By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney
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At the camps, children without parents or chaperoning adults are classed as ‘unaccompanied minors’ and registered separately; out of the 192,000 refugees to have fled to Uganda in 2017, 62% are children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Twelve-year-old Emanuel has had to grow up fast. After witnessing both his parents being shot dead by government forces in South Sudan, Emanuel escaped Yei town, the focal point of the war-torn Yei River Estate in the south west of South Sudan, and found his way to Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda.
Given his own refugee settlement, at the moment Emanuel’s home is little more than a skeleton structure that still needs brick and mud walls to be built.
During his escape Emanuel met Rado (herself just 16-years old) who looked after him.
She said: “I found him in the bush – his parents were killed but now he can’t talk about it because he will cry straight away.”
In an almost inaudible whisper, Emanuel points to his left indicating where the bed will go; at the moment a yellow jerry can, small brick oven and an empty tin can are the only items of ‘furniture’ in his home.
Emanuel and Rado are by no means the exception, but rather very much the rule. Their homes and villages destroyed, many of the children saw their own parents and other family members killed in front of them - and had nowhere else to go other than the settlement camps in neighbouring Uganda.
Other children were encouraged by elderly relatives to escape while they still could to protect their own lives.
Ari Ezra, a refugee from Yei, said: “When escaping violence in Yei, children are greeted by SPLA soldiers in Dinka language. If they don’t reply in Dinka they are murdered on the spot. They are killing us like goats.”
Many of the children had to walk through the bush for days by themselves, with neighbours or strangers who were making the same journey meeting them along the way and looking after them.
After her father was shot dead, Stella, 16, and her brothers travelled together to cross the Ugandan border.
She said: “I travelled through the bush for days with my brother, and many people escaping were shot at by soldiers. It was very hard to walk for days, with no food or water, only whatever we could find in the bush.
"In my village, I saw girls being raped, and people being burnt alive inside their homes.”
Historical tensions between the Dinka tribe, loyal to government forces (Sudan People’s Liberation Army - SPLA) and President Salva Kiir, and the Nuer tribe, loyal to former vice-president and leader of the rebels (SPLA-in opposition -SPLA-IO) Riek Machar, have escalated in recent years.
A fragile peace agreement was reached in 2015 but violence erupted in July 2016, causing thousands of South Sudanese people to flee their country.
Uganda currently hosts more than 832,000 refugees from South Sudan with an average of 2000 refugees crossing the border every day, according to the UNHCR.
Government forces are reported to have burnt villages to the ground and killed and raped innocent civilians.
Jessica fled to Palabek settlement with her niece Lillian after her husband was shot dead by the SPLA and Lillian’s father was burnt alive inside his own home. There have been hundreds of similar reports of the SPLA locking family members inside their own homes, then setting fire to them.
“I saw death everywhere,” Jessica said.
In a statement issued at the start of this year, the United Nations Special Adviser on the prevention of genocide Adama Dieng stopped short of calling the situation in South Sudan genocide but conceded there was risk of ‘mass atrocities’.
He said: “President Salva Kiir has made a commitment to end the violence and bring about peace, yet we still see ongoing clashes, and the risk that mass atrocities will be committed remains ever–present.”
Life in the camps is hard. On arrival, refugees are registered and then assigned living zones and plots of land to farm on. However due to the high numbers of people trying to enter the camps, many face lengthy waits.
At Palabek settlement camp for example, approximately 8,000 people were waiting in the reception area. Given hot food, pots, pans and blankets while they wait, the new arrivals still have nowhere to call home.
Stella, who is staying in Bidi Bidi, the biggest of the camps in Uganda, said: “We are happy to be in Uganda and not hear bullets at night, but life in the camps is very hard. We barely have any food, the water boreholes are few and there are many queues.”
While the child refugees have found relative safety in the settlement camps, their futures look far from easy.