Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • The refugee scandal unfolding in Uganda

    Uganda, the country with the world’s fastest growing refugee burden, is failing to secure the help it needs to care for those forced across the border from South Sudan by war and hunger.

    Close to one million South Sudanese refugees, 86 percent of them women and children, have settled in northern Uganda as a result of the crisis. On average, 2,000 people arrive each day.

    The unprecedented mass influx is putting enormous strain on Uganda’s already limited public services, and fragile local resources like land, firewood, and water. That, in turn, is fanning tensions between the refugees and host communities.

    The international community is struggling to respond to a crisis of this scale. In June, Uganda and the UN appealed for $2 billion to support the country’s total refugee caseload of 1.3 million for the next four years. Just $350 million has been raised.

    That same month the World Food Programme cut its rations to refugees by 50 percent and warned of further cuts to come. WFP needs $117 million for the next six months, but has a $65 million funding gap.

    Until fleeing to Uganda, Ben Lam was the county administrator for the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement in Magwi County, and a man of substance.

    Now he is just another refugee in Arua district’s Imprevi settlement; dependent – like his wife, six biological children, and five additional kids he took in – on an unreliable supply of aid.

    His list of needs is long, but “whether we have something to eat or not, at least here is safe. We can sleep and move. A better time will come, provided that we are alive.”

    Test Case

    Uganda has been praised for its progressive refugee hosting policy. Refugees do not live in camps but looser settlements, and have the right to work and access social services.

    The country was chosen as one of the key testing grounds for a new global compact – the “Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework”. The initiative is meant to ease the pressure on host countries, but the disappointing level of funding suggests it’s not off to a flying start.

    “Unless new funding is received in the coming weeks, WFP will not have enough cereals, maize meal, and beans to meet the full food needs of refugees in Uganda,” said Lydia Wamala, a WFP spokeswoman in Kampala.

    A UN report noted that Uganda spent over $323 million in 2016/17 on the protection and management of refugees, and on the provision of essential services. That is equivalent to 46 percent of the country’s annual education budget and 62 percent of its health expenditure.

    But there are shortages across the board for the refugees encamped in five vast northern settlements – from shelter to healthcare and sanitation.

    “Ugandan host communities in the north have shown exceptional generosity by welcoming refugees with open arms,” said Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. “However, this is not something Uganda can tackle alone.”

    Western public opinion is not only opposed to taking a greater share of the refugee burden, but it’s also against “their government’s spending money to help refugees where they currently find themselves,” said Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London. “This leaves refugee populations extremely vulnerable.”


    Bidi Bidi is one of the largest refugee settlements in the world. As just one example of the needs, some 55,000 children are crammed into 12 overcrowded schools lacking teachers and learning materials.

    “Our refugee children are studying in temporary structures,” said Robert Baryamwesiga, the settlement commandant for Bidi Bidi. “They are supposed to [last for only] three months. Now we are going to a year and still using them.”

    According to Baryamwesiga, 50 percent of refugee children do not attend school. “Many of them are unaccompanied or separated children,” he noted.

    Save the Children has warned of an education emergency. “There is a real and present danger that an entire generation of refugee children will be deprived of the education they need to rebuild their lives,” the agency said in a recent report.

    Thousands more children are suffering from trauma and are not receiving the mental health support they need. “It is vital these children receive dedicated, professional help,” said Henry Makiwa, spokesman for the development agency World Vision UK.

    To draw attention to the plight of the estimated 700 traumatised children that arrive in Uganda each week, World Vision has launched a #BearsOnStairs campaign. It will culminate with an event on the steps of London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral on Thursday.

    Rising tensions

    In theory, the refugees could be an asset rather than a burden to the host communities. Their presence should attract donor-funded development like roads and schools – part of the bargain the CRRF envisaged.

    But a USAID report released in May warned that tension is rising between host communities and refugees over access to services and local resources.

    “The fact that refugees can access food but not the host communities is not going down well with some community members,” the report said. ”Rising social tension between refugees and host communities has the potential to degenerate into secondary conflict.”

    In some cases, locals have already threatened refugees with violence, said Dennis Mbaguta, settlement commandant for Impevi.

    “We compete for resources like land and water, which don’t expand,” he told IRIN. “There are concerns over the environment as trees are being cut [down] and not replaced.’

    According to Clark at SOAS, “the growing perception in many host communities is that the state is privileging refugees over its own citizens.”

    Lino Ogora, a peace activist based in the northern town of Gulu, argues that the resentment of the host communities “is an indicator of the poor facilities and services provided by the government to its own people”.

    The refugees should not be blamed for this, “but rather the government should be the one to put its house in order.”

    The longer-term solution to the refugee crisis in Uganda lies in an end to the conflict in South Sudan. There, fighting since 2013 has internally displaced close to two million people and left 5.8 million in need of aid. But regional and international peace efforts have stalled and the violence shows no sign of abating.


    The refugee scandal unfolding in Uganda
  • New refugee framework “dead in the water” without more international support

    Uganda is one of the key testing grounds for a new approach to refugees that emerged from last year’s high-level summit in New York. That approach is supposed to be based on principles of international cooperation and responsibility-sharing among states, and yet Uganda has struggled to secure sufficient donor support to manage the arrival of nearly one million refugees from neighbouring South Sudan, let alone to implement the new model.

    The “Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework”, outlined in an annex to the New York Declaration, is to form the basis for a global compact on refugees due to be adopted by member states in 2018. One of the stated objectives of the CRRF is to ease pressure on host countries; another is to expand access to resettlement in third countries. But while Uganda continues to admit an average of 2,000 refugees a day, solidarity from the international community is lagging far behind the commitments made in New York.

    At a fundraising summit in Entebbe on 22 June, Uganda and the UN appealed for $2 billion to assist the country’s emergency response to the influx from South Sudan as well as to fund the longer-term, more sustainable response envisaged by the CRRF. But donor governments pledged only $352 million and while further pledges have been made in the past two weeks, the current total still falls far short of the $637 million the UN estimates is needed just to cover the emergency response in Uganda.

    The disappointing outcome of the summit has raised questions about the future of the CRRF and the global compact and how the new framework can be implemented in other countries with less progressive refugee policies than Uganda’s that attract even less funding.

    “Uganda is a shining example when it comes to hosting refugees,” pointed out Gabriella Waaijman, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s regional director for the Horn of Africa. “They are allowing refugees the right to work and freedom of movement, giving them land. These were all highlighted as key ingredients for the CRRF and the global compact for refugees.

    “All these agendas are being pushed by donors, and then there is an opportunity and a conducive environment, and this is the response,” she protested, referring to the outcome of summit. “This is not enough.”

    “Breaking point”

    Ahead of the summit, Uganda had been warning for months that the influx from South Sudan was pushing it to “breaking point”. A March statement made jointly by the Ugandan government and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, noted that “in the face of severe underfunding and the fastest-growing refugee emergency in the world, Uganda’s ability to realise a model that allows refugees to thrive now risks being jeopardised – and the future of the new comprehensive refugee response framework thrown into question.”

    Speaking to IRIN over the phone after the fundraising summit, Apollo Kazunga, Uganda’s commissioner for refugees, said the government remained committed to the CRRF, but that without more funding, it would not be able to implement many of the interventions that would have taken the response beyond an emergency one.

    Waaijman pointed out that even the emergency response is severely under-funded. The World Food Programme was forced to halve rations for 800,000 South Sudanese refugees starting in late May. Funding for water and sanitation is also lacking, and health and education services over-stretched.

    “If world leaders want to come to New York and say beautiful words, they create hope. But we can’t provide food and water based on hope. We need money and commitments,” Waaijman told IRIN.

    One source of hope for the CRRF is that its “whole-of-society” approach will generate new partnerships with development actors and, more importantly, new sources of funding. Last year, the World Bank approved $175 million in financing to support socio-economic development in refugee-hosting communities in the Horn of Africa, including $50 million to Uganda.

