A small van from South Sudan enters Uganda with a group of refugees. All of them are children. “The South Sudanese army stops the men coming out”, the driver says, “they cannot leave the country”.
It’s eleven o’clock in the Ugandan border town of Elegu and four hundred South Sudanese have arrived since sunrise. Since the civil war erupted again in July in Southern Sudan, hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed the border. Many others fled to Ethiopia and Kenya, bringing the total to one million.
South Sudan has already one and a half million displaced citizens. Half the population of twelve million cannot live without food aid. The UN call it an emergency.
Rural dwellers from just across the border tell of their fear for South Sudanese government soldiers. They go from house to house and pick up young men they accuse of supporting rebels. They also tell of looting by the army, about undisciplined rebels and robbers who attack food trucks.
“Everywhere armed men scour the country side”, says farmer Sunday Ngawana. Their enemy is the civilian population. “One group first stole everything from my house, then a other group took off with the leftover stuff when I escaped to Uganda”.
Also from the South Sudanese capital Juba, a five hours drive from the border, the refugees continue to stream in. They are mostly officials and businessmen. A woman in a gala gown and her four daughters in pink and azure blue Cinderella dresses walk behind a heavy sweating Ugandan who carries their belongings in a wheelbarrow.
They are followed by businessman Jackson Elamein. “In Juba soldiers looted everything from my store”, he says. “After the fighting in early July I have been watching the situation for a while, but concluded that I can’t do business there anymore. It is too unsafe in South Sudan”.
President Salva Kiir and army chief Paul Malong chased out Vice President Riëk Machar in early July, their rival with whom they had signed a peace pact. Riëk Machar walked for weeks with his men to Congo and recently resurfaced in the Sudanese capital Khartoum with injuries to his legs.
In Juba the guns have fallen silent now, but the population suffers from hunger and hyperinflation. In all parts of the country clashes are being reported between fighters allied to Riëk Machar or the government army and there is armed anarchy because of activity by militia and bandits. South Sudan does not know order any more.
Jackson Elamein came under fire as he left with public transport. The driver bribed government soldiers at every roadblock, so the young male passengers were allowed to pass. But then the bus came under attack from two sides by men in uniform. “We crawled away, left the wounded behind and did the rest of the journey on foot. Five passengers were killed in that bus attack.
Riëk Machar passed through the area around the town of Yei and may have received some assistance from local fighters when he fled Juba. The population is paying a high price for the wrath of the government. That’s a bitter irony, because this part of South Sudan had escaped most of the violence of decades of war. In the first week of September two thousand South Sudanese came to Uganda every day. The army of Salva Kiir and Paul Malong accuses youth in Yei of assistance to Riëk Machar’s soldiers.
“Teachers, accountants and traders, everyone from Yei is therefore on the run”, says a UN employee. Cars on the roads to Yei regularly fall into ambushes. The food situation in the city is dire. Earlier unconfirmed reports mentioned corpses in the river. The government refuses access to Yei to aid workers and journalists.
Patrick is fifteen years old and comes from a village near Yei. Crestfallen he looks at the flow of refugees, at those who travel to hotels in the Ugandan capital Kampala and at poorer South Sudanese who will settle in overcrowded UN camps. “Where should I go”, he wonders. “I don’t know anybody here. I was at school when the fighting broke out. Later it turned out everyone had fled from my village. For weeks I have been trying to call my parents. But they don’t pick the telephone”.
The phone of businessman Elamein rings. His wife, who fled before him, welcomes him in the refugee camp in Uganda. He shakes his head. “That it would go so rapidly downhill with our young nation”, he sighs. “Malis Bashir. Bashir sorry”, he says about the president of the arabized Sudan, which the South Sudanese fought for over half a century until they achieved their independent in 2011, only to come to blows among themselves afterwards. “I’m sorry, Bashir, I am sorry that we became independent”.
This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 13-9-2016