patients must walk miles further to town to buy the drugs from a pharmacy.

And if a patient does not have the money? “You die,” Ochiti says simply.

Malaria, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and sleeping sickness are some of the most common diseases in the camps, but often “the best one can hope to get from health center are aspirins,” says 17-year-old Amoko Richard.

There is a clinic in the neighborhood, which is supposed to take care of certain cases, but things are so bad there those patients must bring their own paper for a physician to use to write a prescription.

Education is another problem. Parents want their children to have good basic education and to go to college. School fees, some complain, are too high for them to afford. In certain families, depending on the availability of cash, children take turns each year going to school. Parents may chose to send two or three children to school one year, while the others remain at home, and the next year, they pay for the children that were at home and keep those who had their turns out of school.

“My younger brother was supposed to have completed S4 [high school] this year, but has been stuck home for the past two years for the simple reason that I could not afford to pay his school fees,” says Ochiti.

The UNHCR still sponsors a few students at the secondary level; but they must be either exceptional students or handicapped in order to qualify.

Outside Ochiti’s hut, the children dance to tinny music from a small shortwave radio dangling from the branch of a tree at a neighbor’s compound. “It’s the local FM station,” someone volunteers.

Their parents, nervous about what the next day might bring, are not dancing, but praying that the ongoing peace negotiations in the Kenyan city of Naivasha between the Sudanese government and the SPLA would bring real peace to their country and allow them to return home.