Uganda’s refugee crisis, part 2: The world’s largest refugee camp

By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

's open door policy has created Bidibidi, the world's largest refugee camp, of which few outsiders have heard. The strain of housing so many refugee has placed an unbearable strain on this poor country, yet no help is forthcoming.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Thursday 20 July 2017

Read part 1

The Bidibidi refugee camp (some call it a ‘settlement') is the world's largest refugee camp, where just under 300,000 people are currently residing. As recently as a year ago, no were settled here – and there were also not very many roads across the savannah. Instead, there was a plenitude of trees and at least some water. Now you have a great many roads, very few trees and no water. The wells have been sucked dry.

The camp – spread out across almost 250 square kilometres – gets its water supplies from incoming trucks. The cost is punishingly steep, and the logistics of servicing such a huge mass of people are staggering. Yet the camp's perimeter, unlike the perimeters of similar camps around the world, is not fenced in with barbed wire and watchtowers. It is also not patrolled by heavily armed policemen or members of private security firms.

Last December, the Ugandan authorities decided they would stop letting additional refugees in. Half a dozen new refugee settlements quickly sprang up along the Western area. In many places, the refugees now form the majority of the population. Relations with the local communities have grown increasingly strained, since not enough basic resources are available to meet everyone's needs. This is especially true of water and arable land.

The Ugandan refugee policy seems to be nearing at breaking point. The authorities in Kampala insist the borders shall remain open for refugees, but they are also asking for help from the international community. Precious little of it seems to be forthcoming. “As people who suffered greatly in the past, we refuse to close our doors to anyone who comes to us fleeing ,” the government press secretary Shaban Banatriza explained to journalists. “Uganda will continue to do all in its power to help the refugees in their plight.”

The NGO budgets are now almost depleted. In the current crisis-riddled year, the UN has only secured 15% of the money needed to properly handle the situation. The organisation is in dire need of an additional €810 million for this year. Much the same is true for virtually every other key source of humanitarian relief. The European Union, for example, struggles to secure €20 million for the period up until 2020.

“The fact is that the situation in northern Uganda and, of course, Southern Sudan is growing worse. Yet the people – and the local authorities as well – remain very hospitable. They themselves have experienced war, and they know what suffering is like. Uganda is the of East ,” claims Kristian Schmidt, head of the EU delegation in Uganda.

We sat down to talk to him in Kampala. While the European Union, with its half a billion citizens, is groaning under the burden of a few hundred thousand people, Uganda is struggling on. “Despite all its problems, Uganda persists in its open-door policy for refugees and daily takes care of 1.2 million people,” explains Schmidt. “This is something the Europeans should be made aware of. Uganda needs and deserves our help. We need to support this model of refugee policy – after all, it is also in our own best interests. Uganda is part of the solution.”

The European ambassador to Uganda is convinced the war in will last for a long time. This means that the flow of refugees southward will continue as well.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for refugees, feels the same way. He believes Uganda will not be able to manage the world's largest and most urgent refugee crisis on its own. “We are at a breaking point,” Grandi recently stated.

Uganda is being put under ever greater pressure. The resources are limited, while the country's own population – officially the second youngest in all of Africa – is experiencing a rapid surge of its own. By 2035, the number of Ugandans is expected to double. This means that Uganda will grow ever more reliant on foreign aid. And there almost certainly won't be enough of it to go around.

When there were fewer refugees, the Ugandan open policy actually functioned as a successful economic model. The country received substantial amounts of international funds, infrastructure was being built, the market was expanding, new were created, the countryside was undergoing rapid modernisation. According to research, the refugees contributed much to the country's economic progress.

Now things are starting to spiral out of control. Uganda is growing increasingly more isolated. This is a very dangerous development. Despite the robust fettle of the Ugandan security forces, the South Sudan could quickly spread across the border. Memories of the blood-drenched Congo tragedy, the Burundi war and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda are still fresh in everyone's minds. The expectation and fear of the conflict spreading out to the Great Lakes area is a menacing.

The growing tensions between various ethnic groups are also much in evidence all over the refugee camps. At the same time, rumours are spreading of different paramilitary groups, mostly organised along ethnic lines, recruiting young people en masse all over the refugee settlements. The young, jobless and desperate men are said to be easy prey for the paramilitaries' fiery rhetoric. And there is certainly no shortage of arms in Uganda, the hub of the arms trade in Africa, both the licit and the illicit kind.

To sum it up, even greater trouble seems to be brewing. And the EU's ambassador Kristian Schmidt is not one to mask his awareness of the fact: “The key to resolving this whole mess lies in Juba. The leaders of South Sudan have proved irresponsible. We should sit them down at the same table and give them a little push to start negotiating. But it's not looking well. There is little political will to end the conflict. In reality, it is quite the contrary.”

In informal conversations a number of EU representatives let us know they were worried the Ugandan ‘open model' might be on the verge of collapse. The number of incoming refugees is too great, and the relief programmes have been entirely dependent on foreign aid for quite some time. As already stated, these foreign funds are drying up – no matter how urgent the crisis. In the European Union of today, empathy for someone else's pain is now officially no longer even a public relations bullet point.

War trauma

In front of her improvised dwelling at the Bidibidi camp, Gladys Win was making the local version of sweet fried dough. She told me she was 19 years old and hailed from the western part of South Sudan. The air all around her was growing rich with the fragrance of freshly prepared food. The aroma had already drawn in at least 20 starving children.

The nearby savannah road was filled with trucks and motorcycles stirring up clouds of red dust. In the middle of the afternoon, the equatorial sun was at its most excruciating.

