Killing the dream
Nikki van der Gaag seeks the latest news from Ikafe, the refugee settlement
she visited in northern Uganda – and finds that all is far from well.
Patrick is dead, ambushed by rebels and shot while patrolling the settlement. Cecilia’s home has been looted and she is sleeping out in the bush in the rain. Alice and her two children, Beatrice and Josephine, have lost everything. Josephine is badly malnourished.
Since I left Ikafe last May (Field of Dreams NI 283) things have deteriorated fast. The West Bank Nile Front rebels arrived in April with the aim of destabilizing northern Uganda. Probably backed by the Sudan Government, they have since succeeded in turning the area into a virtual no-go zone. And the lives of the Sudanese refugees who had made the place their temporary home have been wrecked once again by young men with guns in the service of power-hungry politicians.
From the safety of my office in Oxford I rail against the injustice of it all. In my living-room at home I watch the trail of Rwandan refugees carrying their few possessions through the jungles of Zaire. And at night I dream of murder and death.
Yet the day I arrived in Ikafe I was struck by the beauty of Uganda and the friendliness of almost everyone I met. All the refugees had tales of terror to tell but they hoped these were in the past. They were living in their own houses, with enough food and their few possessions stacked neatly in piles. They seemed safe.
But they were not. ‘All the women will already have packed the important things – sugar, soap, clothes and food – in case they have to leave in a hurry,’ my friend Alice told me when she heard that the rebels had crossed the border from Sudan into Uganda.
Yet when the time came for Alice to flee, she was not able to take anything with her...
29 June Rebels come at 3am. They loot, steal and beat people. My bicycle helps me – those without anything are heavily beaten.
12 July The rebels return but don’t reach my home. I persuade people to stay – they have nowhere else to go. They look to me as their leader.
23 September Point E is burned. The people in my area are very frightened and start to move. By late afternoon I am the only one remaining. I have to leave.
I go to the house of a friend where I collapse. I recall how much I suffered to build my home. I am so tired. After eight days a friend of my late husband offers to help me move to Koboko camp, where we lived when we first came from Sudan.
6 October People come to Koboko with guns. A bullet hits the tree we used to sit under. In the confusion I can’t find my daughter Beatrice. It takes me several hours; she has found shelter in the home of a Ugandan. Seven people die, drowned in the river as they rush to escape.
I go to Yumbe to lobby for the people from Ikafe to be moved. I have no alternative but to go without the children. This means weaning Josephine for the first time.
27 October I return from Yumbe to find Josephine very weak and malnourished.
29 October More shooting and burning of homes in Koboko. I run in only a petticoat through the rain, carrying the children. I leave all my remaining property behind; cooking pots and everyone’s clothes.
5 November Return to Yumbe, because when I am away my people are looking for me. This time everyone comes with me – Beatrice and Josephine, my old mother and the ten other children I am responsible for. We sleep at night inside a metal container which was a grain store. It is very congested.
7 November Move to Point M. Living near the school. Women are giving birth in the bush, young children are dying and being buried under trees. There is no dignity in this...
Alice’s story is echoed by those of Dominica and Cecilia, Gordon Soro and all the other refugees I met. It is one being repeated all over Africa until we have no heart to hear it.
In Ikafe, 20,000 people are now displaced, their homes looted and burned.
Women and girls – including Gordon’s 16-year-old niece – have been raped. Blankets are in short supply – five people are having to share one blanket. Food is even shorter, despite the irony of an abundant harvest of sweet potatoes, simsim and sorghum which is now rotting in the fields. Nor can World Food Programme trucks get through from Kampala due to rebel activity on the road.
Yet Alice, Dominica and Gordon, as the three remaining active members of the Refugee Council, have done their utmost to keep up morale and negotiate with both UNHCR and the Government. This despite the risks to themselves. Their repeated request for all the refugees to be moved to a safer place further from the border is backed by Oxfam, which believes many of the skills and systems introduced in Ikafe are easily transferable. Given a secure environment, says Oxfam, refugees could still move towards self-reliance and in the longer term reduce their dependence on outside assistance.
My fear is that for Alice, Gordon, Dominica and all the other refugees in Ikafe, there will be no longer-term.
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