In Uganda’s Refugee Camps, South Sudanese Children Seek the Families They’ve Lost - Kogonuso

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Aug 11, 2018

In Uganda’s Refugee Camps, South Sudanese Children Seek the Families They’ve Lost

On a pale dirt road in the Palorinya refugee camp in northern Uganda, Raida Ijo clung to her 16-year-old son, Charles Abu. They sobbed quietly into each other’s shoulder. They had been separated for 19 months, since the day that fighting broke out between rebels and government troops in their village in South Sudan.

Charles was halfway through a math class in their village, Andasire, in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria state, when the shooting started. He ran for the bush, and after a sleepless night in hiding, set off for the Ugandan border with his younger brother, Seme, 14.

Their mother, Mrs. Ijo, feeling unwell, had checked herself into a hospital that morning. The boys knew that to try to find her would be too dangerous.

The two brothers are among 17,600 minors who have crossed the border into Uganda without their parents since the outbreak of South Sudan’s civil war in 2013, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Over the last year, the pace of the conflict and the flow of refugees have slowed, but aid workers say it will take years to reunite splintered families.

“When it’s already tough just to survive, and you don’t even know if your loved ones are alive, that adds a lot to the burden,” said Joane Holliger, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross to a program in Uganda, Restoring Family Links. “There are a lot of protection concerns for unaccompanied children — child labor, teenage pregnancy, prostitution, child-headed families — so the quicker we can trace their parents, the better.”

Over the last two years, 433 unaccompanied minors have been reunited with their parents in Uganda. Worldwide, the International Committee of the Red Cross has opened 99,342 cases as it tries to reunite families.

In Uganda, the bulk of the work is done by Red Cross volunteers, called tracers, who work weekdays hoping to find missing family members in their allocated section of the camp.

Agustin Soroba, 27, who was himself separated from his family for five months after being kidnapped, beaten and pressed into labor as an ammunition porter by South Sudanese soldiers, has been working as a tracer since February 2017.

His area of operation is a series of blocks in Bidi Bidi camp — now Africa’s largest with around 280,000 refugees. On a recent Wednesday, he was doing the rounds of unaccompanied children in his area whose cases were still in progress, and checking on families who had been reunified.

One visit was to a small mud-built home where Margaret Sitima, 18, has been waiting for over a year to reconnect with her mother, last seen on her way to the hospital in the Ugandan town of Arua, after being badly beaten by soldiers on her journey out of South Sudan.

Mr. Soroba pressed her for any more details she might have, and told her he would try his best.

His colleagues urge people to report missing family members. They also hang posters of the missing and run a hotline that allows refugees to phone separated family members.

One old man called his wife — the first time they had spoken in 14 months — to let her know that he was in Bidi Bidi and that he missed her. A woman in a yellow T-shirt called relatives in South Sudan with the news that her son had been sick but was recovering.

Many of the unaccompanied children have witnessed extreme violence, adding urgency to the challenge of reunifying them with their families.

“Many of them are extremely disturbed,” said Richard Talish, 33, an employee of the World Vision charity, who runs a safe space for children in Bidi Bidi camp. “We try to keep them busy, so they’re not always thinking about the past.”

Mr. Talish said that in art sessions, many children draw scenes of violence.

Tracing can take time. The Abu brothers’ case illustrates the obstacles to reuniting families split by South Sudan’s war. The boys had no idea of their mother’s whereabouts and whether she was alive. They said their mother did not know her age and could not spell her name, making it harder to locate her. Like many rural South Sudanese, she has never owned a mobile phone or a Facebook account.

When one of South Sudan’s three cellphone networks was taken offline in March over unpaid license fees, thousands lost their only means of contact.

The tracing challenges are exacerbated by the lack of access to a centralized database of refugees in Uganda. A combination of confusion and corruption during refugee registrations, in the early months of the crisis, produced incomplete or erroneous records. Some refugees were registered more than once; others, not at all. Names were misspelled. Some records do not list a specific location within the camps, which sprawl for nearly 100 square miles of northern Uganda scrubland.

Uganda is carrying out biometric registrations to clarify the number of refugees, following a scandal over inflated figures. Several government officials were suspended.

Until their parents have been located, unaccompanied children live with foster families in the camps. Some are connected by charitable organizations, such as World Vision, which runs a database of potential foster caregivers, who must be matched by ethnicity and language with the child. Other children live with families they encountered on the road, or at reception areas near the border. Extended families and clans try to fill the gap.

Florence Knight, 14, was one of six unaccompanied children taken in by a passing refugee family who found them hiding by the roadside near the burning remains of the truck that had taken them toward the border. The vehicle had been ambushed and most of its occupants killed.

“They’re like my own children now,” said Ms. Knight’s new foster mother, Betty Leila, 32, who now has 13 children, stepchildren or foster children. Many cry at night because of bad dreams.

A few blocks away, another teenage girl, Betty Abau, is living with a family who found her crying and alone beside a river on their journey to the Ugandan border. She looked down at the floor, wringing her hands as she talked. She had been at school when violence erupted and forced her to flee without her parents.

“I don’t know if they are alive or dead,” said Ms. Abau.

She said she had provided all the details she could recall to a tracing officer over a year ago, but had not received any updates. According to Lilias Diria, 32, Betty’s new foster mother, she is one of six unaccompanied children living just in this cluster of half a dozen homes.

The breakthrough in the Abu brothers’ case finally came after a tip from a man who had recognized one of their relatives in the Palorinya camp, a scattered settlement of 180,000 refugees. Red Cross representatives asked the prime minister’s office — which oversees the refugee program in partnership with the United Nations refugee agency — to run a check for their mother. The search revealed nine people with similar names. A Red Cross tracer then set out to locate each woman, one by one, and found the correct Raida Ijo on the fifth attempt.

On June 29, more than a year and a half after they last saw their mother, the boys packed their few possessions — clothes, cooking pots, jerrycans, a single rolled-up mattress, three live rabbits — into a Red Cross vehicle and set off on the two-hour drive from their foster home in Rhino camp, to their mother’s ramshackle shelter of sticks, mud and thatch in Palorinya.

“For a mother not to know where her children are is so hard,” said an overjoyed Mrs. Ijo, who had spent days sitting in an open sided tarpaulin shelter worrying about her missing sons since fleeing to Uganda during a second round of violence in February 2017. “They came from my body. I brought them up. I love them. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.”

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