An Eye-Opening Visit to Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement
Updated: Jun 22, 2019
It was early February of this year when I made a thoughtful and personal vow to visit Africa’s largest refugee camp, Bidi Bidi in Yumbe District, Uganda. Located on 250 square kilometers in the northwest of the country, the settlement is home to over 270,000 people. Years of war determined the outcome of thousands, as 1.6 million South Sudanese fled their country, with 800,000 seeking aid in Uganda. Few nations other than Uganda have extended such freedom and compassion for refugees. Residents have the option to leave the camp whenever they want, learn a trade while there, and possibly create a home.
My distinct interest in such an endeavor sparks from my first acquaintance with the southern portion of Sudan. At the time, my position at Capital FM Radio Kampala led to a fascination with the South Sudanese people. In 1998 the War in the North of Uganda was still raging, leaving all ports of entry a bit questionable, to say the least. Resigning myself to a presumed condition of no entry, I simply extended ardent support, always passionate to know what I was missing.
Gaining entrance to a settlement primarily composed of South Sudanese became a must; vital even. No doubt I was driven and after two months of effort, which included six in-person interviews, I was awarded a letter from the Secretary to the Prime Minister that provided the pathway to revelation. The mission was simple, the team: my driver, my guard, my son, and I were to appear at the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) inside Bidi Bidi Refugee Zone 1 and present the letter. Upon doing so, I was to be granted entrance to all six zones in the settlement, as well as freedom to speak to the masses. It was my sole intent to offer comfort to anyone that could hear my words.
Driving ten hours from Kampala, we found lodging in Arua; three hours from Bidi Bidi. We left the following morning for Zone 1, presented the letter and were told to return the next day to visit Zone 2. We arrived at Zone 2 the following day at noon. Let’s cut to the chase: we were not warmly received. I had a mission to deliver words of goodwill, but they would merely fall on the unreceptive ears of an enraged gathering. My son’s videography greatly disturbed the people. In addition, my interpreter was caught telling the crowd we were going to use all our footage to exploit them. One angry fellow actually punched my son in the neck.
Many within the assemblage called out, begging to be heard and telling stories of half rations and problems within the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On the ground this literally translates to less food, water, and medical aid. Because of this, I have been led to question published reports that a “peaceful city” is under rapid construction there. However, in that I only traveled to two Zones, my findings are not conclusive thus far. For certain, I did not absorb the assurance that has been presented to the public in certain publications. Indeed, Bidi Bidi has far to go as residents search for the slightest freedom from strife.
But then, these folks have been swallowed by torment seemingly from the beginning, long before colonization by Great Britain and occupation by Egypt. The slightest of inquiries regarding South Sudan alone are disturbing, but with further investigation stories of brutal persecution are revealed, as anguish rarely skips a beat even today. With repeated imperialist occupation, Sudan has always been inundated with powers from other countries wrestling to capture land, resources and trade routes.
Plunging into modern history, it was 1820 when Egypt conquered various parts of Northern Sudan for slave and ivory trade. After struggling for freedom from both Great Britain and Egypt for centuries, the country established a theocracy in Khartoum in 1885. Five years later Britain regained control, and eventually agreed to joint govern the nation with Egypt. Although once considered two separate regions, the North and South were recognized as one entity by Britain in 1946. Northerners dominated and began to take office in the South with Arabic becoming the national language.
On January 1, 1956 Sudan gained independence as a single, unified nation. However, the first civil war had officially begun the year before and would last until 1972, as southern insurgents feared domination from the north. Unification in South Sudan created the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM), and in 1972, the SSLM signed a peace accord with the Sudanese government. A ten-year respite from the wages of war followed.
In 1978 Chevron discovered oil in the north and later in the south. Because of this, North Sudan made effort to draw new boundaries in the South, attempting to take over all the oil fields. Unrest followed, and in 1983 the second civil war broke out, lasting until 2005. At the beginning of this war the president of the country instituted a dramatic Islamization campaign, transforming Sudan into a Muslim Arab state. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was born, while rebel forces grew in the South. At the same time, sharia law was imposed throughout the entire country.
