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How writing became my refuge as a woman escaping South Sudan’s war

‘My stories have had a major impact.’

Christine Onzia Wani was forced to leave South Sudan in 2016 due to conflict. She is pictured here at her refugee settlement leading workshops on the prevention of sexual exploitation and menstrual health. Christine Onzia Wani/TNH
Christine Onzia Wani was forced to leave South Sudan in 2016 due to conflict. She is pictured here at her refugee settlement leading workshops on the prevention of sexual exploitation and menstrual health.

It was only a few days after I had arrived at a Ugandan refugee camp with my family in mid-2016 that I received the devastating news: Our house back home in South Sudan had been broken into, burgled, and destroyed.

 

I had just endured a terrifying few weeks. Our hometown had emptied as clashes between the South Sudanese army and unknown gunmen encroached. The security situation was so volatile that we had to spend nights hiding in distant villages.

 

But it was this news about my looted home that kickstarted a period of depression and trauma. I was 28 years old. Me and my husband had lost everything, including our jobs. We didn’t know how we were going to raise our newborn son in exile.

 

Yet after several years passed living in Bidi Bidi resettlement camp – which is in northern Uganda and is one of the largest refugee camps in the world – I finally found a lifeline: writing and journalism.

 

I had previously worked as a reporter in South Sudan, and managed to bring my skills to Bidi Bidi. In recent years, I have covered all kinds of issues, from the impact of COVID-19 and aid ration cuts on refugees to the plight of women and girls here.

Sometimes when I want to write stories, people tell me that I am a refugee and a woman who should just sit quietly and depend on the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

Writing has helped restore my confidence and overcome the trauma of leaving South Sudan. It has given me space to tell stories about the strength of other refugees in Bidi Bidi, as well as the pain that many have suffered.

 

Yet while journalism has provided a refuge, it has also proved a challenge. Sometimes when I want to write stories, people tell me that I am a refugee and a woman who should just sit quietly and depend on the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

 

The lack of a media outlet in Bidi Bidi also restricts me. In South Sudan, I was chief editor of a community radio station and responsible for managing more than 20 people. But work here is hard to find, and my movement outside the settlement is limited.

 

Still, my future plan is to write a book about my experiences in South Sudan and Bidi Bidi. I also hope to start a blog that brings refugee stories to the world, and set up a charity organisation that helps disadvantaged women and girls.

 

Leaving home

 

It was 14 July 2016 at 11am that myself and my husband decided to leave South Sudan. Our only other options were dying of hunger or from bullets. As war escalated, millions of other South Sudanese were making the same decision.

 

It was a long way from our home town of Morobo to Uganda – the journey would have taken two to three days on foot. We had to sell my laptop cheaply to afford transport and some milk and food for my six-month old son, who was sick at the time. 

Christine and her two children
Christine Onzia Wani/TNH
Christine and her two children.

I will never forget some of the moments I endured on the way to Uganda. I went days without eating a proper meal. At one stage, a flask of porridge I had for my son was kicked out of my hand and broke. It was painful to see my child crying of hunger.

 

When we finally reached the Ugandan border, it was dark. My husband searched for shops to find something for our child. But a vendor sold him expired juice and my son developed terrible diarrhoea. We nearly lost him.

 

The year after our arrival in Bidi Bidi was the toughest that I experienced at the camp. As well as the news about my house, it was rainy season in Uganda. The tents and semi-permanent houses we lived in were no match for the storms.

 

We had decided to leave our belongings behind in South Sudan, hoping the move would be temporary. But the situation did not improve. Days turned into weeks, and then to months and years. My son is now six, and my daughter was born here. I am now 35.

 

The impact of my work

 

Opportunities did start to arise. In 2017, a donor that funded the station I worked for in South Sudan traced those of us who had fled abroad. They helped us produce a new show for Ugandan radio, but it ended after nine months due to mismanagement.

 

After this, I decided to try my luck with Ugandan media outlets outside Bidi Bidi. But they paid very little, and I could not afford accommodation outside my settlement, nor forgo the protection I was given there.

