BIDA BIDA CAMP, UGANDA —
“I don’t want to go back,” James Issac declared, just minutes after becoming a refugee. “I don’t want to die.”
For two days, the slender 30-year-old from South Sudan’s Equatoria region navigated his way out of civil war, riding a motorcycle along dirt roads and avoiding government soldiers who, according to accounts by refugees to The Associated Press, have taken aim at civilians.
In his last steps on South Sudanese soil, Issac passed a group of rag-tag rebel soldiers and crossed a rickety bridge into Uganda, and safety.
“I am happy,” he said, as Ugandan soldiers searched his belongings for contraband. “There [are] no problems here.”
He is one of 440,000 refugees who have fled South Sudan’s spiraling conflict into Uganda this year alone, creating some of the world’s largest refugee camps in just six months’ time.
More than one million refugees have fled South Sudan, spilling across borders in East Africa as the international community warns that the conflict and its ethnic violence could destabilize the region.
Since fighting erupted in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, in July and left a peace agreement in tatters, the world’s youngest country has experienced ethnic cleansing and teeters on the brink of genocide, according to the United Nations.
Those fleeing have turned Uganda’s northwest from an empty bushland into a sprawling complex of refugee settlements. The largest, Bidi Bidi, is a pop-up city that holds roughly 260,000 people weary of war. Last week the U.N. announced the Bidi Bidi camp had stopped taking new arrivals because it was full, and it directed South Sudanese to nearby locations.
The refugees “were in critical condition. Bullets remaining in their legs. Others had come with parts amputated. Others were severely bleeding,” recalled Rufaaaya Asiyati, a nutrition specialist working at the border crossing for the Ugandan government. Roughly 20 percent of those under 5 years old are severely malnourished, she said. Most of the refugees are women and children.
When the refugees arrive in settlements set up by the U.N, some like 18-year-old Harriet Guo are alone and must fend for themselves. The refugees are given supplies to build shelters and must set them up themselves.
Like others in the camp, Guo tells stories of brutal violence that forced her to flee South Sudan.
“There is war there, and here there is peace,” she said.
Many of the refugees come from Yei, where the AP visited in November and heard stories of government soldiers killing, raping and arresting civilians based on their ethnicity. Some civilians also said that rebel soldiers would take money or phones from people fleeing to Uganda.
“There are so many people who are shot dead by unknown gunmen, and when you are arrested by armed personnel your whereabouts cannot be found,” said Taban Jackson, a community leader in the Bidi Bidi camp and a former municipal official in Yei.
Unlike other counties in the region, Uganda has embraced the refugees, according to Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
“Many Ugandans themselves have previously been refugees, and you typically hear expressions of solidarity from the Ugandan people,” Yaxley said.
Maliki Drakuma is one of them. The town clerk of the local Yumbe government and the owner of a mobile phone store near the refugee settlements, he said the sudden influx of South Sudanese has brought economic development to the barren region.
He acknowledged that some services have been stressed by the sudden flow of refugees, and police now carry out more patrols.
But Drakuma compared the nearby border to a “two-way street” because he and many other Ugandans had been refugees themselves.
“We would love the refugees to stay for longer,” he said.