To South Sudanese refugees living in Uganda, last month’s peace deal between Dr Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir was the beginning of an end of an emotional roller coaster.
To many of them as well as the internally displaced persons, the long awaited peace means hope of returning to their homeland.
As the two principals took turns to speak in Juba about a new dawn of peace that they were ushering in, 20-year-old Ann Awate, together with a group of fellow refugees, crowded over a small radio at the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement in northwestern Uganda, silently following the proceedings. The camp is home to more than 130,000 refugees—adults and children.
This is the moment they had been waiting for: A guarantee that they can return home.
Those like Ms Awate say life in the refugee settlement has taken a toll on them and all they want is a fresh start in their own land.
It is evident—from her body language and her speech—that she is tired of life in the settlement. She is thin, malnourished and as she narrates the hardships of the settlement, she cannot help breaking down.
The untold suffering here coupled with uncertainty about the future and memories of lost loved ones make this place unbearable, she said.
“I want to go back. If I don’t go back, I will continue struggling like this and working too hard to for so little.”
Fresh fighting in South Sudan in 2016 that forced her and her family to flee to Uganda robbed her of her future. She has lost friends and family, and above all, she lost a chance to continue with education in pursuit of her dream of becoming a nurse, she said.
Now, it is survival for the fittest in the camps, even though even the fittest find that survival far-fetched.
Ms Awate dropped out of school and was forced to get married in the settlement camp. Her 22-year-old husband with whom they have a child went back to South Sudan and rarely communicates or sends help.
The family she stays with, including both her ageing parents, an aunt, a grandmother and a young brother look up to her to provide most of the family needs. She never had this burden back home, she said.
“If I do not do this, my family will not eat. We never lived like this before. We had a lot of food at home,” said Ms Awate, lifting a bag of grain to grind at a machine she jointly owns with a group of 19 other women in the camp.
They acquired the machine when local NGOs that benefited from European Union Trust Fund for refugees in Northern Uganda came combing the camps to train them in farming within different groups.
Ms Awate’s group emerged best. And from improved harvests and multiplying their three goats to 12 currently, they emerged more successful than the rest.
he group was then asked to write a business proposal. Members asked for a grinding machine. They grind millet, maize and other cereals for colleagues in the camp and save the money together.
“The idea is good but we don’t get enough customers in the refugee camp. People are poor and do not have food to grind, so still life remains hard,” she said.
When she is not on duty at the mill or in the groups’ small garden just behind her house, she is in the market with other women selling mainly a few tomatoes, cassava and light vegetables from her harvests.
“We cannot keep on living like this. If it is true that peace is returning to my country, I want to go back. I Know it will be hard at the start but that is my home,” she said.
The general mood about a potential return to peace in the camps is both excitement and scepticism.
Since a full-scale civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013 after President Kiir fired his then deputy Dr Machar, there have been unsuccessful attempts at making peace with several ceasefire agreements violated. The most recent one was in 2016 when Dr Machar fled the country.
Jonathan Matata, the Rhino Camp commandant in the office of the Prime Minister said that many refugees are yet to buy into the peace proceedings.
“Some of these refugees have been here more than once. They go back, conflict comes and they have to return. Some of them have the experience of the peace not working and will be reluctant to go back to South Sudan,” Matata said.
Among this group is 41-year-old Martha Alakiir whose family entirely depended on cattle back home.
Ms Alakiir first came to Uganda in 2013 during the initial outbreak of civil war, went back home later and started rebuilding her life, but she lost everything in 2016 when fresh fighting broke out.
“I am not going back. There is still no peace, You sleep and you are worried of what will happen the next day and because of that, I will stay here longer for a while,” She says.
She is banking on her new found love for agriculture and Uganda’s favourable climate for survival.
She and her children now stay in Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement, more than 200km North of Kampala. The camp accommodates more than 100,000 refugees from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda.
According to Uganda’s refugee policy, refugees are given a small piece of land where they can build temporary houses and cultivate small gardens nearby. The land is donated by local communities.
The food they cultivate, mostly vegetables, supplements, their monthly rations from the World Food Programme.
But even with the land, Ms Alakiir and her family found it difficult living in the camp because they were not used to farming and no longer had animals. And even if they did, where would they graze?
She has now opted to grow maize, vegetables and rear goats. These, she sells to people in the camp, or exports them to South Sudan where she has family members.
She can now send her children to better schools in neighbouring towns and does not want to leave what she is building behind in anticipation that the peace in her country will last.
While the refugees remain sceptical on whether to return, the office of the Prime Minister has said that there are movements from refugee camps back into South Sudan.
Repatriation is a tripartite agreement which in this case is between South Sudan, Uganda and the refugee agency UNHRC which gave the nod to repatriate the refugees officially. But Mr Matata said it is on voluntary basis, and it is mostly the men leaving their families behind.
“Of course the law allows them to move within the country with a permit and we have heard reports from border officials of refugees crossing back to South Sudan that is why the population at camp looks small,” said Mr Matata.
Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has in the past said that the country is willing to let refugees who want to remain to stay as long as they are law abiding, given that there was no much difference with ethnicities they settled in.
Most of the communities speak similar languages and the cultures do not differ. Already, men from refugee communities have married from the hosts and vice versa. The two groups do business and agriculture together, attend the same schools and other places.
Local integration is already happening according to authorities although in some cases, there have been clashes between the two groups over land, resources, and services and some lives have been lost.
“At some point the host community feels like the refugees are gaining more than them from the humanitarian help that comes in through NGO’s and yet they are living on their land. They want to either get similar help or let the refugees off their land,” Matata said.
By The Eastafrica