When Being A Refugee Is Safer Than Returning Home
Josephine Mary (pseudo name), had been a refugee in Uganda for more than 20 years during the war of liberation that eventually gave birth to South Sudan in 2011.
A young South Sudanese refugee cooks food at a camp in northern Uganda [Photo credit/UNHCR/Will Swanson]
By Jale Richard
JUBA, 13 November, 2017 [Gurtong]-Five years after returning home, she was forced to flee her home once again in 2016 back to the refugee camp in northern Uganda’s district of Adjumani. But three months later, she risked her life and returned to her village of Moli, to cultivate in order to provide for her family.
Among the crops she planted were cassava, sorghum and simsim. After harvesting, she transports to the refugee camp for her family. This year, Mary planted two hectares of cassava, two of sorghum, and one hectare of simsim.
“The situation is different from the previous refugee experience. Those days we were given enough food and even plots of land for gardens. We used to produce a lot of food and even sell some to support us financially,” Mary narrated to Gurtong from Adjumani, where she returned from South Sudan to get medical treatment.
Many of the refugees upon return to their villages face threats from security forces with others even losing their lives.
Since the civil war begun in 2013, Uganda now hosts over one million South Sudanese refugees alone, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
Many of the South Sudanese refugees fled to Uganda after the July 2016 fighting in Juba that arose between soldiers loyal to then First Vice President Dr. Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir Mayardit. The fighting escalated to other southern States like Yei River forcing thousands to seek refuge in Uganda.
An influx of refugees from South Sudan put more pressure on aid agencies in delivering food ratios to the refugees. In the past months, funding delay forced the UNHCR and the Ugandan government to cut food ratios for the refugees.
In June this year, Ugandan President, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni hosted United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres in the solidarity summit on refugees aimed at raising USD 2 billion. But the summit rose just over USD 350m.
Uganda needs $674 million to assist South Sudanese refugees this year, according to the UNHCR in Uganda.
The UN’s World Food Program said it had been forced to cut the amount of grain handed out due to delayed funding, with cash transfers offered to refugees to make up the shortfall.
“When the funding comes late it takes a bit longer to secure the cereals. It means that you have to go to the markets to procure, transport, store and distribute,” said El Khidir Daloum, WFP director for Uganda.
For Mary, such reduction in the quantity of food forced her to return back to South Sudan.
“The food we get is not enough for one month, and we don’t do any work to raise money,” she said. “I returned so that I can produce enough food for my family and sell some to pay school fees and buy medicines. It is very difficult to change the sauce we eat every day because there is no money to buy things like fish and meat. We get tired of eating the beans every day,” she narrated.
However, Mary who travelled back to the camp for medical treatment is now considering abandoning her gardens to return to the refugee camp. She says she does not benefit from her efforts because the soldiers loot her garden at night.
She said after civilians fled the area in 2016, the soldiers fed on the food crops left behind. However, this year since only a few civilians returned to cultivate, the soldiers do not have enough to use. Many resorted to cutting trees for charcoal and others stealing the produce of the civilians who returned to cultivate.
“Last evening I received a call from my neighbor informing me that my one hectare of cassava has been looted. Now I have to go back and guard the remaining hectare if not they will finish it,” she said.
Mary said she usually watches over her gardens during the day to prevent people from looting.
“At night, they uproot my cassava and sell them. I reported to the commander but nothing was done. Another time I caught two of the soldiers stealing my cassava. I reported to the commander and he said they would be punished but in vain,” she said.
Mary said last year when she returned to South Sudan and started planting food items, the soldiers accused her of cooking for the rebels. “They sent some soldiers to stalk me in the garden. After some days they realized I just go to the garden to cultivate and not cook for the rebels,” she said.
She said she does not trust the soldiers because when some of them get drunk, they threaten her, questioning why she returned while others did not.
She said after she completes her treatment, she will return to South Sudan to harvest her two hectares of sorghum and then return back to the refugee camp because it is no longer safe for her.
“My children keep telling me I should go back but I used to tell them I have cultivated enough food because we cannot rely on the food provided by the UN. But now I know it is better to stay in the camp and suffer than waste energy just for the soldiers to eat,” she said.
“It is better to suffer in the camp than waste my energy for them to feed on,” she said. “I will return back to the camp and wait for food donations.”