Uganda: South Sudan conflict leaves women and children to cope as refugees

News Stories, 20 January 2014

© UNHCR/F.Noy
Sixty-five-year-old Adau arrived this month at Dzaipi Center with nine family members, including children and grandchildren, while her husband stayed behind.

ADJUMANI, Uganda, January 20 (UNHCR) Walk around Dzaipi transit centre in northern Uganda and you will see thousands of children running about, tents full of pregnant women, young mothers and newborns, and elderly women resting against trees. What you do not see are many men.

Women and children make up the vast majority of the nearly 50,000 people who have fled fighting in South Sudan to become refugees in neighbouring Uganda. Many have been made widows and orphans by clashes between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, as well as by other conflicts in the world's youngest state since early 2012.

"Many people died fighting, we have a lot of orphans and widows," says 24-year-old refugee Elijah Daniel Aber Bol Deng. "So many men died."

Nawal Ali Dut, 24, knows first-hand. Before coming here, she was already a refugee in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, from the country's northern neighbour, Sudan. Her husband, a Sudanese soldier, was killed in 2011, and the rest of her family died in aerial bombings in her home region, the Nuba Mountains.

When fighting broke out in Juba last month, she and her two young children were forced to find a new sanctuary. Speaking a different language from the mostly Dinka refugees in Dzaipi transit centre, she feels isolated.

"I have no one to protect me when people are fighting or to help me to set up a home," she says. "I am all alone and it is so hard." After learning of her plight, UNHCR introduced her to seven other Nuba families in the centre and they began sharing a communal tent and each other's company.

Other women and children are alone because their men have dropped them off here for safety and returned home to South Sudan. One was Chol Bok, 27, who left his family at Dzaipi transit centre. "I am going back," he said. "How can I stay and flee when I am a man? It is my country, I must stay."

UNHCR and its partners, including the government of Uganda, are trying to move South Sudanese refugees from the Dzaipi transit centre to settlements where they can receive better protection. The UN refugee agency is giving the new refugees in northern Uganda shelter, food, water, healthcare and basic protection with support from various NGOs and UN partners.

Children arriving alone are housed in a separate tent by Uganda Red Cross Society volunteers, who help them get the food and water they are entitled to. UNHCR is studying how to help women taking care of families on their own to build homes once they reach the settlements.

Those men who can be seen in the camp are often huddled in groups under trees or outside tents discussing the political situation back in South Sudan. Through phone calls, radio broadcasts and word of mouth they closely follow the politics at home.

Gabriel, 28, says the only way forward is peace, but not everyone realizes this yet. "For us that have gone to school, we like unity," he says. "For those that have not, they still like conflict."

Pastor Joseph Atem, is promoting peace and reconciliation at a temporary church he has set up at the entrance to Dzaipi transit centre. At his Sunday morning services he preaches forgiveness. During the week he walks around and listens to refugees' problems and discusses how to bring peace to South Sudan.

Elijah, at 24, doesn't want to remain a refugee all his life. He'd prefer to help shape a peaceful country back home without deadly quarrels among politicians. "We are just looking for peace we don't need anyone to lose his life because of leadership," he says. "Leadership is not just for one person, it is for all. We are all one people and we must come together."

By Lucy Beck in Dzaipi Transit Centre, Adjumani, Uganda