    The Bank has allocated a further $2 billion in grants and concessional loans over the next three years to finance projects in low-income countries hosting large numbers of refugees. According to a spokesperson with the World Bank, to qualify for the funding, “governments will need to provide a strategy that describes concrete steps towards long-term solutions that benefit refugees and host communities”.

    However, it’s early days for the Bank’s involvement in refugee responses and there are questions around whether a country that is hosting over 1.2 million refugees should have to borrow money to finance its response, however favourable the loan terms. Others wonder how willing the World Bank will be to engage in more precarious emergency settings.

    “We’re still very cautious of saying the World Bank can come in as the saviour of the financing gap, primarily because we have a big question around what level of risk tolerance they have in times of crisis,” said James Munn, director of humanitarian policy for the NRC. “They’re used to working in a bilateral way with governments, so how does that work where governments are fragile or not really working?”

    The World Bank’s spokesperson responded that the Bank is already active in countries affected by fragility and conflict and that allocation of resources to such countries is set to double.

    Low-hanging fruit

    Volker Türk, assistant high commissioner for protection at UNHCR, which has been tasked with leading the CRRF process, has described it as “a paradigm shift”. But in many ways, the framework represents an approach to refugee management that already existed in Uganda. Key elements of both the CRRF and Ugandan policy are the promotion of refugee self-reliance, establishing early links between humanitarian and development efforts, and making investments in national and local systems that benefit host communities as well as refugees.

    This means that many of the structures needed to implement the CRRF are already in place. Refugees are included in national development plans, and a programme aimed at bringing together a wider range of partners to develop durable solutions for refugees and host communities (ReHoPE) is in the works. Meanwhile, other countries that have volunteered to trial the CRRF, such as Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, are still in the process of reviewing and drafting laws recognising refugees’ right to work and access public services.

    With roll-out of the CRRF so far confined to countries in East Africa and Central America, it’s unclear how or if the framework can be implemented in states unwilling to change policies that confine refugees to camps and discourage integration with host populations.

    “Freedom of movement and freedom to engage in gainful livelihood activities is really, really key to the whole CRRF concept,” commented Lilu Thapa, country director for the Danish Refugee Council in Uganda and Tanzania. “In some countries where you have very strict camp settings, that might not be possible, and that’s my concern. I think the CRRF will need to be very carefully adapted to local situations.”

    ‘You host, I pay’?

    There’s evidence that some countries are willing to make reforms, possibly in the hope of attracting new funding. Kenya is not among the pilot countries, but the “Somali situation” is covered by the CRRF and may have played a role in the country’s new Refugee Bill, soon to become law. Refugees with certain skills will soon have the right to work and use land for business or farming. Kenya also appears to have retreated from its threat to close the Dadaab refugee camps by the end of May and repatriate all of the mainly Somali refugees living there.


    Benjamin Loyseau/UNHCR

    “There are a couple of positive developments in the region,” acknowledged Waaijman of the NRC. “But in terms of reciprocity of the CRRF process, I would have hoped to see more piloting in Europe. I think the UK and France have a lot to learn from Germany and Sweden, for example.

    “If the outcome of the CRRF and the compact is that we find some nice programmes in East Africa that we can then fund, then this CRRF is dead in the water,” she added. “The intent of the [New York] Summit was a more equitable distribution of responsibility-sharing. If the translation of that is, ‘You host, I pay’, then that cannot be right.”

    Mamadou Dian Balde, deputy director of a CRRF task team made up of 12 members, most of them drawn from UNHCR but also including representatives of the World Bank, the UN’s Development Programme, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, acknowledged concerns about the current limits of responsibility-sharing, but maintained that the CRRF is nevertheless a game-changer.

    “It’s about including refugees in their host communities from the start, and rallying sustained support to meet the needs of both groups. We did not have this unprecedented level of political support before the New York Declaration,” he told IRIN.

    “The [CRRF’s] four objectives include third-country solutions, and this is something where we need to do more,” he added. “The paradigm shift will take a bit of time. It will go beyond 2018.”


    New refugee framework “dead in the water” without more international support
  • End of Joseph Kony hunt breeds frustration and fear

    Uganda and the United States have ended a six-year hunt for elusive warlord Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.


    But calling off the mission, focused on Central African Republic, has left the commander of Ugandan forces in the country frustrated and advocacy groups concerned that the failure to “kill or capture” Kony could see the insurgency rebound.


    Uganda began withdrawing its officially 2,500 troops from their base in eastern CAR last week. The pull out of 100 US special forces, who worked alongside the Ugandan soldiers, began today.


    The mission, known as the African Union Regional Taskforce (AU-RT), was almost from the start a wholly Ugandan affair.




    It was supposed to have been 5,000-strong, drawing troops from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the CAR. But the neighbouring countries, with security problems of their own, either never deployed or quickly withdrew their contingents.


    The task force failed to win donor funding, and Uganda ended up footing the bill. Since 2011, armed US special forces advisors have provided intelligence and logistics support.


    Colonel Richard Otto is the commander of Uganda’s contingent in the CAR. At his divisional headquarters in Uganda’s northern city of Gulu, the amiable, decorated, former senior military intelligence officer, explained the difficulty of his three-year posting.


    “In CAR, the area we are operating in is almost the size of Uganda. You can imagine [the vastness], and I don’t have enough troops,” he told IRIN.


    The task force was drawn from all units of the Ugandan army, but may not have exceeded 1,500 men, according to media reports.


    Hiding out


    CAR has been the perfect hideaway for the LRA. It has been convulsed by violence since 2013, when a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebels known as the Séléka overthrew the government. The UN mission, MINUSCA, has been unable to end ongoing violence between Christian militia and the former Séléka.        


    “The armed forces of CAR are yet to be organised,” said Otto, who before his deployment in CAR served as chief operations planner with African Union forces in Somalia.


    “Some of them are undergoing training by [the] UN [and the] European Union Training Mission, and they are not yet deployed in the eastern part of the country.”

    The lawlessness of the CAR has attracted not only “Séléka” from neighbouring Chad, but also the “Janjaweed” militia from Sudan’s Darfur region coming in to poach elephants, among other armed men.


    “We have quite a number of armed groups,” said Otto. “So, when you encounter them in the jungle, sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you are fighting LRA or other [forces].”


    But the Ugandan troops have recorded significant successes. Four key LRA commanders have been captured, and an insurgency of 2,000 fighters that terrorised a huge swathe of territory across central Africa has been sharply degraded.


    On the run


    The LRA, now believed to be down to less than 120 armed men, has splintered into small units operating in the remotest regions of eastern CAR, northeastern Congo, and Darfur.


    “The enemy is permanently on the run,” said Otto, claiming that there had been a steady trickle of defections and that “over 1,000 civilians” that were abducted by the LRA had been rescued.


    Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has a $5 million bounty on his head. He is believed to be hiding in the Kafia-Kingi enclave, a disputed border area between Sudan and South Sudan. 


    Khartoum is not a member of the regional task force and, as a historical supporter of the LRA, appears to have given Kony safe haven.


    But, crucially, he no longer leads his men. “He has lost command, control, and communication,” said Otto. “For the first time, the LRA has factions. There is a group… who has decided to leave [the] LRA and operates on [its] own.”


    Two senior LRA commanders, Bosco Kilama and Peter Ochora, who defected last month in Congo, agree with Otto’s assessment on the group’s disintegration.


    “The LRA is disarray. The LRA has been completely disorganised with no central command. Kony is growing old and losing the grip on the soldiers,” Kilama told reporters at Uganda’s Entebbe airbase last week. The two men will receive a government amnesty.


    Mission accomplished?


