Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - Uganda shows it cares

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

In many parts of the world asylum-seekers are increasingly unwelcome visitors. Uganda is not only keeping the spirit of asylum alive, but also helping refugees start a new life by helping them build houses and farms in new resettlement sites. The immediate beneficiaries include 230,000 refugees from Sudan's ongoing civil war. People like Moses Taban and Lilian Juwaa.

Interviews by Wendy Rappeport

Taban's family was recently transferred from a nearby transit camp to the Maaji refugee settlement in northern Uganda. They received a one-month food ration, plastic sheets for shelter, kitchen sets and land to build a home and cultivate local crops. The 17-year-old teenager sits outside his mother's newly built hut built atop a small hill and looks over the brown scrub brush to the nearby Nile River as he tells his story:

"The war in my home district began in 1987. During those early years soldiers would enter the village and begin beating people for nothing. We don't know why. If they needed food we gave it to them," he recalls. Three years later his family decided to leave his home area of Kajo Keiji, beginning a trek which would last for several years until they arrived in Uganda.

Like most Sudanese refugees "we arrived in Uganda on foot my father and mother, four brothers and a sister," Taban said. "We crossed a thick forest and reached the town of Moyo. But there was nothing there for us. UNHCR gave us clothes and we stayed for one month."

At one point members of the family returned to Sudan to collect food and a few remaining belongings before moving on to a transit camp in Oliji. "We were given blankets, saucepans and food," Taban recalls. "There was a health centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières, boreholes for water and homes. We felt safe there" and they stayed until February when they transferred again to their current home in Maaji.

Each family was given a plot of land measuring 0.3 hectares. "We have been here nearly one month. My brothers and I have made a house for our mother," Taban said. "We have not dug a latrine; we are waiting for the sanitation officer to tell us where we should place this. AICF (Action Internationale Contre la Faim) distributes food to us, until we have harvested our crops. I am also in school. I do not know when we will ever return to the Sudan, so we must try to make our life here."

Juwaa, a 28-year-old single mother of five children, also comes from Kajo Keji. She left Sudan in 1993 after her village became a battleground between government troops and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army.

"One day there were gunshots in my village. I ran away with my husband because the SPLA arrested the head of the village and forced other men to join them. They also took away our possessions and we were told they raped the women. When I heard all these stories I feared the same things could happen to me.

"The journey to Uganda took two days walking through thick bush carrying the small children on our backs," Lilian remembered. After a couple of brief transit stops the family arrived at Ogujebe transit centre but the war and flight had taken a major toll. "My husband died soon after arriving in Ogujebe," she said. "I was left with four children. A fifth one was one month old in the womb when his father died."

Eventually she too moved to the Maaji resettlement area where "I have been given land to cultivate and we are now waiting for the rainy season to grow maize and vegetables. My children are also in school."

Lilian and Taban are content for the moment. They are grateful the Ugandans have been so welcoming and helpful in giving them what they needed most safety and a small plot of land to grow things. Despite this kindness they eventually want to return to Sudan. The current good life is simply a preparation for an eventual homecoming.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 107 (1997)