South Sudan marks its fourth year of political unrest in December. The conflict that erupted between rival political forces has displaced millions of people, more than one million of whom have fled to neighbouring Uganda.
This photo essay illustrates the challenges – and the hopes - facing refugee children and families. SOS Children’s Villages is considering an emergency response programme for the growing South Sudanese population in Uganda.
Elizeo Adel Oting was a child protection officer in South Sudan before fleeing to Uganda in July 2016, as a new wave of violence broke out between rival political factions.
Today, Mr Adel Oting serves as a community leader for the growing number of refugees who, like him and his family, left their homes in search of peace and stability across the border.
Mr Adel Oting, his wife and four children are among the estimated 37,000 people who settled at the Palabek refugee settlement between April and October 2017.
“Our relations with the host community have been very good,” said Mr Adel Oting, 40, who studied social development as a student in Uganda. “The children play together, and they have provided us with land to grow food.”
Palabek, less than 40 km from the border, is one of the newer settlements provided by the Ugandan government for the more than one million South Sudan refugees and asylum-seekers in the country. Most South Sudanese are settled in the northern regions of Arua, Yumbe, Adjumani and Lamwo. A country of 41 million people, Uganda hosts another 350,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Somalia and other countries.
More than 60% of South Sudanese in the settlements are children, and children and women combined account for at least 80% of the refugees, according to government and UN agencies. Many of the South Sudan child refugees have suffered trauma, the loss of family and separation.
Photos by Will Boase
The sprawling Palabek settlement is divided into seven zones and subdivided again into village blocks, each offering refugee families a plot of land to encourage food production. Besides providing fertile land, the government has taken steps to integrate refugees into local communities while opening medical and other services provided by international organisations for refugees to the host communities.
Children account for more than 60% of the nearly 1.4 million refugees in Uganda. The country now hosts Africa’s largest refugee population.
Elizeo Adel Oting, who worked as a child protection officer in South Sudan’s Eastern Equitoria state, keeps a census [below] of the refugee settlement block where he lives with his family. He says many refugees are children who are living with their mothers or other relatives and the youngest children lack sufficient education and activities.
John Majok Manyok, 22, has lived at the Pagrinya refugee settlement in the Adjumani region of Uganda for nearly two years. He volunteers for international organisations, including those dealing with child protection. Child neglect and abuse are amongst the challenges he sees at Pagrinya, which is home to more than 30,000 South Sudanese. Many children are also dealing with trauma from the conflict in South Sudan. Mr Mayok Manyok says his brother was inducted into the military at age 13 and served for six years before he made his way to Uganda.
Patrick Oluk of SOS Children’s Villages Uganda visits a family with six children, the oldest of whom at 17, is the main caregiver.
Women and children comprise the vast majority of refugees from South Sudan living in Uganda and many older girls skip school to help at home. But care is not just a girl’s job. This 15-year-old South Sudanese boy left school early one day to help cook and care for his younger brothers, sisters and a cousin who are living at the Pagrinya refugee settlement near Adjumani.
Maize, beans, onions and other staples are distributed once a month at the Pagrinya refugee settlement in the Adjumani region of Uganda. Refugee families supplement the provisions with gardens on land provided by the Ugandan government and host communities. Yet nutrition remains a major concern. More than 80% of the refugees are children and women who are fleeing food insecurity and political violence at home.
Malaria is a leading cause of sickness amongst South Sudanese children at the refugee settlements in Uganda. Though mosquito nets are provided at refugee reception centres and distributed by the Ugandan government and NGOs, some families are known to sell the nets for income. Malnutrition is another concern, especially for children under five. One health official says there are disturbingly high levels of moderate to severe malnutrition amongst children under five coming from South Sudan. At the Palabek refugee camp in Uganda’s Lamwo region, a nutritional specialist waits to screen arriving refugee children.
Mr Adel Oting says water and sanitation is provided in the refugee settlements and that the rainy season has been good for family gardens. “We have water, we have latrines, we have food,” he explains. But he is hoping that a primary school and child-friendly space will be built on a nearby plot of land “so the older children can learn and the younger ones have activities”. Beyond such basic needs, the de-factor community leader says the people have another vision: “We hope for peace so our children can go home. And there will be peace one day.”