    The LRA’s apparent toothlesness has allowed the Ugandan army and the US Africa Command to trumpet Kony’s irrelevance as justification for their withdrawal from the hunt.


    But Otto, an Acholi from northern Uganda, the original heartland of the LRA, acknowledges that the group remains a threat.


    “The will to fight and attack the security forces is not there. However, they still remain a problem to the general population,” he told IRIN.


    “They are involved in looting food, looting gold, diamonds, killing elephants in [Congo’s] Garamba national park and Zemongo national park in CAR,” he said. It is a revenue stream that could keep them armed for years.


    Ugandan troops in CAR
    Richard Mugisha/IRIN



    The LRA was responsible for 563 abductions in 171 attacks in 2016, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker, a monitoring group. It’s a drop from the 737 people kidnapped in 2015 in 222 attacks, but still significant.


    As of 30 March this year, they are believed to have kidnapped 147 people in 43 incidents.


    “Completely abandoning the mission will create security vacuums for already extremely vulnerable communities, particularly in the Central African Republic and northeastern DRC,” said Holly Dranginis, a senior analyst at the US-based Enough Project to End Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.


    “Leaving now will also dismantle key defection sites, leaving individuals with scarce options if they want to leave the LRA and reintegrate into civilian life,” she told IRIN.


    Lino Owor Ogora, director of the Gulu-based Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives, noted: “The LRA has always taken advantage of any lapses in combat to regroup and reorganise.


    “People in northern Uganda have enjoyed peace for close to 10 years now, and the region is on a firm road to recovery. It would be unfortunate if the LRA returned because they were allowed too.”


    There is also unease in CAR. On 16 April, civilians in Obbo town, which has been the tactical headquarters for Ugandan and US forces, demonstrated, calling for the troops to stay.


    Otto, who spoke to IRIN last week, is now back in CAR finalising the return home of the last of his men.


    What happens next? 


    But the Ugandan government has hinted that it will not step away altogether from an insurgency that began in Uganda almost three decades ago, and was then exported to its neighbours.


    Richard Karemire, the military spokesman, said last week that Uganda could join the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR under a strengthened mandate to tackle the LRA.


    He also suggested Uganda could support “capacity-building” of the CAR Armed Forces for “counter-LRA operations”.


    Ogora, the head of the Gulu-based foundation, also favours a military option, drawing on the UN and regional armies to “neutralise” the LRA once and for all.


    “Short of that, the LRA will continue roaming the jungles of Garamba at will, trading in ivory and arms, and abducting and killing civilians.” 


    But Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, says the military option has been tried and has failed. “This requires a political solution, with amnesty at its core,” he told IRIN.


    According to Dranginis, “the United States should continue supporting defection campaigns” as it has proved successful in “weakening the group and creating opportunities for fighters and abductees to leave.”


    Demobilisation and reintegration is a complex process, she added, but it “can pay dividends for security in the region”.



    End of Joseph Kony hunt breeds frustration and fear
  • South Sudanese refugees struggling to survive in Uganda’s cities

    If you are a refugee, then Uganda is one of the better places to be. Refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to work, have freedom of movement, and can access social services – a progressive policy much-lauded by the international community.


    But while in theory refugees don’t have to remain trapped in vast camps on the country’s borders, the reality is that many don’t have the skills or wherewithal to find work or set up businesses outside of sprawling refugee settlements.


    Uganda is now sheltering over a million refugees and asylum seekers. More than 800,000 are South Sudanese, and 572,000 of that number are new arrivals who have escaped their country’s civil war and growing food crisis since July last year.


    The vast majority are housed in refugee settlements in Uganda’s north. There they are allocated plots of land and given materials to build a basic home, as well as food aid and access to basic health and education services.


    “The refugee policy in Uganda is that you get assistance when you are in the settlement,” explained Moses Nsubuga from the Refugee Law Project, a Kampala-based NGO. “The moment you leave the settlement and choose to live in an urban centre like Kampala, they expect you to fend for yourself.”


    Time to run


    Kampala is now home to 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Somalia. According to the government, numbers have increased by more than 20 percent since last year.


    South Sudanese, who through 60 years of turmoil have long had links to Uganda, number around 10,776, according to the prime minister's office.


    Joyce Keji* fled South Sudan for Uganda with her four children when fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and then First Vice President Riek Machar re-ignited in July 2016.


    The final straw was when her home in the capital, Juba, was looted by government soldiers, and her life was threatened.


    “They went inside and broke the wardrobe, took things from my children’s rooms, the mattresses and took the keys for the car,” she recalled. “They took everything.”


    While her husband, an engineer, stayed behind in Juba, Joyce headed to the Ugandan capital with her children. But it’s been tough to establish herself in Kampala. Living with a friend, she does cleaning jobs to get by, but it’s hardly enough.


    “At the time I arrived it was hard for me. I didn’t know the place, and everything was difficult,” she told IRIN. “Now at least I am getting used to it [but] we are suffering. The security is fine, but hunger is there.” 


    Salon skills


    Keji was a market trader in Juba, so has a business background. To break through in Kampala, she is pinning her hopes on a hairdressing training programme she has enrolled on, run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).


    Inside the cramped JRS training salon, groups get to grips with plaiting and weaving techniques while others volunteer to be models for the latest styling lesson.


    “My hope is to do the course, and when I succeed and have finished learning, I want to open my own salon and earn some money,” said Keji. But without capital, it remains a long-term goal.


    Training courses can help new arrivals to take advantage of the country’s progressive refugee policy. But any notion that it’s easy for urban refugees to get on their feet would be a mistake. "The fact is that the majority of refugees in Uganda live at subsistence level," according to David Kigozi of the International Refugee Rights Initiative.


    Hairdressing salon Kampala
    Chris Matthews/IRIN

    Mean streets


    The challenges of surviving the city are something Keji’s fellow student, Beatrice Taban*, who came from South Sudan last year with her aunt, is acutely aware of.


    Her mother and sisters live in a refugee settlement and the 25-year-old has not seen them in almost a year. But she says it would be too difficult for them to join her.


    “There is a problem if they meet us here,” said Taban. “Here you have to pay bills and it is very difficult. If I get work and I feel comfortable, they can come and see me.” 


    The conflict across the border is hurting Uganda’s economy. The ministry of finance has warned of a slowdown in the traditionally strong export market because of the collapse in demand in South Sudan. Meanwhile, a drought has seen a hike in food prices. With 22 percent of youths jobless, sustaining a life in the city is becoming harder.


    “Ugandans already do not have jobs, and so it is hard right now for refugees to get work,” said Nsubuga of the Refugee Law Project.


    Alongside the economic hardships, Kampala’s South Sudanese population have to deal with occassionally frosty locals, some whom have negative perceptions of their northern neighbours.


    “[Those] who come here are very rich and they stay in hotels and they do not leave,” said a motorbike taxi driver, describing the pre-civil war stereotype of aggressive and flashy South Sudanese.


    It’s a perception based on the ministers and military commanders who, after independence in 2013, bought property and relocated their families to Kampala to take advantage of the comfortable lifestyle.


    But, said Augustine Gatwal, a South Sudanese who has lived mainly in Uganda since 2007, such stereotypes definitely don’t fit the profile of the refugees fleeing the current crisis.


    “I can estimate that almost 50 percent of South Sudanese households in Kampala have gone to refugee camps because they can no longer afford to pay rent and take their children to school,” he told IRIN.


    Bigger problems


    Gatwal runs Young-adult Empowerment Initiative, a charity aimed at helping women and young people from his country to acclimatise to life in both the settlements and Kampala.


    “We work on issues to do with peace because when they come they are very hostile,” he explained. “To adapt to a peaceful environment is very difficult and many have post-war trauma and have seen a lot of issues that have disturbed them.”