My stories have had a major impact. After I wrote about HIV sufferers in Bidi Bidi... aid groups gave them supplementary food and additional seeds.

I next looked for opportunities with international journalists visiting Bidi Bidi. Many were interested in collaborating, and the connections I built led to me to publish my own work in foreign media. I began to have hope that I would survive this difficult period.

My stories have had a major impact. After I wrote about HIV sufferers in Bidi Bidi not taking their medicine because of a lack of food (the pills don’t sit well on an empty stomach), aid groups gave them supplementary food and additional seeds.

 

In 2018, I produced a video on menstrual health and hygiene that was shown at an event in South Africa. My work led to aid organisations distributing dignity kits and reusable pads to women and girls here.

 

My most recent story – published by The New Humanitarian – raised questions of humanitarian agencies that have cut rations for refugees in Uganda for the third time since 2020. I hope this piece will have an impact too.

 

The challenges I face

 

However, being a journalist while being a refugee has not been easy. Without a computer, I’ve had to depend on my smartphone. But I have limited access to power, and my phone often breaks down, causing me to lose my work. 

 

Interviewing fellow refugees is difficult too. Many are reluctant to give information because they do not know how they will benefit. If they were able to access information through newspapers or radio, they might see the advantages more clearly.

 

Interviewees also often fear that I am investigating them, while others expect payment for the information they provide. I have also faced harassment when trying to interview male sources. 

Some reporters I have worked with haven’t paid me very much, even though I was the brains behind a certain story.

People’s assumptions about me as a refugee and a woman also get in the way. I often see interesting stories that I want to do, but people don’t take me seriously. They will say “you are a refugee, why would you write about us?”.

 

Working as a female journalist is especially challenging because there are not many of us with this career in Bidi Bidi. Sometimes, I even get bad comments that put me off pursuing a project. 

 

Sources tend to give information more readily when I am working alongside a foreign journalist. Yet fellow refugees see me differently because of these collaborations. They think I have a lot of money, even though I am facing the same struggles that they are.

 

My relationships with foreign journalists have been good. But some reporters I have worked with haven’t paid me very much, even though I was the brains behind a certain story.

 

Telling positive stories

 

The lack of a media outlet in Bidi Bidi has consequences too. I would love to cover daily news from the camp, and stories about the lives of the nearly 250,000 refugees living here.

 

Writing these stories would help change negative narratives and stereotypes. Most times where we are mentioned it is by foreign correspondents or journalists who only write pieces when something bad has happened.

 

But there are many great stories that can be told here – stories about refugees who have positively impacted Uganda and about individuals who have improved their lives despite the difficult conditions.

Most times where [refugees] are mentioned it is by foreign correspondents or journalists who only write pieces when something bad has happened.

For example, there is a refugee in Bidi Bidi who is planting trees to improve the environment. The settlement was like a forest where we first arrived, but many trees were cut for wood and fuel.

 

This individual is using his skills to unite refugees with host communities. He plants trees for free in these communities, hoping that refugee women who venture out of the camp to collect firewood won’t be chased away.

 

We also have refugee youth who are using sport to unite people in the settlement, and to preach peace and oneness. And we have a youth group that founded a dance troupe to cope with trauma.

 

The future

 

My long-term plan is to continue in journalism and to try and win an award for my work. I also want to advance the role of female reporters, because their voices are rarely heard in the media, especially in South Sudan.

 

For now, however, there are pressing stories that I want to explore. Aid groups, for example, recently suspended a programme providing menstrual health kits to refugees – the impact of that decision on women and girls needs investigating.

 

I also want to write a story about the situation back home. Elections are supposed to take place in South Sudan next year following the end of the transition period. But are refugees going to participate, and do any feel safe enough to return? 

 

Examining these issues will not be easy for me, because I am impacted too. When I describe the pain of camp residents in my writing, I am describing to the world my pain. But these stories are urgent, and I will do everything I can to tell them.

Edited by Philip Kleinfield. 

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