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Trading Places


Trading places
The local people welcomed the refugees to their area.
But things haven’t gone quite as some of them had hoped.

Onions and fishes - small markets where locals and refugees buy and sell have sprung up all over Ikafe. Dawn comes late in this part of the world and night falls suddenly. At 6.45am it was just light, the air still cool and the horizon slightly pink. Women were up, sweeping their compounds and winnowing grain.

I was staying at South Base camp, where the refugee village of Tilanga backs straight onto the Oxfam compound. Michael, the local community development worker, was brushing his teeth when Jenny and I arrived. As we walked around many other people were busily doing the same, using a twig. Michael told me that in Sudan people use a special tree for tooth-brushing but here in Uganda ‘any small piece of wood has to do’.

As we made our way to the edge of the village we came across a girl and a group of boys busily hoeing. They were all aged about 10 and told us that they were working the land before going to school. The girl, Rosina, was eager to tell us that this small plot was her very own, that she had planted and hoed it herself.

We walked on, along a track and through some trees. In the shade was another compound, with several goats in a makeshift shelter. ‘These are nationals,’ said Michael simply. A small boy in a ragged T-shirt waved at us as we passed.

More than 4,000 Ugandans from this area, Aringa County, live among the refugees in Ikafe. Their local council offered land for the refugee settlement in 1993, reasoning that the community would benefit from the water boreholes, new schools, roads, health clinics and other amenities built for the refugees. There would also be jobs.

Izarugu Ajaga who comes from the area and now lives with his family in South Base camp agrees: ‘After the refugees leave, there will be new roads, schools, houses and clinics for us.’ The Government of Uganda was also keen to welcome the refugees, for the same reasons. They would bring international funds into an area long underdeveloped. Infrastructure and local employment would follow. In addition, helping the refugees would underline the Ugandan Government’s opposition to the Sudanese regime in Khartoum.

‘But we also feel that these people are our brothers and sisters,’ says Izarugu. The peoples from both countries have had to cross the border as refugees a number of times in recent decades. Many of the Sudanese in Ikafe today were also refugees in Uganda during the ‘first phase’ of the war in Sudan the 1960s. ‘Ten years ago nearly all the Ugandans in this area had to escape to Sudan,’ Izarugu recalls. ‘We were the refugees then, and the Sudanese welcomed and helped us. Now the situation is reversed’.

Altruism and empathy mixed with self-interest and political expediency – it seemed an ideal recipe for a successful refugee settlement. And the refugees have made a difference to the area. They can sell things that the locals want – like the alcohol that the women make from cassava – for much-needed cash. But they also buy or barter from the Ugandans – many of the families have a few goats purchased locally and some even have small dogs that sit and pant in the shade of the compound. ‘We are used to having pets like this at home,’ they tell me.

Local people also sell the refugees fruit and vegetables to supplement what is otherwise a sparse, boring and stodgy diet.

‘If it hadn’t been for the mangoes that we were able to buy from the nationals we would have starved when the food didn’t come and our crops wouldn’t grow,’ said Fatima quietly. Trade in the area has increased dramatically since the settlement was set up. There are local markets. Previously farmers had to travel all the way to Yumbe. More people are employed; more money is circulating in the economy.

The refugees have been a source of cheap labour, allowing local farmers to cultivate more land than before. And of course the Ugandans know that land leased to the refugees is land that will have been cleared for cultivation when they leave.

But the link between the peoples of northern Uganda and those of southern Sudan is not without its problems.

Ethnic groups like the Kakwa, the Acholi and the Bara straddle the border between the two countries. And the history of the area still has an impact on events and feelings today. Idi Amin was a Kakwa from Koboko, and Kakwa from Sudan joined his army and his administration. When he fell in 1979 they fled back to Sudan.

Meanwhile, the Kakwa in Uganda accused the Aringa of plotting to topple Amin’s Government. Everyone in northern Uganda – regarded as ‘Amin’s area’ – faced widespread destruction from Obote’s army when it came in the 1980s to rout out Amin’s supporters – and in the process killed people, looted churches and forced the majority of the population to flee. Many, like Izarugu, went to Sudan. At one point, I was told, only 200 people remained in Arua, the nearest large town to what is now Ikafe.

In Sudan, the Ugandans learned Arabic, stayed for a number of years and made friends. Izarugu met Clement while he was a refugee in Sudan. Then Clement was helping run the refugee camp and Izarugu was the refugee community development worker. In Ikafe the roles are reversed. Izarugu works in food distribution and Clement, the refugee, is the community development worker.

‘It was on one of the first trips to distribute food that I saw him in Ikafe,’ said Izarugu. ‘I recognized him straight away. And now we are working closely together again, only this time he is the refugee.’