    But there is a larger threat to Uganda’s open-door refugee policy. Last month, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned that the scale of the flow of refugees out of South Sudan risks overwhelming Uganda and that there is an urgent need for more financial support from the international community.

    UNHCR has appealed for roughly $501 million to cover its operations in Uganda this year. So far it has received only $73 million - just 15 percent. “We are at breaking point. Uganda cannot handle Africa’s largest refugee crisis alone,” said Grandi.

    * Not their real names


    TOP PHOTO: Kampala. CREDIT: Weescam2010

    South Sudanese refugees struggling to survive in Uganda’s cities
  • The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts

    Across much of the world, the festive season is a time of indulgence. But what if you’re too busy fleeing violence and upheaval, or stuck in a refugee camp on reduced rations?

    It’s been a hard year for the most vulnerable among us. This is partly due to tightening aid budgets, but it’s also the result of there simply being so many more people in crisis who need help.

    “It's not just a question of falling donor funding; most donors have continued to be generous, providing funds at relatively consistent levels for years,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough told IRIN.  “But the number of [those in need] is much larger.”

    A prime example is Uganda, where 602,000 South Sudanese refugees are sheltering. As a result of the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, “we are now supporting nearly twice as many refugees as we were just six months ago”, explained McDonough.

    WFP, as the global emergency food responder, is feeling the strain. “I'd say there are probably very few countries where we have not had to make some kind of adjustment to our assistance plans because of a lack of funding,” said McDonough.

    The following is a not-so-festive guide to where WFP has been forced to make cuts to already minimal food rations in Africa. It includes some non-refugee national programmes, which have also been impacted by funding shortfalls.

    Burkina Faso

    Rations have been reduced and cash assistance suspended for the 31,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso. As a result, about a quarter of refugees do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.

    “Most refugees in the camps depend solely on humanitarian assistance to survive,” said WFP country director Jean-Charles Dei. “When assistance is interrupted or insufficient, the food security and nutrition situation dramatically deteriorate, especially for women, children, and elderly people.”


    Lack of funding has impacted a range of activities targeting vulnerable communities. Food-for-training for Congolese refugees and Burundian migrants expelled from Tanzania and Rwanda has been suspended. The number of children reached through an anti-stunting campaign has been reduced by 70 percent, with the programme halted entirely in Ruramvya and Rutana provinces.


    Monthly food rations for Central African Republic refugees in Cameroon was cut by 50 percent in November and December. The 150,000 refugees are entirely dependent on international aid.

    In May, WFP also halted its meals programme to 16 primary schools in northern Cameroon due to a lack of funding.

    Central African Republic

    WFP has been unable to assist more than 500,000 people in urgent need of aid and has been forced to halve the amount of food it has provided to those it can reach. Emergency school meals have been suspended in the capital, Bangui, and rations to displaced people in the violence-hit central town of Kaga Bandoro have been slashed by 75 percent. “WFP needs to urgently mobilise flexible contributions to cover for distributions from January onwards,” the agency has warned.


    For the past two years, refugees in Chad have survived on monthly rations well below the minimum requirement. For some, the cuts have been by as much as 60 percent. A joint assessment released in November by WFP and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, found more than 40 percent of the 400,000 refugees in Chad are malnourished and the majority of children are anaemic.


    Since November 2015, ration cuts have affected more than 760,000 refugees, the bulk of them from South Sudan and Somalia. Although there was an improvement in general food rations from June this year, UNHCR has warned that households still face difficulties. The cuts have, in particular, affected children aged under the age of five, with global acute malnutrition above the 15 percent emergency threshold in 10 out of 22 assessed refugee camps.


    All nutrition and livelihood related activities have been suspended due to a lack of funding.


    In December, WFP cut monthly rations by half for the 400,000 refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab and Kakuma camps. It warned that unless urgent new funding is received, it will completely run out of food by February. Most refugees in Dadaab have already had their rations cut down to 70 percent of June 2015 levels, and UNHCR has warned of a likely increase in malnutrition as a result of the new squeeze.

    Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Given Kenya’s threat to deport Somalis has already triggered illegal forced refugee return, the UN ([World] Food Programme’s decision to further reduce refugee food rations could not have come at a worse time.”


    Ration cuts to 27,000 refugees meant that at the beginning of 2016 they were only receiving 40 percent of the recommended minimum number of daily kilocalories. Those shortages began six months earlier. By March, only three out of seven food items – maize, beans, and cooking oil – were being supplied. The Dzaleka camp hosts people mainly from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions, with new arrivals escaping unrest across the border in Mozambique.


    In November, WFP halved food rations to 42,500 Malian refugees. Without fresh funding, it says it will be forced to suspend general food distributions, including cash transfers, from next month. A school meals programme for vulnerable Mauritanian children has also been put on hold and will only partially resume in January.


    A nationwide prevention of stunting programme for children aged six-23 months, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers has been discontinued due to limited funding.


    WFP will “significantly scale down” its livelihoods programmes in December 2016. If no additional resources are confirmed, it will only be able to continue with minimal programmes (mainly nutrition) from February 2017. WFP is targeting 1.4 million vulnerable Somalis in food-insecure areas.


    Rations have been cut by 50 percent for some 200,000 refugees who arrived in Uganda prior to July 2015. Low levels of funding, together with the large numbers of new arrivals fleeing fighting in South Sudan has left WFP workers “with no choice but to re-prioritise their focus on those refugees in greatest need.” The humanitarian response to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda was already severely underfunded even before the latest outbreak of violence in Juba in July.

    (TOP PHOTO: Residents of an IDP camp in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo receive food rations distributed by WFP. WFP)


    The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts
  • From war to want: South Sudanese find less violence but grim conditions in Uganda

    For leverage, Helen grips the rungs on the side of the rusting hospital bed with her toes. “Sindika!” encourages Aisha Ayikoriu. “Sindika! Sindika!” In Luganda, the Bantu language widely spoken in Uganda, Sindika means “push”.

    Built in the early 1990s to serve 10,000 local Ugandans, Ocea Centre Two is now the biggest of four clinics serving Rhino, a settlement of some 85,000 South Sudanese refugees. 

    As the UN makes repeated statements about ethnic cleansing and budding genocide in South Sudan, Uganda can barely open camps fast enough to accommodate the influx of refugees. An average of 2,500 have been arriving every day since July, with that figure as high as 7,000 earlier this month. A massive settlement for 100,000 has just opened in Moyo district in the tip of the north. With dry season offensives expected to begin any day now, it could be overflowing before mid-January.

    In its most recent update, on 19 December, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says 584,573 South Sudanese refugees have arrived in Uganda since the civil war broke out in December 2013. Almost 400,000 of them have come since July, fleeing an upsurge in fighting and indiscriminate bloodletting in the southern Equatoria region. 

    Related stories:

    South Sudan refugee influx overwhelms Ugandan reception centres

    South Sudan: "This fighting will continue to our children"

    The genocidal logic of South Sudan's "gun class"

    The lack of resources for the refugees is evident. There isn’t enough water, let alone sanitary pads for women, and schools for children. It may be safer in Uganda, but the conditions here are inhumane.

    At Ocea Centre Two, there are two beds for women in labour. On the other side of the green fabric that serves as a curtain are five mothers with newborns. They share cots and use cloths to cushion themselves and their little ones on the concrete floor. Mothers fuss over the babies. Though the situation is grim, the scene isn’t sad.

    The “inpatient” unit is 14 beds in a tent. It is the only clinic at Rhino equipped to do minor surgical procedures. The beds in the tent are always full and often overrun, with patients sharing beds or staying on the floor. 

    For any major operations, patients must be sent to the nearest hospital, 72 nauseatingly bumpy kilometres to the west, in Arua, the closest main town. There is only one ambulance available. Vincent Debo, a clinical officer, looks embarrassed when he shares these statistics. 

