Victoria Guo sits in the Busia collection point close to the Ugandan border. Here, South Sudanese refugees get something to eat and an initial medical check, before they are relocated to the refugee settlements further inland. Photos: Tobin Jones

"My only wish is to live the rest of my life in peace"

"They even butcher old women like me," says Victoria Guo of the horrors that caused her to flee South Sudan and walk the entire way to Uganda. Here, she wants nothing else than live the remainder of her life in peace.
 
 

27.06.2017

Victoria Guo is tired. The trip was long. It took her three weeks by foot to get from her home in the city of Yei in South Sudan to tha Ugandan border. She has now made her way across it and has reached safety with her two grandchildren, Justin and Nelson. She does not know how old she is. “More than 60”, she says. She does not know the ages of her grandchildren either.

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She is sitting with a small girl on her lap, stroking her over her hair.

“This one is not mine, I am only helping her mother look after her,” Victoria explains and smiles.

Even though it has been a strenuous journey, she still has some energy left.

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“I have come here, because in South Sudan they come and take your belongings and kill you. I wanted to find a place, where I could live in peace,” she says.

She pauses for a moment and then tells of the atrocities, which made her flee.

“They even butcher old women like me. They butcher children. And there were nothing to eat. On the journey here, I at one point went three days without finding anything to eat. We walked through the bush, because if they find you they will kill you. Some of the people, I walked with on the way here, went in another direction than me. They were attacked and killed. We saw many bodies on the way here. We had to flee otherwise we would have been killed as well.”

Lost contact to her daughter

Victoria and her two grandchildren are just three of the several thousand South Sudanese refugee who every day arrive in Uganda in search of safety. So far Uganda has received more than 800,000 refugees from the neighboring country. When they arrive, they are registered and after a few days in a reception center, which the Danish Refugee Council operates, they are assigned a place to stay and a small plot of land by the Ugandan authorities.

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Victoria Guo has lived of farming the land for most of her life. She smiles relieved, when she is told that it is true that the Ugandan government gives refugees a plot of land each. In addition to this her age and her status as a sole provider for her two young grandchildren means that she will be given extra support.

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“I don’t know where my daughter and her husband have fled to. I haven’t spoken to them for more than a year. After they left for the capital, Juba, we spoke often because one of my neighbors owned a telephone. But my neighbor disappeared and since then I have not been able to get in touch with my daughter. I don’t even know if she is still alive.”

Living in constant fear

Now Victoria Guo hopes that she can find the safety and peace of mind, she has not had since the outbreak of the civil war in South Sudan.

Victoria and her family are part of a minority group and because of this – she explains – there were not many opportunities for them. But before the war, there was peace and they managed by cultivating their land.

“Life was good, but there were a great deal of discrimination. Even if you had gone to school and had exam papers, you would still not be able to get a job, because they were all given to the people in power. Even if they had not gone to school. Today, if someone had managed to get a job, someone else can come and kill you in order to get the job instead.”

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The violence and fear in the end made it impossible for Victoria to sleep at night.

“It was impossible to find rest, because we lived in constant fear of being killed. We tried to hide in the bush but when we had to go back home to find food, they would wait for us there to kill us. They either shoot you or they beat you to death.”

“They also rape the women. Sometimes they are five men, who use a woman – even women like these,” she says and point towards a group of elderly women.

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“We fled to the bush because they came to our village and searched our homes. Sometimes they follow you and kill you. But if they find you in your home, they will look you inside and set your hut on fire, so you will burn.”

She pauses for a moment; then continues:

“Now I am here. If I can get something to eat here, I will be happy. My only wish is to live the rest of my life in peace.”

Africa's largest refugee crisis

With only a few years of exceptions, South Sudan has been plagued by war for decades. The country was granted independence from Sudan in 2011 thereby becoming the world's youngest nation. But only two years later, the country plunged into a brutal civil war, which is estimated to have cost more than 300,000 people their lives so far. At the same time more than two million have become internally displaced inside South Sudan and more than 1.5 million have fled to neighboring countries - primarily Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Uganda alone has welcomed around 800,000 South Sudanese refugees.

During the summer of 2016, violent conflict erupted once again forcing people to flee. According to the UN, up to two thousand refugees arrive to Uganda every day. The Danish Refugee Council works in South Sudan and neighboring countries including Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia and provides assistance to the people who are seeking refuge outside the country.

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Rhino camp - no ordinary refugee camp

Rhino camp in Uganda is not like most refugee camps. There are no rows of tents crammed into a tight space. Instead it covers a wider area, and refugees live in villages that are scattered throughout the area.  The neighboring villages are inhabited by native Ugandans who have lived there for generations. Rhino camp is divided into clusters of homesteads called villages including Ocea, a replica of the indigenous pattern of settlement.

The villages are grouped according to proximity to constitute zones. Refugees in Rhino camp settlement and all other refugee settlements in West Nile and Uganda as a whole have access to plots of land for shelter and farming.