Uganda: Children at risk in Bundibugyo

Thursday 1 August 2013

By Joe Kioko, Save the Children's East Africa Regional Office Humanitarian Project Officer

My daily newsfeeds begin to highlight the plight of thousands of Congolese who have been forced to flee their homes into South Western Uganda and a visit is hatched, with a mission to support the refugee influx situation.  It’s my maiden trip to Uganda and I hit the ground running, I am accompanied by Matt Croucher. The Uganda country office colleagues work on the logistics so that we accomplish our mission, led by Topher Mugumya, the Humanitarian Director.  Bundibugyo is on the Western border town of Uganda, it borders the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It’s currently hosting 66,747 refugees who have fled their homes and country following recent fighting between rebel and government forces close to the Uganda border. 

It’s a smooth road, about 5 ½ hours, drive from Kampala. The texture of the land is marked by sprawling hills, surrounded by lush green forests dotted by wetlands. Late into afternoon, we arrive Fort Portal, the administrative capital of the Western region. However, I am told that we still have 85 more kilometers to go before we reach our final destination. For safety reasons, we spend the night and leave early morning.  We finally reach Bundibugyo; the evidence is on the ground, thousands of people, many of them women and children, with numbers increasing rapidly. We embark on our plans to assess and intervene on the refugee influx situation.

As we walk into various transit camp designated areas, you cannot help but notice the white tents, trucks and thousands of people. This is Bubukwanga transit center. This is where the government has temporarily resettled the refugees before transferring them to permanent camp sites, more than 200km away.  It’s a crowded camp, with more refugee numbers increasing.  Save the Children response focal person Farouk has seen it all.  The streaming in of 16,000 and counting them, who now live in the 10.5 hectare parcel of land. He takes time to introduce us to Save the Children staff and volunteers and takes us round the camp.

What immediately strikes me is the disparity in the shelter materials used. While some get good tents, others get those worn away by time. This forces them to use blankets, sheets, clothes and mosquito nets to erect their ‘houses’ so as to shield themselves and their families from bad weather and get some privacy.   Standing there, I think about what would happen if rains drops fell.  Thankfully, it’s clear blue skies!  Due to the hilly terrain, the weather is unpredictable, and we can only wait.  A truck delivers water and empties it in a collapsible tank. A few meters from there, some men are seen hammering away on a communal tent which is under construction. There are six others already occupied and this seems to be the only workable solution given the amount of space available vis-a-vis the number of people of people present.

I am on my way to the child friendly space, but the evidence is on the ground as I walk.  Many of the families are camping in cramped and unhygienic conditions that weren’t prepared to receive them. With few supplies, food is running out quickly, many families are unable to find clean water and adequate health care.  Children could fall sick from water-borne diseases and other life threatening health problems. I have young boys walking along side me.  One of them is too small to make it past a drainage canal and so I hold his hand and help him cross to the other side.  He smiles wryly and rushes off to catch up with his older friends. While there, I am struck by a bad stench coming from my direction. I look around and see a 5 stance pit latrine, being a relatively new establishment I don’t expect it to be emitting such a foul smell. Farouk describes to me how the water table in Bubukwanga is generally high and the latrines are dug relatively shallow hence filling up pretty fast.   I wonder if there is any exhauster to drain them. I am told there is none at the moment but the authorities are well aware of that unfolding scenario and hopefully will avail one soon.

I finally reach the Child Friendly Space; four young Save the Children volunteers keep the children busy with pulsating songs and lively dances. The Child Friendly Space is pretty new and all there is a perimeter wooden fence. A truck delivers sand and I capture that moment as well as recording some video clips.  It’s almost lunch time and the cooks are busy preparing hot meals at the communal kitchens. A young mother outside her makeshift shelter clutches her baby as she prepares porridge. Next to her is what should be a drainage canal.  Clearly, someone has to act pretty fast. I stand there thinking without access to clean water and proper toilet facilities; they are at danger from waterborne diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery.  The impact would be devastating.
We then drive to the Butogo primary school, one of the 10 schools in the region that had hosted refugees. The place is deserted, save for one tent at the far end of the school which the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF) is using to administer health services to refugees who chose to remain behind. We are informed that refugees had been advised to vacate the schools to make way for normal schooling to resume. But there are no students today as the whole compound and the classes have just been sprayed with disinfectants. I peep through the windows and notice that some classes lack desks and most of the few left behind are broken. The school compound looks clean. The pit latrines had been filled, except 2 that have been drained. The school population is about 500 students most of whom will go without desks and adequate sanitation facilities when schooling resumes in 4 days’ time. We walk to the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces tent to talk to the doctor in charge.   

There are almost 40 mothers with children seated in shade waiting for their turn to be attended. At first, he is not very amused by our presence because of the unfulfilled promises that other agencies had made without actioning them thereafter. But after explaining why we are there, he offers to take us through the challenges he and his team are facing; they have run out of essential drugs for children and just that morning they had lost a 9 month old child! He tells us that their last recent count indicated 9000 refugee population and 4000 locals. Then he takes us through the records and explains what each case requires. 4 cases stand out; 4 surgical patients have for 5 days been waiting for an ambulance to take them to the nearest hospital. Their conditions are fast deteriorating and we promise to report that at the coordination meeting that happens at 4.30 daily at the transit center.  There’s an open field just outside the school compound where children are playing. I notice some tents in nearly all the homesteads near the shopping center.

We head out to the official border crossing point and meet more people streaming into Uganda, laden with all sorts of luggage they could carry.  They look weary and tired, but at least they have made it here safely!

Back to the transit camp for the coordination meeting.  After waiting for 30 minutes, the Office of the Prime Minister official who chairs the meeting walks in. During discussions, he sounds rather serious and wears a no-nonsense face. We report the Butogo case and the health actors promise to send an ambulance the following day. At the end of it, we are pretty clear on where the gaps are, and what we need to do.

In the meantime, children form long queues just a few meters away to receive NFI’s donated by Save the Children. We wrap up the day promising to act quickly to get resources on the ground to reach more people. It’s almost dark and staff from other agencies start trooping away. No one is allowed to spend a night inside the camp except refugees. UNHCR put up tents a few meters from the transit camp. We call it a day, and head out to Fort Portal.
As I ponder on this, Let us continue to support these needy families: women, children and men. Whatever little donation you can give will help go a long way.

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