    Frontline Equatoria

    The fight that has ruined the world’s newest nation turned three on 15 December. South Sudan itself is just five, having celebrated its independence in July 2011.

    The conflict is an ethnically tinged power wrangle between the SPLA (government forces made up mostly of President Salva Kiir’s Dinka tribe) and the SPLA-IO (opposition forces – initially mostly Nuer people loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, but now increasingly mixed with members of South Sudan’s 63 other tribes).  

    Equatoria had remained a bastion of relative calm while war over resources and power infected the rest of the country, but the seat of the conflict has shifted. A failed, internationally-brokered August 2015 peace agreement positioned IO troops alongside the SPLA in these states, priming the place for a bloodbath. In July, fighting broke out in the capital Juba, located in the south, in the middle of the Equatoria region. A chase down country for the ousted Machar was followed by massacres that have yet to stop. 

    Refugees from Equatoria say they left because staying at home was untenable. If it weren’t for the gunshots every night, the bodies in the streets, the families burned alive in their homes, and the women gang raped by the side of the road, they would have stayed. 

    “Fear made me come here,” Peter Dada, originally from Laniya in central Equatoria, tells IRIN at Rhino settlement. “There is killing, continuously. No compromise.”

    Dada says if the government soldiers see you, they kill you. If IO soldiers see you, expect the same. He blames the SPLA alone though for the massive levels of rape, saying: “That one is being done by the government soldiers.” 

    Most refugees say both sides are complicit in the sexual assault that has reached “epic” levels in South Sudan. 

    It is less violent across the border, but the living conditions are dreadful.


    The largest encampment in Uganda opened on 3 August, at Bidi Bidi. A small village a few months ago, it is now the world’s second largest refugee settlement, with a population of more than 260,000. Like Rhino, it is spread out across unforgiving terrain.

    The majority of the refugees at Bidi Bidi and Rhino are from a mixture of South Sudan’s smaller, marginalised tribes, like the Kakwa and the Acholi. In the northeast of Uganda, the settlement at Adjumani hosts another 60,000 South Sudanese, but they are mostly of Kiir’s Dinka tribe.

    Of the 100,000 school-age children in Bidi Bidi, only 10,000 attend classes. There is just one primary school.

    Robert Baryamwesiga, Bidi Bidi’s camp commandant, says the biggest challenge is water. There are 70 boreholes on the sprawling 250-square-kilometre property. Sixty-five percent of the water is trucked in from the Nile. Each refugee has about eight litres a day for drinking, washing, cooking, and bathing. The World Health Organization recommends that 15 litres a day is needed for survival: drinking and cooking.

    "Every day, more refugees were arriving than new boreholes could be drilled to supply them water,” said Harmen van den Berg, a hydrogeologist with UNHCR.

    Jean-Luc Anglade, the country representative for Médecins Sans Frontières in Uganda, explained that a substantial amount of money is being spent exploring the groundwater in Bidi Bidi. Normally, a hydrogeology survey is completed before a plot of land is selected for a refugee settlement. In this case, it’s ongoing, after the camp is already full. “The water supply is too low in terms of quality/quantity delivered despite lots of efforts from partners,” Anglade told IRIN by email.

    The water situation at Rhino isn’t any better.

    Grace Ropani says it takes two or three people to “farm” the water. Pumping from the boreholes is exhausting, and can take two hours.

    Ropani’s grandmother was macheted to death on 5 August. She didn’t see it happen; her neighbours gave her the news. “Here, we don’t hear the sound of guns,” she says of life in Rhino camp. Unlike others, Ropani isn’t concerned about the food supply, but she does need soap and salt, and she says the women need sanitary pads and underwear. 

    Yasmin Abdayy was elected by the Rhino refugee community to be an unpaid watchman for Oxfam’s water tank 171. As a truck pumps 20,000 litres into the tank, Abdayy keeps an eye on the line forming at the spouts. Everything is orderly, except the boys who dangle the truck’s dribbling hose into their containers to get every drop.

    According to Abdayy’s calculations, each family gets two jerry cans’ full, about 40 litres, each day. Going by the WHO standards of 15 litres per person as the basic emergency level, a family of five would needs 75 litres to survive. Abdayy says there is just half the water needed. What he really wants is simply a notebook and a pen to keep track of the situation, so he can do his job correctly.

    Food is also an increasingly acute concern.

    In August, the World Food Programme cut rations by 50 percent for all refugees who had been in Uganda before July 2015. Now, the organisation faces a funding shortfall of $62 million for all refugee operations in the country for the next six months. If this is not met, WFP will be forced to cut the quota for new arrivals as well. Even though they are allegedly getting the requisite amount of food, the majority of newly arrived refugees, including Abdayy and Dada in Rhino settlement, speak of hunger and say they don’t have enough to eat. 

    It is 1pm, and neither Abdayy nor his five children have eaten. “The food is finished,” he says, adding that his family won’t eat that day unless he can find a way to do some small paid labor, or perhaps make a trade. Other refugees spoke of exchanging supplies like pots for food.  

    Some aid organisations attribute the lack of schools, health services, food, and water to the scale of the influx. But Shoshon Tama-Sweet, Africa and Middle East programme manager with Medical Teams International (MTI), finds that rationale lacking.

    “They [UN and NGOs] prepared for 700,000 refugees before the Mosul offensive [in Iraq],” he told IRIN. “South Sudan has been at war since 2013. The refugees started flooding Uganda in July. They used surprise as an explanation for lack of preparation. Now, it's December. They still can't be surprised. We're running to stand still.”

    Speaking again to the relativism other aid staffers apply to explain conditions, Tama-Sweet said: “You can't say: 'Well, they wouldn't have water in South Sudan either.' In South Sudan, they had community coping mechanisms, they knew the land. This isn't the same thing."


    Back at Ocea Centre Two in Rhino settlement, Ayikoriu, the midwife, is giving instructions.

    Helen is 25. This is her first child. She purses her lips and screws up her eyes in painful effort, but she doesn’t make much noise.

    She hasn’t taken any pain medication. Lili Aya, the birth attendant, and Ayikoriu shift Helen into the most comfortable position; first draping her arm over her back and moving her onto her side, then holding her neck and massaging her breasts and belly. Helen’s only cover is a limp plaid blanket. It’s a physical process; the women are comfortable with each other. 

    Beads of sweat form on Helen’s lips. The room smells vaguely of hay. Ayikoriu advises her patient to push like she’s trying to go to the bathroom. “She’s putting her effort here,” Ayikoriu says, indicating her neck. “I’m telling her to push down.” 

    Ayikoriu ties a rubber glove around Helen’s arm. She’s found they make perfect tourniquets. She gives Helen an intravenous drip of glucose for energy, and some oxytocin to speed up her slowing contractions. 

    Now, Helen is not contracting at all. A clinical officer calls the ambulance. It’s time to take Helen to the hospital. Ayikoriu is not worried about Helen’s health, but she is concerned the baby will suffocate. The ambulance is already on its way to the hospital with someone else. It will be hours before it can come back for Helen.

    (TOP PHOTO: Mother and newborn asleep on the floor of Ocea Center Two, Rhino settlement, Uganda. CREDIT: Amanda Sperber/IRIN)


    South Sudan: From war to want
  • South Sudan: “This fighting will continue to our children”

    David Salah sits on the South Sudan side of the Kaya river. A wooden bridge separates him from Busia, a border crossing in Uganda. He wears a black-and-red jersey and black shorts. His smile is friendly enough, but he keeps a well-worn AK-47 by his side.


    Salah spent most of his early life as a student in Uganda, where he acquired the excellent English he speaks. In 2003, he moved back home to South Sudan. Since then, he has worked as a farmer in the fertile southern Equatoria region.


