Hungry South Sudanese refugees risk death in return home for food

PALORINYA, Uganda: Oliver Wani found sanctuary from South Sudan’s civil war in a Ugandan refugee camp. But when the food ran out, he returned home only to be killed in the conflict he had fled.
The 45-year-old farmer was one of more than a million South Sudanese living in sprawling camps just across the border in northern Uganda, seeking refuge from the four-year war that has devastated their homeland.
But funding gaps and organisational problems often delay or reduce their meagre rations, driving some desperate families back to the lands they fled and underscoring the struggle to cope with Africa’s biggest refugee crisis in two decades.
Refugees from South Sudan have been arriving in Uganda at an average rate of 35,000 a month this year.
The Bidi Bidi camp was home to 285,000 people at the end of September, according to the UN’s refugee agency, making it the biggest in Africa.
The UN agency (UNHCR) said funding had only covered 32 per cent of $674 million requested to help refugees in Uganda in 2017 and the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said it was facing a $71 million shortfall for the next six months.
Wani, who cared for his elderly parents, received no food in October because distributions had been delayed, his father Timon said. The memory of the crops Oliver had left behind proved too tempting and he returned to South Sudan to find food.
Two weeks later, other returning refugees recognised his remains alongside another dead refugee on a forest path in South Sudan, where the ground was littered with bullet casings.
“He went back to look for food,” said Timon, a tall, thin man who wiped away tears with his handkerchief as he spoke at a memorial service for his first-born child in the Palorinya refugee camp. “I’m heartbroken.”
The four-year war in oil-rich South Sudan, a country only founded in 2011, has forced more than a third of its 12 million citizens to flee their homes.
Tens of thousands have died, some in ethnic killings, others from starvation and disease.
Palorinya is the second biggest camp in northern Uganda after Bidi Bidi and alone houses 185,000 refugees.
Each refugee is supposed to get 12 kg of grain, 6 kg of dry beans, cooking oil and salt each month, but the UN’s WFP said this was delayed in October because grain was scarce in Uganda and the roads to Palorinya were bad. Food distributions did not start camp until October 26, WFP said.
It takes two weeks to complete a distribution, so tens of thousands of refugees did not get any food that month. Desperate, some returned to the war zone. At least eight refugees from Palorinya were killed in South Sudan after returning to look for food in October, according to family members and the Anglican church, which tracks civilian deaths.
In August and September, when rations were distributed normally, just two refugees from the camp were killed when they returned to find food, the church diocese in volatile Kajo Keji region said. — Reuters