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Sudan’s child refugees stuck in Palabek camp

Figures from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) indicate a reduction in the daily entry of refugees from South Sudan to Uganda. But officials are not certain whether this is a result of the recently signed peace agreement.

However, unaccompanied children still populate Palabek refugee settlement. One of the children, Dominic Lokara, tearfully recounted to Arthur Matsiko the bloody episodes that forced him out of the world’s youngest republic.

At least 12 signposts for various non-government organisations, NGOs, welcome you to Palabek refugee settlement in the northern Uganda district of Lamwo. Various huge tents branded with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) logo are erected to accommodate the asylum seekers.

Established in April 2017, Palabek is home to at least 39,000 refugees, most of whom are children and women.

Inside the camp, hundreds of children play under the scorching sun. A truck carrying more refugees arrives. Some women disembark holding little children, others carry small suitcases, while more children walk barefoot; lonely and frightened. Majority have nothing except the torn clothes they are wearing. There are very few men.

A walk around the settlement leads one to an open space where more children are lining up under the blazing sun to receive relief items.

Overcome by impatience, they all scramble to the front of the three queues. In the crowd, one boy stands out. Unbothered, he looks on as his colleagues scramble for sandals, clothes, laundry soap, mattresses and sanitary pads, among other items.

As I approach, Lokara tries to ignore me but my insistence pays off. The 17-year-old is one of the 264 children, who arrived unaccompanied between May and August, 2018. His story is one of pain, right from birth.

One night at about 9pm, several gunshots tore apart Elizabeth Naboi’s chest. She was carrying her firstborn – Lokara – on her back to the hospital following a malaria attack.

“I did not hear the rebels ask for anything. After killing her, they took all her money and ran away,” says Lokara, rubbing both palms through his face. “After she was shot, I knew it was my turn.”

Lokara was left body soaked in the blood of his lifeless mother. Two hours later, police officers helped deliver him to a hospital in Chukudum province, Kapoeta state of South Sudan.

After returning home a week later, his young siblings’ first question was: “Where is mummy?”

He narrated the ordeal that sent them into weeping for their beloved mother whose body they never buried. This was in December 2013 when the vicious tribal fighting between the Dinkas allied to President Salvar Kiir and the Nuers allied to Vice President Riek Machar had broken out in the country.

When their father, Lino Nahuruhuchuk, returned home after learning of his wife’s death a month later, he immediately joined the government forces. His single-minded intention was to take revenge against the rebels who he suspected killed the mother of his children.

He had always worked from distant towns fending for his family. Now he was fighting for them. Lino fought until 2015 when he, too, lost his life.

FLEEING FOR SAFETY

“The time my father was killed, rebels were burning people’s houses every day and night. Me and my seven siblings ran away from home, and were taken to an orphanage owned by Amazing Grace Christian Ministry (AGCM),” Lokara recounts.

Here, he stayed with fellow vulnerable children until early 2017 when the organisation sent them back to their villages. Lokara says AGCM officials said they had run out of funds.

This appeared like sending the 80 children to die at the hands of the rebels. The youngsters decided to leave the village and at least perish while escaping to safety. They survived a suspected rebel attack during their two-night walk through jungle.

“After the scary attack by the rebels, we all scattered until May 2018 when we all coincidentally met at the border,” he says. “It was a joyful moment mixed with frustration. But at least we were alive; that’s what mattered.”

They were rescued by UNHCR officials at Kidepo border.

RISING NUMBERS 

Uganda is said to be home to more than 1.4 million refugees, with majority coming from South Sudan. But according to Titus Jogo, a refugee desk officer in the OPM, less than 100 refugees from South Sudan are arriving daily. Before July, that number averaged 200 daily.

According to Greg Lavender, acting director for Plan International Uganda, the amount of humanitarian aid Uganda is able to deliver is increasingly falling short and, therefore, more is still needed to support the affected populations.

“For instance,” said Lavender, “Uganda’s refugee funding for all partners currently stands at only 8.2 per cent for 2018; and yet this is the country hosting the third highest refugee populations in the world.”

Jogo said there is a funding challenge and asks for more government attention.

“The appeal is also to the donors, they should continue to give us funds so that the refugees can at least feel at home as we wait for peace to return to their country,” Jogo said.

Last week, Plan distributed non-food items in Palabek to meet immediate needs of refugee children.

Beneficiaries like 15-year-old Susan Napeyiok, said the aid was timely. She had run out of sanitary pads and soap.

“We are living under complicated conditions because everything here is scarce,” she said. “I am now glad after receiving these items. I pray God blesses them so that they can keep bringing for us more.”

PEACE DEAL

War erupted in South Sudan in December 2013 amid a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Dr Riek Machar. Thousands have died in the fighting which also left scores displaced.

On August 5, 2018 Kiir and Machar signed yet another peace agreement. For Lokeri, who dropped out of school while in senior two, “the agreement will not work because both Machar and Kiir feel they can be president”.

“The selfishness of these two people has cost us more than we shall ever recover,” adds Lokeri, whose prayer is to return to school and study Theology.

“Only God will stabilize our country,” he says.

Napeyiok shares Lokeri’s sentiments, and believes Machar’s rebels and Kiir’s government army “seem to be dedicated to fighting forever”.

OPM has arrangements of attaching the unaccompanied minors to foster families in Adjumani district to help them recover from the trauma they are suffering.

Although there are initiatives to establish child-friendly spaces in all settlements, Jogo says sustaining such spaces has been a challenge.

“Most NGOs come and establish these spaces, but abandon them after some time. For now, we are looking at having few which can be sustainable,” Jogo said.

For now, Lokara and colleagues have to make Uganda their home until peace is restored in South Sudan.

matsiko@observer.ug

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