    This is not the future he had in mind. Salah wanted to return to Uganda and study for a Bachelor of Business Administration at Makerere University. But, he says, the government would not sponsor him to go.


    Salah believes the South Sudanese government keeps scholarships only for the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country. It is the community to which President Salva Kiir belongs, as do the majority of senior figures within his administration.


    Like many non-Dinka in South Sudan, Salah thinks the government is solely dedicated to keeping the Dinka people in power. Kiir is backed by the influential Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders and supported by military chief-of-staff General Paul Malong Awan.


    To the bush


    Salah is a Kakwa, a relatively small ethnic group that straddles southwestern South Sudan, northwestern Uganda, and northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.


    Amanda Sperber/IRIN

    Last year, he joined the rebel SPLA-IO, a movement associated with the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. But the insurgency is also attracting the loyalty of existing community-based militia in the Equatoria region and beyond – anyone to challenge the Dinka’s perceived hold on national power and resources.


    Salah is a captain in the SPLA-IO. Asked how he thinks fighting will bring about the political resolution he wants, he laughs and says something about how this is the only way to bring about change in this part of the world.  


    Salah's comrade-in-arms, Samuel Denyag, was a policeman in the capital, Juba, where he says he saw ethnic chauvinism first-hand. Denyag claims his Dinka commanders fixed the books, adding dozens of ghost names to the payroll, and then shared out the proceeds among just the Dinka cops.


    When South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013, over a contest for power between Kiir and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar, Denyag headed home to western Equatoria. He joined the Arrow Boys, a broad militia originally formed to defend the community against attacks by Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.


    The LRA are gone. Now there are new threats. Local anger has long been stoked by the encroachment of heavily armed Dinka cattle herders onto farmland, and the disappearance of young men in the government’s heavy-handed counter-insurgency operations.


    Rebellion spreads


    As armed groups bubbled up in western Equatoria in 2015, some Arrow Boy factions threw in with SPLA-IO. Denyag was one of them.


    Some of these emerging armed groups looked to be absorbed into the national army under an agreement negotiated in 2015 to end the civil war. But the accord didn’t last. Although Machar finally returned to Juba to join a government of national unity in April this year, three months later he was fleeing for his life, heading south through Equatoria and over the Congolese border.


    Fighting followed in his wake. Yei, in southern Equatoria, was previously thought of as one of the safest places in South Sudan. But Human Rights Watch reported in October “numerous cases” of abuse by the army against civilians as they hunted for SPLA-IO supporters.


    IRIN was unable to get comment from the government.


    Among the most brutal of the government’s forces are the all-Dinka Mathiang Anyoor militia, created by Malong. They were instrumental in the purging of Nuer neighbourhoods in Juba in 2013.


    Lona Saima
    Amanda Sperber



    The violence has spurred opposition, increasingly united in a sense of victimhood. It has also generated a cycle of revenge. In October, armed gunmen attacked a bus on the Yei-Juba road, separated the 21 Dinka from the other passengers, and shot them.


    “The history of mass atrocities suggests that ethnic violence is normally a political tool waged for – often petty – political purposes. South Sudan is no different,” researcher Alan Boswell told IRIN. “It’s a political war for a new state that never fully formed, but is now being fought over as it collapses.”


    The brutality under way in Equatoria has forced 246,000 South Sudanese to flee to northwest Uganda in six months. Tens of thousands of them – if not more – have crossed Captain Salah’s rickety bridge.


    “These atrocities are not an abuse of power per se, but rather the desperation of the weak lacking true state power,” said Boswell. “This is ethnic cleansing as desperation, not strength.”


    Lona Saima walked for seven days with her family from Yei to reach safety. In early December, she’d just been trucked from the South Sudanese border to Kuluba Transit Centre in Uganda.


    “If they [the Dinka] get you, they will slaughter you like a chicken,” she told IRIN. “They want to kill anyone because they don’t trust you… they think you are hiding rebels.”


    Saima has tuberculosis and hasn’t been able to access medicine for two months, since war shut the hospital and supply lines down. Her body aches.


    At least 85 percent of the people in the heaving camps are women and children. The men have stayed to fight and to protect their property.


    Amanda Sperber/IRIN

    Otto John Adema bucks the trend. An HIV-positive preacher with 12 children, he arrived from Torit, in southeastern South Sudan, in August. He sits against the mud brick house he built in Bidi Bidi camp, holding his baby boy.


    He saw three civilians shot, but doesn’t know if it was the SPLA or the rebels who did the killing. He is sure, though, that it was five SPLA-IO raping a woman in the street with a stick.


    Ethnic killings have been a feature of South Sudan’s civil war since it began. Kem Ryan, who was the head of operations for the relief and protection section of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, has plenty of evidence.


    “I have hundreds of photos from the three years of war in South Sudan of people killed, mostly civilians, many bound and executed,” he told IRIN. The violence forced 200,000 people from their homes in 2015.




    The UN didn’t use the terms “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” then, but now they do.


    On 11 November, Adam Dieng, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, said South Sudan risked “outright ethnic war” and genocide. The last time he was in the country was in 2014.


    The UN Human Rights Commission said in statement on 30 November: “there is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing under way in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages.”


    No one knows how many people have been killed in South Sudan’s civil war. There are estimates of up to 300,000, but the phrase “tens of thousands” is normally used in news reports.


    “The UN is the only actor in South Sudan with the capacity to collect and verify death tolls and they chose not to,” said International Crisis Group’s South Sudan senior analyst, Casie Copeland.


    “Death tolls are important for our humanity, to raise awareness and as empirical evidence of how the war evolves.”


    Richard Batili also guards the bridge on the Kaya river. He sees no end in sight to this conflict. “What is going to happen will be unacceptable,” he told IRIN. “This fighting will continue to our children.”



    TOP PHOTO: Bidi Bidi is the fastest growung refugee camp in northwest Uganda CREDIT: EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

    South Sudan: “This fighting will continue to our children”
  • Kony’s killers – are child soldiers accountable when they become men?

    The trial of Dominic Ongwen, a senior member of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, opens on Tuesday before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Many horrors will be recounted, but the case also throws up deep ethical questions: is a child, brutalised and turned into a killer, fully responsible for his or her actions? If the abuses of government forces aren’t also being investigated, at what point does it become victor’s justice?

    Abducted by the LRA at the age of 10, Ongwen became a protégé of rebel leader Joseph Kony and was forced to witness and carry out acts of extreme violence. He will be appearing before Trial Chamber IX to answer 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They include allegations of murder, rape, sexual slavery, torture, pillaging, and the conscription of children aged under 15 for combat.

    It is the first time in the history of the ICC where the alleged perpetrator himself was a child soldier.  

    “I know it’s a delicate balance. It’s about accountability. It’s about whether Ongwen was responsible for the atrocities or not,” Herman von Hebel, the ICC registrar, told reporters on Monday in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.


    In northern Uganda, epicentre of the two-decade-long insurgency, Ongwen is not uniformly thought of as a monster. Among many former LRA child soldiers, now back in their communities after amnesty and reconciliation programmes, there is sympathy.

    Like Ongwen, they were forced to commit serious crimes, and some fault the government for not having protected them.

    “He is a victim and not an abuser,” Thomas Otim, a former LRA combatant, told IRIN. “Ongwen, like many of us, had to obey and execute Kony’s orders. If he didn’t, he could have been killed…. He should be forgiven and pardoned.”

    Even some LRA victims agree with Otim. Sarah Angee lost her parents and relatives in an LRA attack in her northern home district of Amuru.

    “As a victim and survivor, I have accepted to forgive Ongwen for the atrocities and suffering he caused,” she told IRIN. “As a child soldier, he was conscripted and indoctrinated to kill, maim, rape women, mutilate, attack camps, abduct children, and other horrible atrocities.”

