“They used not to kill women but these days …. they’re killing women, children, elderly even the pastors, the bishops, they don’t spare us,” says a 14-year-old mother who fled South Sudan.
The buses line up at the Invepi refugee camp in northern Uganda.
One after the other they drop off dozens of South Sudanese seeking refuge on this side of the border.
They come off carrying whatever possessions they still have: sometimes that means empty plastic jugs, sometimes it means chickens that provide food along the way. Many of the refugees are barefoot. When they’ve finished with their registration and vaccinations, some just sit there, staring into space.
As the fighting in South Sudan has intensified, so has the flow of refugees to Uganda. Just over the past week, Invepi went from receiving about 1,000 refugees a day to about 3,000.
Perhaps one of the most stunning statistics is that most of them — the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates 86 percent — are women and children.
Many of these women are fleeing from “war, hunger and appalling acts of gender-based violence,” said Refugees International, a humanitarian organization that advocates for displaced people, in a statement on Friday. “We are yet again seeing the use of rape and other forms of violence against women fleeing South Sudan.”
Angurese, 14, lives about at the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, about two hours away from the nearest paved road. NPR is only using first names of refugees to protect their security.
She sits inside a mud hut holding her baby son. She says that over the past few months, fighting between the Dinkas and Nuers, the two biggest ethnic groups in South Sudan, had gotten really bad around her home right outside of Lainya, a village southwest of Juba. At one point, she says, the fighters even started attacking civilians.
“When the Dinkas come, they either slaughter you with the knife or they cut you with a machete, so we’re now running away because we could not wait,” she says.
The only midwife in town took off. And Angurese’s mother told her she had no choice but to follow the midwife because at that time, she was pregnant.
Fatuma, the midwife, says their group walked four days through the bush. South Sudan has been an ethnic battleground on and off for decades, but Fatuma says this conflict is different. She says she saw young pregnant women raped — and the road in front of her house had become a killing field.
“They used not to kill women but these days now they’re killing women, children, elderly even the pastors, the bishops, they don’t spare us,” she says.
It wasn’t long ago that the world had high hopes for South Sudan.
In 2011, amid massive celebrations, it became the world’s newest independent nation. But just a few years later, South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of planning a coup. As Kiir’s Dinka troops disarmed and attacked Machar’s Nuer fighters, the country quickly descended into a civil war.
The situation for women and children is bleak: Human rights groups have documented fighters raping girls and sexually mutilating boys by castrating them. Both sides have abducted over 3,000 children for use as soldiers since 2013, according to the U.N.
Jerry Farrell, South Sudan country director for the aid group Catholic Relief Services, says in most conflicts, it is women and children who suffer most. But the number of them being displaced in this conflict is “extremely high.”
He says that in a lot of ways the civilians in South Sudan have been caught in a perfect storm: Conflict has combined with an economic collapse and a bad drought.
The number of women and children affected, he says, is also testing the aid response. For example, it’s become clear that his group’s efforts to help that population would have to be scaled up many times over to meet the needs of the displaced.
He says that many children, for example, are not being educated, because much of the aid simply goes toward keeping people alive by feeding them.
“So the long term prospects of the country are grim,” he says.
Cecilia Tabu is a case worker for the aid group Save the Children. She works with South Sudanese children at Camp Rhino in Uganda. A big part of her job is to find foster families for children who flee South Sudan on their own.
She moves through the vast camp talking to families and checking up on those who have been placed in foster homes.
On a recent day, she stops to visit Kani Jane. Kani Jane came with two children of her own — then began accepting foster kids. Now, she lives with 13 children in a small mud hut that the older kids built.
Tabu points to one of the little ones — 6-year-old Santo, whose parents took whatever money they had saved and sent him off to search for a refugee camp. It might seem unfathomable that young children can find the camps on their own, but they usually find an older kid or an adult to tag along with.
“The father just sent him to come, so sometimes he doesn’t talk,” she says.
She calls Ludiya, one of the young people in her care. She gives her a smile and asks how she’s doing. When Ludiya was 17 last year, her mother did not have enough money for the whole family to flee. So she sent Ludiya off with four younger kids.
Now, she has peace, but she doesn’t have her mother, she says. And while she is in school, she sits in a classroom with dozens of other students. Some classes have more than 100 kids.
Tabu, the case worker, says that many of the children are traumatized and have yet to come to terms with what they’ve witnessed. She says some of the kids still don’t have shoes and at school they don’t have educational materials.
But here in Uganda, she says, they have a chance. She knows that from personal experience. Back in the ’90s, when Tabu was 13 and war was raging between north Sudan and south Sudan, her parents sent her off to Uganda on her own. She landed in Camp Rhino.
It was hard, she says, but she was safe and eventually managed to reunite with her parents and go to college.
Tabu walks from the family’s house in the camp to a big playground built by Save the Children.
When the playground first opened, Tabu says, the kids would fight along ethnic lines. But slowly, Tabu and other case workers helped them understand how to solve problems without violence.
It’s simple things, she says, pointing at the swing set, where there’s a long line of kids waiting their turn. Each one counts to ten swings, they jumps off and give the other one a turn.
Tabu smiles as she watches the kids play tag through a cloud of dust. They slide and they swing and they chase a football.
For that moment at least, the world here feels normal.