“If I can get the flour for free, then I can actually make a little money,” Gladys smiled while her friend started breast-feeding her baby. Last autumn, the two friends arrived in Uganda together. After leaving home, they spent six months hiding in the bush. They now didn't feel like remembering that period; they said it was simply too much to bear.

“All I wanted was to reach somewhere safe,” Gladys recalled: “Anywhere – anywhere at all. I had no idea where I was. We fled our village during a raid. I was able to get my four-year-old daughter and take her with me. There was no time to snatch anything else. My parents stayed behind. I haven't heard from them for a long time. I have no idea how they are doing, no clue if they're even still alive. My father told me to run away, he said things were about to turn very ugly for young women. What else could I do but listen to him.”

Gladys used to visit the primary school here in Uganda. Then, following the emancipation, she returned to South Sudan. Bad timing? “No one could begin to imagine something like that would happen. We should have known better, huh? Several generations in a row have been brought up during wartime. And our rotten greedy leaders betrayed us wholesale. The Dinka people want to have it all, so they started to murder us,” she said. Gladys violently shook her head before fully devoting herself to baking the cakes.

Her distant relative Remo Bulem quickly picked up the tale of recent atrocities. “As we were hiding in the bush, they at first killed us only with guns,” the 30-year-old schoolteacher winced: “Then, when they started to run out of ammo, they brought out their machetes. I've seen… too much. So much death, and why? The government soldiers murder everyone they catch. By now, it is no longer possible to separate the soldiers from the rebels and the criminals. A tribal coalition has been formed to fight the ruling Dinkas. Us civilians, well, we've become a burden to all the key players. We are very short on water, and there's been almost no food for close to a year now. The people are dying of hunger all over the place.”

The words kept pouring out of the visibly traumatised schoolteacher. “I don't think I'll ever return to South Sudan. I have been informed they have burned down my house and looted the school where I used to teach. Our village has become deserted. They have also killed or stolen all our animals.”

Accompanied by seven of his close relatives, Remo eventually fled here to Uganda. He very much wants to teach again, but he's been unable to land a job. The vast majority of teachers in both refugee and ‘normal' institutions are locals.


“It is so hard for me to listen to the other refugees' tales… I keep reliving my own traumas. They killed my uncle and my neighbour in front of my eyes. I have not been able to find any peace here. The women, we're the ones who suffer the most. Many men escaped on their own, or they joined one of the armed groups. While we are always such easy prey,” says Stella Yunimba, 26, who managed to get a job in the camp as a translator.

“I realise how privileged I am,” she nodded. “I can take care of my daughter, Precious, here. But things get worse every day. I miss my husband – I haven't had word from him for six months. I have no idea where he is, or if he's even still alive. An incredible number of people have gone missing – an incredible number.”

A great many of the Dinka people are on the run as well. The South Sudan conflict is far from straightforward. The Dinkas have been caught in the crossfire. The authorities in Juba, the oil- and military-based rural oligarchy infected with the God complex, have been recruiting young men. The ones who prove unwilling to cooperate in ethnic cleansing have been persecuted. On the other hand, the Dinka villages are being raided by the members of other ethnic groups, especially the Nuer people, who – according to our information – have been supplied with weapons and instructions directly from . The eruption of war in South Sudan is likely to have pleased Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, the war criminal that he is, who may well regard it as divine punishment for the breakaway region.

It was a textbook example of divide and conquer.


“My fear is that we'll die of hunger. We have nothing left. We've been starving for months,” sobbed Madame Yar from the city of Bor, where the South Sudanese war actually broke out.

I was talking to her in the huge Kiryandongo settlement in central Uganda. The emaciated lady with deeply sunk cheekbones and painfully bulging eyes could barely muster the strength for the next few sentences. “All we have known is hunger and disease. We have been staying here for two years. It gets worse every day. There is almost no help to be had. Us Dinkas, we can't get any jobs. We're trapped. There is nowhere we can go.”

Madame Yar was sitting on the hardened mud floor. Her relatives were gathered around her. All of them were rake-thin and exhausted to the limits of their endurance. A tall deaf-mute boy, Madame Yar's cousin, kept staring off into space, completely lost. Heavy clouds were descending over the camp where some 52 000 people were currently residing – heavy clouds promising at least a modicum of rain. But it was not to be: the rain hasn't fallen for a few weeks now, and it didn't fall that day.

“On my every day off, I go and see my family. I was very lucky to have been accepted to the teaching school in Gulu. I'm staying at a boarding school, and my life is pretty good. I get free schooling, food and lodgings. But I am not able to help my family, which makes me so very sad. When I go to visit them at the camp, I can see they are getting worse and worse. I hope they somehow pull through, so we can one day return home together,” a tall teenager dressed in modern clothes whose name was Tir explained in perfect English.

As things stood, Tir was her family's only hope. Her cultured, really rather lovely appearance seemed at odds with her decidedly dark thoughts. In her hometown of Bor, she had witnessed first-hand what the human animal is capable of doing. When she began to describe the images of utter dehumanisation, she began shaking like a leaf. “Back home, all we could hear were guns and screaming.”

Read part 1


  • Boštjan Videmšek

    Boštjan Videmšek is an award-winning freelance crisis reporter for leading Slovenian daily DELO and several European and US magazines. He has covered all the major international crises and wars since 1998. Videmsek is the author of eight books: 21st Century Conflicts. These include THE Last Two: The Battle to Save the Northern White Rhinos, Plan B: How Not to Lose Hope in the Times of Climate Crisis, Remnants of Wars, Revolt: Arab Spring and European Fall, and Ultrablues.

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