    The LRA terrorised northern Uganda between 1987 and 2006. It emerged in the tumult of a divided Uganda, in which President Yoweri Museveni’s southern-based National Resistance Movement had fought its way to Kampala and overthrown the short-lived military rule of Tito Okello, an Acholi. Although the LRA was an Acholi-based movement, its victims were overwhelmingly from its own community.

    In 2000, the government introduced a blanket amnesty for anyone who abandoned the group and renounced involvement in the war. Close to 30,000 took up the offer, but the government subsequently excluded the most senior commanders like Ongwen.


    Ugandan soldiers hunting for Kony
    Richard Mugisha/IRIN

    He is the only one of five indicted LRA figures to have surrendered, giving himself up in Central African Republic in January 2015. With the exception of Kony, the other three wanted men are believed to be dead.

    Rather than the ICC’s retributive justice, Angee would like to see Ongwen pardoned and, like many of the ex-LRA who returned home, enrolled in a traditional Acholi reconciliation process known as Mato Oput.

    “Let the ICC leave him to come back home and be given amnesty like other top LRA commanders. He will be cleansed and reconciled with the relatives and communities that he wronged and offended during the conflict through [our] local mechanism,” she said.

    Meeting Ongwen

    But Betty Oyella Bigombe, a senior director at the World Bank who – as a state minister for northern Uganda – worked for years to broker an end to the conflict, disagrees with the notion of pardoning Ongwen.

    I met Ongwen during the peace talks. He was the most hostile. I was very scared of him,” she told IRIN. “Ongwen can’t be left to get off scot-free. It’s true, Ongwen was abducted. It’s true, he was a victim. But, like so many others, he had an opportunity to defect. But he didn’t surrender for all those years. This raises a moral question. Why didn’t he?

    “I am a stronger believer in forgiveness. But forgiveness has to have a limit. Forgiveness has to have reasons. Victims never really recover if justice is never there. It wouldn’t be good to see Ongwen in a suit driving a car and [the victims] have nothing,” she said.

    “Whatever comes out of it [the trial] can be discussed,” she added. “[But] I also think this is important for the existence of the ICC. The ICC was created to protect the voiceless. It acts as deterrence so that any other person who has those intentions in future should know the consequences.”

    Why mixed feelings?

    Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, believes victims' feelings toward Ongwen are mixed, and filtered through their own experiences.

    “Many victims I have interviewed say they have children just like Ongwen – children who were abducted but who committed horrific atrocities, including back in their home communities. These victims therefore hate the crimes Ongwen has committed, but are sympathetic to him because of the way he was forced into the rebel ranks,” he told IRIN.


    Richard Mugisha/IRIN

    Lino Owora Ogora, a transitional justice and peace-building activist based in the main northern city of Gulu, agrees with Clark over the tangled emotions stirred by the case.

    “The sentiments of victims towards forgiveness can also be explained by the fact that for a long time amnesty was promoted and embraced by the people as a means of ending the conflict,” he noted. “Because many commanders who surrendered before Ongwen were granted amnesty, the people feel he also deserves amnesty.”

    “Yes, I think the government politicised and manipulated the ICC in the war against the LRA. The government used the ICC to isolate the LRA from the international community and to officially label the LRA a terrorist organisation,” said Ogora.

    “How else can you explain the fact that today the same government that invited in the ICC in the first place is the same government that has turned into a bitter critic of the ICC, with President Museveni openly calling the ICC a 'bunch of useless people'?”

    But Clark also faults the ICC. “As part of the pre-referral negotiations, the ICC prosecutor promised the government there would be no investigations of state actors as long as the government cooperated with the court. The Ugandan government was only too willing to cooperate. This meant the ICC would target the government's opponents such as the LRA while protecting the state from the threat of prosecution,” he said.

    “In the eyes of affected communities in northern Uganda, this immediately delegitimises the ICC,” Clark suggested. “Local communities view both the LRA and the government as responsible for the atrocities they have suffered. Some communities even see government crimes as worse because the state – unlike rebels – is supposed to guarantee citizens' protection and security.”

    Government crimes

    Ongwen’s call to the dock on Tuesday has prompted fresh calls for investigations into alleged crimes committed by the army, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, during the long counter-insurgency war in the north, in which human rights violations were committed.

    “We need a full accounting for the atrocities, where both parties involved in the conflict have to account. The absence of accountability from the UPDF side will always remain an issue if not addressed,” said Joyce Freda Apio, a transitional justice expert.

    “The heavy reliance by the Office of the Prosecutor on evidence gathered by Ugandan military intelligence raises concern if what is being pursued is the victor's justice,” she told IRIN.

    Clark said that by ignoring government atrocities “for the sake of expediency”, the ICC had destroyed its reputation among the local communities.

    “They see the court and the government as one and the same – and blame the court for protecting and even emboldening the state to continue committing crimes. For example, its violent crackdown against civilians in the three national elections held since the ICC intervened in Uganda.”

    But Bigombe, the World Bank director and former state minister, sees that as disingenuous. “There have been complaints, but no organisation has communicated to [the] ICC and said, ‘Could you investigate UPDF as well?’ The ICC as an institution will not deal with outcries and rumours. If there was a letter or invitation to invite ICC to investigate the UPDF for their role in northern Uganda, I would be surprised if ICC turned their back.”

    The Ugandan government referred the LRA case to the ICC in 2004 – alleged UPDF atrocities were not in the terms of reference. However, the government argues that it has always investigated allegations against its soldiers, and those found guilty have been punished harshly.

    But there was also the government’s controversial strategy to force most of the population of the north into “protected villages”, a policy condemned by rights groups and local politicians.

    Ongwen will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty to the charges being brought against him on Tuesday. The court will then adjourn to 16 January, when the prosecution will begin presenting its evidence. It’s a case Ugandans will follow with rapt attention.

    A decade on from leaving Uganda, the LRA now numbers just a few hundred, operating in the remotest regions of the Congo, CAR and Sudan, but the legacy of the group’s violence still casts a long shadow over people’s lives.


    TOP PHOTO: Dominic Ongwen at his first hearing at the ICC in 2015. CREDIT: ©ICC-CPI

    Kony’s killers – are child soldiers accountable when they become men?
  • Who can stop the threat of genocide in South Sudan?

    The alarm has been raised over the threat of genocide in South Sudan, with civilians increasingly targeted and persecuted in a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign waged by government forces and their allies in the southern region of Equatoria.


    After a visit to the southwestern town of Yei, Adama Dieng, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on preventing genocide, warned on Friday that in the prevailing climate of violence and intolerance, there was “the potential for genocide”.


    “Even on the day I visited,” he told a media briefing, “I saw families packing up the few belongings they have left and waiting on the side of the road for transport – either to Juba [the capital] or to neighbouring Uganda for refuge.”


    Dieng said the gravity of the situation “merits immediate intervention – a full-scale fact-finding investigation and enhanced humanitarian support”.

    Frontline Equatoria


    Since former vice president Riek Machar fled Juba in July, the conflict in South Sudan has shifted from Greater Upper Nile to Equatoria, where the bulk of his SPLA-IO forces are sheltering.


    Discontent has long simmered over the southern region’s perceived political marginalisation. Some groups have stuck with the government, but many others have teamed up with Machar’s SPLA-IO, resisting both the government’s undisciplined troops and their allies: armed Dinka cattle herders – tribesmen of President Salva Kiir – who are encroaching on their land.

    The government response to dissent has historically been brutal. It is now fuelling not only an outpouring of refugees from the region, but also increasing local hostility towards the government and the Dinka – the largest ethnic group in the country who Kiir’s forces are seen as representing.


    “The government appears to be conducting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in greater Equatoria, including reports of the systematic targeting of civilians, gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and widespread sexual violence,” said Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University, Washington.


    “In response, Equatorian self-defense forces and armed groups have retaliated by attacking vehicles and targeting Dinka civilians, particularly in central Equatoria,” she told IRIN.




