The figures are staggering. Sixty million people are exiled from their homes worldwide, half of which are children. Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. The recent refugee crisis dominating news headlines has thrust host governments and aid agencies into the spotlight over their response. Indeed, there has never been a more critical time to respond. For War Child Canada, this means drawing attention to global conflicts that have fallen out of the headlines, like that of South Sudan. Since December 2013 over 1.6 million South Sudanese have been displaced and over 620,000 refugees have poured across the borders of Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia. At least seven ceasefire agreements have been signed and subsequently broken, leaving little hope amongst refugees that the eighth will see them return home to a peaceful country.
Visiting the South Sudanese refugee settlements in north-western Uganda, I met Mary at one of War Child’s community awareness events on peacebuilding. Mary fled her hometown of Bor, South Sudan in December 2013, with her husband and three young children when the violence first broke out. Some of the fiercest battles of the conflict so far have been fought in Bor. The town flip-flopped between rebel and government control a handful of times, as civilians were caught in the crossfire. Both sides accuse each other of mass atrocities and the UN is now investigating possible war crimes. Mary’s husband has since returned to South Sudan, though the fighting continues.
Mary and her children now live in one of many refugee settlements that have been opened to accommodate over 160,000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. ‘They have welcomed us here’, Mary says of the host communities who sanctioned the opening of the settlements in Uganda in partnership with the government, ‘here there is peace’. Uganda acts as a safe haven for refugees from more than three countries. Its unique policy towards refugees ensures they have access to land, refugee children can attend Ugandan schools, and they are situated within host communities instead of being confined to camps. It’s often difficult, however, to ensure positive relations between refugees and host community members, especially in areas of the country where resources are scarce and poverty levels are high to begin with. Tensions also linger between refugees of different ethnic groups who were pitted against each other back in South Sudan. The settlements are made up of 87% women and children, all of whom are at constant risk of gender-based violence including early forced marriage and domestic abuse.
War Child Canada has been working in the settlements since early 2014, providing protection, education and peacebuilding programming to both South Sudanese and Ugandans. Our mobile legal aid clinic roves through the settlements spreading awareness about women and children’s rights while legal staff conduct case intake. Last year we registered over 280 gender-based violence cases. Through accelerated learning classes over 700 children are accessing education again. Youth peace committees are being trained to bridge the gap between ethnic groups and between refugees and host communities. And lastly, community awareness events like the one I met Mary at, provide platforms for refugees of different ethnic groups and host community members to air their grievances and build a foundation for peace. ‘Before I never knew about War Child Canada’ Mary told me after the event, ‘now they are my three favourite words!’
Mary recently gave birth in the settlement to her third child. She tells me how she will tell her children stories about South Sudan until they can return home.