Uganda: Bidibidi Refugee Camp – A Place Refugees Will Not Consider Home

Not many people have ever heard about Bidi-Bidi Refugee Camp. However, it has now become the second largest refugee camp in the world. This was a huge, empty, arid patch of land near the small Ugandan border town of Yumbe. Today, it is home to some 272,168 refugees, most of whom have fled the violence and upheaval in South Sudan. We visited the place.

As we sat waiting to be ushered into the office of the settlement commandant, a young pregnant woman, who appeared to be a South Sudanese refugee, came in holding a telephone sim-pack in her hands, and as soon as she approached the shelter where we were seated, she began sobbing and speaking in a language that none of us could understand. Afterwards, we were made to understand that she was speaking ‘Bari’ – one of the tribes from South Sudan.

When one of the visitors we were with asked the pregnant lady what was the matter, she replied that her sim card had been blocked and she wanted money to buy a new sim card, so that she could communicate with her people at home, because they had told her earlier that her husband had died. She wanted to call, so that she could confirm. The pregnant young woman looked so weary and miserable, that she really needed help urgently. Luckily, the employees from the Settlement Commandant’s office came and took her away for assistance. As we left the Commandant’s office to go to the Refugees settlement camp, the people’s faces we met spelled out: misery, bitterness, sadness, loss of hope and hunger. This is the best description of the people’s situation living in the camp at Bidi-Bidi refugee settlement camp. They have all run away from the insurgency in South Sudan to Uganda for safety and protection.

According to the Settlement Commandant of Bidi-Bidi Refugee settlement camp, Mr. Baramwesiga Robert, the camp covers 250 square kilometres with a population of 272,168 people mainly refugees coming from South Sudan. He said that the camp has a population of 140,546 female refugees, 131,622 male refugees and 157,857 children, who make up 58% of the population. He noted that the camp was not receiving any more refugees, because they had reached their maximum capacity. He added that the new refugees are now being taken to Ivepi and Lamwo refugee settlement Camps. “We no longer receive refugees, we are mindful of the local people. Ivepi and Lamwo districts are taking in new refugees at the moment”, Baryamwesiga said.

In a conversation with Eric, one the refugees, he was so bitter about the living conditions and he could only dream about life back home. He said “Salvar Kiir and Reik Machar should come visit us and see how we are living and suffering in this bush”, Eric said.

Just like Eric, many of the refugees are so downcast and broken into pieces, many say they may never be able to pick up the broken pieces since they left their home and have almost been reduced to animals! “We ran away from flying bullets and death to look for safety and protection elsewhere but we have now been reduced to beggars now; many of us will die of hunger due to lack of food”, commented Eresto Taba a refugee at the camp. Taba also added that the politicians fighting back home needed to know how they are living at the refugee camp and they should open their eyes because if they don’t, then they have no one to govern if all the people are dead. Taba also said that the food ratio they have been receiving has been reduced by six kilograms in the last distribution.

He also mentioned that their children lack good education, though they have education at the camp. He said that block three and twelve have 12,000 children but they have only one primary school and the children in secondary school have to walk for eight or ten kilometres to get to school, because there is only one secondary school in that area.

Cosmas Malion complained that people in the camp had lost all hope, though he was happy that they have a medium to communicate their plight and situation. He added that their leaders in South Sudan have become liars and can never speak the truth.

Meanwhile, Victorial Abali grieves that the women in the settlement camp suffer the most because many of them are widows who have lost their husbands to the war in South Sudan. Most of them are the family heads and it’s up to them to make sure that they have a roof over their heads with their children. She added that they are tasked to clear the bush and build shelter.

Another woman who preferred not to be quoted said she lost her husband to the war in Juba and she is unable to put a roof over her head. She noted that they had hoped to find the place ready for habitation but they were dumped in a bush, which they started preparing before putting up the shelter for accommodation.

Rose Mary Kute, who acts as the Chairperson and Secretary of village 13, said her village has five clusters with 1350 family heads, 1212 males and 1219 females. She added that in her village, there are a total of 2431 registered refugees. Kute also confirms that life in the camp is not any better, say for the fact that they don’t hear gunshots anymore and they feel safe. She added that as much as they are grateful to the Ugandan government and the host community in Yumbe, district life is not easy for them as refugees. Kute further notes that they have been provided with the basics for life and education for their children though they are not sufficient.

She added that the education centres provided for the children in her zone are two schools, which cover six villages with a population of 3,000 children and 40 teachers in the centres. And the children walk long distances to those schools and they have only one secondary school in every zone. Besides that, the camp lacks vocational schools to further on studies after senior four. Thus, the children become idle and many young girls have had no choice but ending up in teenage marriages, which is becoming a big threat to the refugees.

She was, however, grateful to Window Trust for helping the refugees fund their education. Kute added that the food ratio that was given to them in the beginning of their settlement is now being reduced, though she could not explain why it was reducing. She said that when they had just arrived from South Sudan in August last year, they were receiving 14 kilograms of cereal from August to March, but after March, the ratio was reduced by 2 kilograms and in the last distribution, which was in May this year, the ratio which was meant for April was reduced by 6 Kilograms and they have nowhere to get food or money to buy food from.

Kute also added that they have tanks for water in all the villages but in some cases, when the tanks are damaged or broken, they have to walk long distances to coiled water. The refugees said they are being faced with other problems especially from landowners who don’t want them to collect firewood from their land. They said some host community members ask them to give them part of the food ratio they receive for relief in exchange for firewood in their land.

The Settlement Commandant at the camp, Robert Baryamwesiga said that what the government of Uganda is doing for the refugees is to provide them with protection, accommodation, and to provide them with the basic requirements. He added that the government of Uganda and the people of Yumbe have given a friendly environment to the refugees – the locals have come in and volunteered their land so that government can settle the refugees.

According to him, the camp was able to take in a big number of refugees because the Ugandan local policies are friendly to refugees and the host community is very accommodating. He noted that the friendly environment and policies the Uganda government has towards refugees has enabled the country to accommodate the big number of refugees. “The government of Uganda is not able to take care of all the refugees on her own so a number of donors have also come in, both local and international donors are in to give support, they have been of great help to us”, said Robert Baryamwesiga.

He also noted that the settlement camp has a consistence of 37 Non-government organisations helping the government out. The refugees are given dry ratio for food monthly, which they cook for themselves. They have been providing the refugees with 17 health centres, and education centres. He also notes with concern that the settlement camp has taken in many minors some of whom are separated from their parents but staying with relatives and some are unaccompanied minors who come to the settlement without any relatives or parents but on their own, some he said have lost parents and some have left their parents back home.

– Irene Lamunu