During these grueling years atrocities headed the news reports. Villages and residents were burned and conflicts worsened by the day. Eventually the Sudanese government fiercely enforced Islamic code and raised an army called the National Islamic Front (NIF) to join in the fighting taking place in the South. In 1992 Sudanese refugees made their way to Kenya for safety. In 1999 almost 4000 Sudanese boys were approved for resettlement in America. At the same time famine broke out and at least three million were affected.
On January 9, 2005 peace was finally brokered between southern rebels and the Sudanese government in Khartoum. At that time, a six-year trial period of autonomy was offered to the South with an opportunity to secede when the trial period ended. The agreement also called for a permanent ceasefire and suggested reasonable sharing of the oil production. On January 9th 2011 the South Sudanese voted on whether or not to secede. Tabulated results set the South free. Today South Sudan is the youngest country in all the world.
Sadly, this new beginning did not stop the horror. Violence is ongoing in South Sudan until this very day as North Sudan government forces invade and battle southern opposition leaders. In December 2013 President Kiir of the South accused his former deputy Reik Machar of an attempted coup d’ état. The deputy denied the accusation, yet joined the rebels of the South where he led the SPLA in opposition. Again, civil war burst into flames and abomination followed. January 2014 saw a ceasefire agreement that was pretty much ignored. Finally, a peace agreement was signed with the rebels in August of 2015, but it soon disintegrated. Today, after August 2018, another power-sharing agreement remains in effect. Nonetheless, sporadic fighting continues as refugees run for their lives, pouring into neighboring countries like Uganda.
The Sudanese civil war is the longest running war in African history. Half a million people are estimated to have been killed during this time, and the toll is ever increasing as ethnic divides continue to stimulate savage killings. More than 4 million people have been displaced, with approximately 2.5 million fleeing to other countries. Too, fighting in the agricultural heartland of the South has increased the number of people facing starvation to six million. And as for money, today’s real income in the South is only half of what it was in 2013.
UNHCR reports that as of Fall 2017 over one million South Sudanese have registered as they entered Ugandan refugee camps throughout the country. Settling in other nations such as Ethiopia and Kenya has helped, but Uganda has outdone itself by playing host to these suffering people in exile. Both prolonged conflicts and climate changes, such as desertification are responsible, with violence the victor, despite critical famine. Such migration proved South Sudan to be home of the largest refugee crisis in 2016, as well as recognized as the world’s third largest today, just behind Syria and Afghanistan.
As of this year the world report published by Human Rights Watch gave details that describe the continued violence in South Sudan. Government forces, along with various rebel groups, have committed serious crimes, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians and aid workers. Unlawful killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, and recruitment of child soldiers are ongoing. In addition, all involved parties were successful in restricting access for United Nation (UN) missions and other humanitarian assistance. Even though all participants have continuously attacked civilians and aid workers, Northern government forces were responsible for most documented abuses.
Today South Sudan remains one of the most dangerous places in all the world to be an aid worker. No one is immune from the ferocity that has plagued this new country. Populations in desperate need fill these six Zones, with baseline essentials often unavailable. Looting and burning of schools, health clinics, private property, and UN and humanitarian facilities is common. The UN reports that 6500 children were recruited as fighters between October 2014 and June 2018. Abductions, killings, maiming and sexual abuse are everyday occurrences that children face.
In truth, these startling facts cannot be ignored. Perhaps my visit to the settlement did little to no good, but I gave it my all. For Bidi Bidi Settlement to be described as a burgeoning city of peace at this time is a stretch. It is my belief that the cries for help are legitimate. The people have been tortured longer than most any other country at this time. Nonetheless, the dedication of those involved in this struggle is practically unparalleled. Meanwhile, I look forward to visiting this country some day when dependable peace is established.