Uganda's sprawling haven for 270,000 of South Sudan's refugees

Bidi Bidi camp was opened six months ago but already hosts a fifth of all the South Sudanese fleeing violence and hunger in their home country

Moses Roba still has the scar on his face from when the glass shattered. It runs around the outside of his right eye, starting at the tip of his eyebrow and curving down to the top of his cheekbone. He got it, he says, when rebels opposed to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir attacked his car near his home in the small border town of Nimule. The rebels wanted to steal the vehicle, he claims. But he said no.

“I refused, so they shoot me, they shoot the vehicle,” he says. A piece of glass sliced through the side of his face, missing his eye by a centimetre. His car was torched.

After that, Roba decided to leave his home country and, along with his wife and three children, made the short but perilous journey south into Uganda.

“They wanted to kill us,” he says. “That’s why we left.”

Two months later, he now lives with more than 270,000 fellow refugees in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, 40km from the border.

When South Sudan descended into renewed violence last July, the place Roba now calls home was a dusty patch of scrub near a tiny village with barely a dirt road to call its own. Originally, Bidi Bidi was expected to hold 40,000 people. Soon after it opened in August, it started growing by twice that number every month. Now it’s a sprawling expanse of mud-walled huts and tents, inhabited by one-fifth of the almost 1.3 million South Sudanese who have fled violence, hunger and rapid inflation in their home country.

The Bidi Bidi settlement is believed to be the largest single refugee settlement in the world. And it was built in just six months.

Its rapid growth is a reflection of the ongoing crisis in South Sudan, which the UN has warned could be on the verge of genocide. Violence between Kiir’s government and those loyal to opposition leader and former vice-president, Riek Machar, first broke out in 2013, and began anew when a peace deal fully collapsed last July.

Every day, thousands of people cross the border into Uganda. This year, the UN expects (pdf) another 300,000 South Sudanese refugees to arrive, adding to the more than 600,000 already here. Of the current refugees, 86% are women and children.

“These innocent women and children who are fleeing now, they need a home,” says Robert Baryamwesiga, the Bidi Bidi settlement commandant. “They need a life, a normal life, because they are innocent. They are not politicians. They are just victims.”

Since it was founded, Bidi Bidi has struggled with a brief outbreak of cholera, as well as with limited water supplies. Last week, some residents were given just 10 litres of water per day, significantly less than the emergency standard of 15 litres.

Uganda has a unique and extraordinarily compassionate refugee policy. Refugees in the country are allowed to work, travel and mix with the surrounding community. Families get a 30-metre by 30-metre plot of land to build a home, plus additional space for farming.

As a result, the Bidi Bidi settlement resembles a spread out collection of villages more than a cramped maze of tents. Scattered throughout the settlement are markets where refugees sell vegetables, packaged food and clothing. Entrepreneurs have set up small shops to fix motorcycles and build furniture. Schools, playgrounds and medical centres set up by aid groups cater to thousands of people.

Roba works at one of the new markets, running a small stall selling shirts and dresses. He works alongside other refugees as well as local Ugandans, who are eager for new customers and are hopeful that the flurry of activity will mean schools, water and healthcare for their own families.

“We are all the same. We stay together,” says Elly Lomoro, 35, from the South Sudan town of Morobo, who sells used jeans in a stall next to Roba’s. Lomoro and his family, including a young baby, walked for days to reach Uganda. They avoided the main roads, where travellers fear being robbed or killed, and took a detour through the bush in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only bringing with them what they could carry.

Lomoro has been in Uganda before. As a child, during decades of civil war before South Sudan’s 2011 independence, he was among thousands of refugees who sought shelter here. He stayed for five to six years before going back, only to be forced out of his homeland once again three months ago.

In December, Bidi Bidi closed its doors to new refugees except for those reuniting with families already here. New migrants are being sent to a new settlement just an hour away, and work is already under way for a further camp.

Now, Bidi Bidi is transitioning from a crisis centre to something resembling a thriving community where people will live for years. Residents need schools and vocational training to hone their skills. They need environmental protections to ensure that the land provides for them in coming years. They need permanent structures made from bricks and concrete instead of mud and canvas tents.

“We’ve spent most of the time looking at lifesaving activities – receiving people, giving them water giving them relief, food,” says Baryamwesiga. “That is now done. Then what? Can we sustain these lives that we’ve saved?

“Generally, Bidi Bidi is just beginning.”

Julian Hattem in Bidi Bidi

The GuardianTramp

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