    In the most notorious case to date, gunmen ambushed a convoy of vehicles on the Yei-Juba road in October, separated the Dinka and executed them. Some youth groups have vowed revenge, prompting an exodus of Equatorians from the Dinka heartland of Bahr el Ghazal.


    “Following the retreat of Machar and his opposition forces from Juba in July, we have witnessed a spike in the number of armed clashes and abuses against civilians in the Equatoria region,” noted Jonathan Pedneault, Human Rights Watch researcher for South Sudan.


    Responding to the guerrilla tactics ,“the government has prosecuted very abusive counter-insurgency tactics in those areas,” Pedneault added. “Government forces have arbitrarily arrested, detained and beaten or tortured civilians for prolonged periods of time, often along ethnic lines and upon suspicions that they participate in the rebellion.”


    There are many, overlapping conflicts in the greater Equatoria region. There is longstanding distrust between some Equatorians and the government, grievances that are separate from the national political dispute playing out between Kiir and Machar.


    My enemy’s enemy


    Some Equatorians feel sandwiched by the ethno-politicised conflict represented by Kiir and Machar, who draws much of his support from the Nuer, the country’s second largest ethnic group. They do not feel that a diverse Equatoria gets a fair shake from either side as both men battle for control of Juba, despite the fact the city falls within their territory.


    But Machar’s rebel SPLA-IO remains a distinct presence, with its aligned Equatorian militias. Backing Machar in the short-term against perceived “Dinka domination” may seem a pragmatic strategy for a region that has historically been militarily weak.

    There is also local politics at play. Land grabbing, the appointment of an unpopular governor in Yei River State, and the depredations of a pro-government militia, the Mathiang Anyoor, have also helped accelerate the souring of relations.


    As a consequence, greater Equatoria risks fracturing further. At the end of October, a new group calling itself the South Sudan Democratic Front announced a new rebellion against the Kiir government.


    “We should expect more Equatorians to join the armed opposition groups that exist, and perhaps even additional ones to be declared,” Knopf said.


    “The attacks and counter-attacks in greater Equatoria have sparked ethnic incitement from members of the Equatorian and Dinka communities, especially amongst the youth,” she added. “Nearly every indicator of risk of genocide is now evident in South Sudan.”


    Humanitarian toll


    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned that the conflict has spawned one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. Since the fighting in Juba in July between Kiir’s and Machar’s forces, some 320,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring countries.


    It noted that in October an average of 3,500 people crossed into Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Sudan each day.  


    "Genocide is a process. It does not happen overnight"


    Refugees from Equatoria are increasingly using informal border crossing points, reportedly due to the presence of armed groups along main roads. Many refugees report having had to walk through the bush for days, often without food or water.


    “The refugees are fleeing due to armed groups harassing civilians, killings and torture of people suspected of supporting opposing factions, burning of villages, sexual assaults of women and girls and forced recruitment of young men and boys from the Equatoria region,” said Richard Ruati, a spokesman with UNHCR in South Sudan.


    Rachel Jacob at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, told IRIN that civilians had borne the brunt of the violence, “either directly by fighting, or in reprisals by government forces seeking to root out the opposition and collectively punish locals to discourage any support for rebels.


    “For those remaining, the situation is exacerbated by deliberate obstruction of UN and aid agencies by armed actors, as well as the prevailing insecurity along major roads in Equatoria, which have escalated violence and restricted humanitarian access to civilians.”


    Equatoria is the country’s traditional food basket, responsible for more than half of net cereal production. A fall in output as a result of the violence is affecting an already precarious nationwide food security situation in which 31 percent of South Sudanese, approximately 3.7 million people, are facing severe food shortages.


    According to Dieng, “genocide is a process. It does not happen overnight. And because it is a process and one that takes time to prepare, it can be prevented.”


    How that is to be achieved right now, is not clear. For many in Equatoria, the alternative is simply to flee their country.



    TOP PHOTO: South Sudan refugees arriving in northern Uganda. Credit: Sam Okiror

    Who can stop the threat of genocide in South Sudan?
  • Pregnant and homeless: South Sudan's women refugees

    Josephine Maziku arrived at Uganda’s Nyumanzi Transit Centre in June this year six months pregnant and with only the dress she was wearing.

    “I wish I had managed to carry clothes. At least I would use those to cover my child,” said the 18-year-old.

    Like many other expectant mothers who fled South Sudan’s violence, she had little time to think of anything but escape. When she got to the border, she was brought to this overcrowded settlement in Uganda’s northern Adjumani district.

    According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 1,700 South Sudanese arrive in Uganda each day. The country currently hosts approximately 315,000 refugees and asylum seekers from its troubled neighbour. 

    Nyumanzi is one of four transit centres set up to cope with the flow. The wait is meant to be for just a few weeks before the refugees are relocated to permanent settlements in Adjumani.

    But some have stayed for as long as three months. As a result, a centre designed to hold 2,000 people can have a population of several times that.

    Survival is basic: a daily ration of posho – maize meal porridge – and beans, inadequate pit latrines, and not enough water. Diseases such as cholera and malaria are commonly reported.

    “For expectant mothers, the situation is critical,” said William Drani, coordinator for the Nyumanzi Health Centre.

    At transit camps, maternal mortality increases “dramatically” as a result of “poor nutrition (expectant mothers are given the same ration of posho and beans), walking long distances to the health centre, poor health infrastructure and lack of family [support],” he told IRIN.

    Albert Alumgbi, assistant settlement commander in the office of the prime minister, and stationed at Nyumanzi, said the centre’s sole clinic is only a referral facility, and also caters to the local population.

    “This is an emergency situation,” Alumgbi told IRIN. “Sometimes there are no medical personnel at the clinic to assist them, especially during the evening.”

    The centre serves more than 180 patients per day, and since June that has included a total of 380 expectant mothers.

    Prisca Mindraa, from Pagan in South Sudan, is six months pregnant with her seventh child. She has only been to the health centre once since she arrived three months ago.

    “I have to wake up early in the morning and walk a long distance [and queue] in order to arrive at the health centre on time before they close at midday,” she explained.

    Pregnant and labouring

    Expectant mothers are advised to visit at least three times during their pregnancy. But aside from the more-than-two-kilometre walk to the centre and the long queues, they also have to contend with gender norms, which leaves all domestic chores to women.

    “I have to fetch water and queue for food for the family even when my husband is there,” said Limio Nite, who is expecting her third child.

    Vicky Amondi, a midwife at the health centre, acknowledges that development partners provide “dignity packs” to mothers after delivery, including soap, underwear, and a bucket.

    But she says what’s also needed is special food for pregnant mothers, and clothes for the babies once they deliver.

    “Organisations that support refugees should provide special food packs for pregnant women at the camps, and assist with clothes for the newborn babies, as the dignity pack only has a shawl to cover the baby,” she said.

    To earn some money, women – even if they are pregnant – weed the fields of Ugandan farmers, or collect firewood to sell in the camp for 15 US cents a bundle.

    “We spend the whole day working in the fields for [30 – 60 cents] for the whole day with no food,” said Abio Kevin.

    But she has a hidden stash of wealth, in the form of a duck she managed to bring from her hometown of Nimule, close to the Ugandan border.

    “I’m hoping to sell the duck for [$4.50] in order to raise money to buy clothes for my unborn child,” she told IRIN.

    What money she’s earning at the moment she uses to buy more nutritious food, and to vary the monotony of posho and beans.


    TOP PHOTO: Refugee women in Nyumanzi Transit Centre, by Sally Nyakanyanga

    Sally Nyakanyanga is a 2016 fellow with the International Media Foundation Africa Great Lakes Region Reporting Initiative

    Pregnant and homeless: South Sudan's women refugees

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