(UNHCR) – Until very recently, Magai Bakam was a businessman in South Sudan with a shop of his own and 300 head of cattle. Today he is a refugee in northern Uganda where even his phone does not work.
But far from mourning his loss, he is grateful to have found refuge here in Arua, northern Uganda, from a war that has chased more than a million South Sudanese from his home – and finally to be able to sleep soundly at night.
Magai was unlucky enough to be displaced nearly five months before generalized violence broke out in the country last December. Magai, 38, says soldiers attacked his village near the oil-rich border town of Heglig in South Kordofan State in July of last year.
As he recounts the fight, his father and uncle were killed in indiscriminate shooting. He, his wife and four children fled into the bush. His two oldest children were abducted and to this day he does not know what happened to them. His shop was burned, his cattle stolen. He was left with nothing, not even shoes.
“We travelled by the main road, walking, heading to Juba,” the South Sudanese capital, Magai says. “We walked two days” and got a ride where possible. But in Juba there was no work, no job, no cattle…”
For 22 days the little family lingered warily in the capital, haunted by the massacre in their village. In Juba, Magai met a man from his own Nuer tribe who saved the family from starvation by sharing some flour. Another stranger from Equatorial State gave them a home for a while.
But they were scared to remain in Juba with no money, and finally someone else gave them enough money to head to the Ugandan border.
“We took a bus with different tribes, all heading for the border,” Magai says. “From Juba to Yei, Yei to Kaya… and from there we walked to Oraba,” an entry point into Koboko District in Uganda.
In Koboko a Dinka man gave them a ride to Rhino Camp, run by the Ugandan government and the UN refugee agency. He soon received a plot of land for his family where they can plant a small garden and be somewhat independent.
“I don’t want to go back to South Sudan; I want to stay here,” Magai says today, sitting peacefully on a woven mat under a large leafy tree. Nearby are fellow refugees – Nuer, Dinka, Murle, Anuak – all having found a safe haven from the war in South Sudan. As Magai found out on the bus ride to Uganda, ethnic loyalties that seemed to matter so much at home, make no difference in exile.
Since Magai’s arrival last summer, the violence that broke out in South Sudan in mid-December 2013 has sent some 93,000 refugees fleeing into Uganda. In total, UNHCR and the Ugandan government are protecting and assisting more than 116,000 South Sudanese refugees.
After losing his home, business and even loved ones, Magai reflects on the peace he found in this northern Uganda refugee settlement: “There are no problems here and I sleep all night long until morning.”
By Karen Ringuette in Rhino Camp, Arua, Uganda