The relationship between a host community and a refugee population is nearly always complicated. Not just because of historical antagonisms but also because refugees attract foreign aid that may mean they have better living conditions than local people.

Vicky, the nursing officer at the hospital in Yoyo run by Action Africa, told me that at least half of her out-patients were local Ugandans, who in some cases were in worse shape than the refugees.

In Ikafe locals are given access to the things they had hoped for – clinics, dispensaries, schools, water and other facilities. Nonetheless the Aringa people feel hard done by. Their high expectations – probably too high – of employment and a general improvement in the community have not, in many of their eyes, been met. They complain that the refugees have been violating sacred bushes and using ceremonial water points. Some young people have reacted to this frustration with violence, assaulting base camps and threatening workers.

But Yassin, another Ugandan worker, was sure that things could be sorted out: ‘The Aringa and the refugees must talk about these problems. The programme will not stop because of threats from the youth. But the right people must be consulted about the right things – where a building should be built or whose land is being used to site boreholes. There is a bright future; we just have to learn to build it together.’

I was not so sure. The arrival of the rebels might make for a dangerous alliance and I left, hoping that the discontent would not blow up into something more serious.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa (2,505,810 sq km) – as big as the whole of Western Europe. South Sudan occupies a third of Sudan’s landmass and has a population of about six million.
Population: 30,120,420
Languages: Arabic, especially in the North. The different ethnic groups speak over 100 languages.
Religion: Mainly Muslim in the North; Christian and traditional religions in the South.
GNP $420 per capita. Agriculture accounts for 35% of GDP.
Uganda is about one-tenth of the size of Sudan (235,880 sq km).
Population: 19, 573, 262
Languages: English is the official language. There are many indigenous languages.
Religion: Roman Catholic 33%, Protestant 33%, Muslim 16% (mostly in the north) and 16% traditional religions.
GNP $170 per capita; Agriculture accounts for 57% of GDP. Growth rate: 8% (less in the north) which makes it one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa.

Stranger in a foreign land
Ikafe worker and Ugandan citizen Izarugu Ajaga talks about
his own experience as a refugee in Sudan in the 1980s.

Izarugu Ajaga My journey began in July 1982. My wife was then pregnant with our second child and our first-born was very small. We had to escape into the bush on the Uganda-Sudan border because of the fighting between Milton Obote, then President, and those who opposed him – including Museveni, our current President.

There was little food or water in the bush. We used water from a spring but that led to a lot of illness and death. We used to come back and collect food from our houses. It took two days to travel home. In addition, it was not safe because on your way back you would have to cross the Arua - Moyo road along which Government forces drove all the time. If they saw you they would shoot, because they believed that all civilians in the area were giving support to the rebels.

Eventually we realized that we would have to leave the bush and find shelter in a camp in Sudan. But we were afraid. The rebels wanted people to stay in Uganda and so they spread rumours about the camps – people were fenced in, they said; families and men and women were separated; they wrote on your back with hot wire the word ‘refugee’. But I decided to take courage. I left my family and walked to the transit camp eight kilometres away over the border in Sudan.

Nothing terrible happened. We were welcomed, given a tent and then transferred to a settlement where we were given food and land very much like people have in Ikafe. After one month I managed to get permission to go and fetch my family.

It took a while to convince my wife that things were OK in Sudan and were not as the rebels had said. My mother and some of her relatives still wouldn’t go.

We stayed for four months in the settlement. During the dry season I came back to the bush to try and collect the rest of my family – my mother, my elder brother and his family. But on my way I heard that my brother was dead. He had gone back to our town to collect food and belongings and had been killed by Government troops.

I continued my journey, found my mother and my brother’s family and crossed with them to Sudan. I was now responsible for my own family and my brother’s family.

Some of us younger refugees formed the Uganda Refugee Association. We campaigned for refugee students to go abroad or to get scholarships in Juba. Getting secondary education was a big problem – the Sudanese Government provided primary education but not secondary. So we initiated a self-help project for a secondary school in Yei with people assisting on a voluntary basis. The school remained there after we left and was used by the Sudanese.

By 1983 the war in Sudan had started again – but far away as yet, in Bor district. Then in 1985 the Obote regime fell in Uganda. The new President called for all soldiers fighting against Obote to come back. But civilians still thought it was too dangerous and it was not until two or three years later that people started returning to their homes, because they felt that it was better to die in their own country than to die in exile.

It was hard going back; some of us could not recognize the places that had been our homes. The trees were gone, the bush had taken over. My house had been burned to the ground. There was nothing left – even my certificates had been destroyed. On our arrival we were given a new label. We were no longer ‘refugees’ but ‘returnees’. We had to build again from scratch. It was difficult.

Here we were, back in our own country, having to start all over again for a second time.

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