YUMBE. Mr Justus Onen, 39, is a South Sudanese refugee living in Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe district.

His experience gives a rich insight into the typical life that South Sudan refugees live in the various camps in West Nile.

Each morning, Onen wakes up to attend to his small garden allocated by UNHCR and another one offered by a resident of Yumbe.

“At Bidibidi settlement we have a good relationship with the host community and for my case, a member of the host community has given me some piece of land which has made my life and that of my family better,” he reveals.

He uses this land for planting crops like cassava and maize intercropped with beans and vegetables.

He says the harvest supplements the monthly food ration his family receives from World Vision distributors.

The camp hosts about 289, 000 South Sudan refugees with majority being children and women.

The UNHCR report of 2017 rates Bidibidi as the biggest refugee camp in Uganda and the second largest in the world.

But like any other refugee, Onen, married to Mrs Sarah Atango with whom he has three children-two girls and one boy-has gone through a lot of hardships to reach Bidibidi’s village nine in Zone One which has been his home for more than two years now.

Seated under a tree, Onen cut the figure of a brave man who weathered hardships of war to flee to safety but still dreams of one day returning home.

Onen’s story

Onen was forced to leave his Ayii village in Payam in Eastern Equatoria when the fight between President Salva Kiir and his on-and-off deputy, Dr Riek Machar reached its climax in 2016.

He says it all started in July 2016 when he began hearing of the looming conflict in his country (South Sudan).

Shortly, the route towards Uganda’s border in the South and that to the central Equatorial in the North of his village were blocked by rebels.

“We were in the centre surrounded by fighters who were threatening to block the main Nimule-Juba road thus cutting off food for us since we used to rely on the foodstuff from Uganda,” recalls Onen.

As trouble unfolded, the people started running through bushes towards Uganda for safety. Onen got concerned when the Uganda peoples defence forces launched an operation to evacuate Ugandans caught up in the war in capital Juba.

“That is the moment I realized that there was danger. By this time it was common to have people disappearing at night, bodies lying by the road side and you couldn’t know the enemy who was carrying out all the mayhem,” Onen says.

He asked his wife and their two children by then to flee to Uganda as he remained behind for three weeks. The shortage of food as a result of restrictions on farming activities eventually forced him to flee as well.

Mr OnenMr Onen (C) taking the writer (L) and another female refugee (R) through a maize plantation in Bidibidi refugee camp during the interview

The journey to Uganda

To escape to Uganda, it was the staff of Community Needs Initiative, a local NGO in South Sudan who offered to give Onen and other stranded persons a lift from the troubled village to the South Sudan-Uganda border town of Nimule.

On the way there were so many road blocks with visibly tortured civilians but his group was not tormented because they were in an NGO vehicle.

He says the conflict had taken a tribal line and as a result, when trigger happy men identify you as part of the targeted tribe, you are killed on spot.

On the day they travelled to Uganda, he saw a vehicle being burnt and its occupants shot dead by armed men.

At Elegu border post, Onen found UNHCR staff and buses waiting to receive and transport fleeing South Sudanese to the reception centre in Adjumani district.

They were picked up without undergoing any screening and registration process. It was on arrival at Pagirinya refugee camp that Onen was formally registered.

He was however not comfortable at Pagirinya because his wife and children were settled in Nyumanzi refugee camp.

The steady stream new arrivals meant that the camp was getting too congested. Sanitary facilities were overwhelmed and the people resorted to defecating in the open at night.

They slept under trees without mosquito nets and queued in long lines for hot porridge and lunch.

The scramble at water points was pathetic as children and women frequently fought over water and sometimes dragging different families and tribes into fist fights.

There were rampant incidents of sexual harassment and violence against girls and women as people of varying backgrounds harshly conditioned by war came to live in one congested place.

Onen says what he experienced at Pagirinya was the same situation his family members went through at Nyumanzi.

The dire state of affairs prompted the refugee agencies to initiate a decongestion programme where refugees willing to move to new camps were translocated to Bidibidi settlement in Yumbe district.

His wife and children were the first to go and he followed them a week later. When Onen arrived, he found his baby girl was admitted and confined at an isolation unit at a health facility in Bidibidi.

The medics suspected that the baby was suffering from cholera. He joined the family at the isolation centre but to a great relief the test results turned out to be negative. It was a false alarm after all!

“When our girl recovered, we returned to the camp where we were allocated 30x30m piece of land in Zone One, village nine of Bidibidi camp. It took me two weeks to settle and erect a shelter using the tarpaulin given to us,” Onen says.

“With the food aid given to us, I started seeing change in my life coupled with the pride of joining my family members. Life was becoming better compared to what I went through in Pagirinya,” he added.

RefugeesRefugee children and women fetching water at a borehole in Bidibidi refugee settlement. PHOTO BY ANDREW COHEN AMVESI

First forward to 2018, Onen sees his situation and that of the South Sudan refugees in a much better state than two years ago.

“First of all, water alone used to be a problem. They used to ferry water in trucks for us and sometimes water wouldn’t be there for the whole day but now taps have been connected all over the camp besides boreholes,” Onen says.

He discloses that from 2017, some agencies started distributing vegetable seeds which he started growing around his compound as diet for his family.

The health facilities can now enable one to access services like blood check-up and other services while there is generally access to good learning facilities for refugee children with many schools in the camp having permanent structures and learning materials.