(Jason Patinkin and Simona Foltyn, IRIN) - When South Sudan’s civil war broke out in 2013
, much of Equatoria – the country’s breadbasket – managed to stay out of the conflict. But that respite was short lived. As the government army began purging the region of perceived opponents last year, it triggered the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, with the United Nations warning of a potential genocide.
"As long as it is humanitarian, it is to be respected, but if [the government] are not [respecting], then we better take humanitarian assistance from outside South Sudan to access people in need," said Francis Dabe, an IO relief official from Kajo Keji living in Uganda.
'Not fit for us to stay'
With ongoing conflict and little aid in Kajo Keji, some three quarters of the county's population have gone to Uganda, settling in sprawling camps that now house nearly one million people, most of whom have entered in the last year.
It is as if the entirety of northern Uganda west of the Nile has been converted into a vast camp. One can drive for hours across the region and remain amid the amorphous, sprawling collections of tents, their white plastic sheet roofs gleaming through the sparse forests.
Ugandan authorities are quick to point out that these are "settlements" rather than traditional camps, because they are interspersed with local Ugandan villages. It is all part of Uganda's open-door refugee policy, often held up as a model in a time when Western nations are taking steps to limit migration.
But Uganda's principled policy has hardly translated into a good life for the refugees. Camp conditions are harsh. Water, trucked into the vast region, is in short supply, and medical clinics are rare.
Yawa, who lives in Bidi Bidi, the largest of the settlements, holds up her small son, whose skin is covered in a rash similar to the ailments afflicting people in Jalimo. "This place is not fit for us to stay in," she said.
Above all, the refugees complain of hunger. Aid groups originally supplied 14 kilograms of grain per month to each refugee, but this was cut to 12, and is now down to just six per month. From that ration, refugees like Yawa must sell some of the grain to pay for other basic items like soap.
Making matters worse is that the rations often don't arrive on time, forcing refugees to make dangerous, even deadly, decisions to find food. Earlier this year, after not receiving food for most of January and February, Yawa and 15 others in Bibi Bidi decided to make a risky return to Kajo Keji in hopes of harvesting the cassava fields they'd abandoned.
But upon reaching their village, they ran into government soldiers who opened fire, killing three, including Yawa's brother Victor Sokiri, a pastor. Fearing the soldiers' return, they buried the bodies in graves only a foot deep, and returned to Uganda for good.
Part of the problem is that Uganda's open-door policy is based on providing basic services to local Ugandans in exchange for giving land to refugees. But faced with a funding shortfall of nearly $2 billion – as well as allegations of corruption among aid groups – there isn't enough aid for the refugees, much less the communities who accept them.
In one Ugandan village among the Bidi Bidi settlement, a group of elders complained to IRIN that while they welcome the South Sudanese, they have yet to see any tangible benefits from their government or aid groups.
"They didn't give us anything," said Haji Ramadan Almas, an imam. "They are supposed to dig boreholes and to build some schools."
Such disappointment can escalate into resentment as the two communities compete for resources, particularly firewood. In some cases, locals have even threatened refugees with violence as the refugee influx results in deforestation.
"They came with bows, arrows," refugee Betty Jagoro told IRIN, describing a party of locals who came to stop her and other refugees from collecting firewood near a Ugandan village. "We saw the way they are coming, the tactics. It did not look good, so we had to take off."
Meanwhile, ethnic divisions between refugees themselves have turned violent. In a twisted reversal of the situation in South Sudan, Equatorian refugees in Uganda have taken out their anger against Kiir's government on Dinka refugees, some of whom had previously been their neighbours in towns like Yei.
In December, an Equatorian mob reportedly beat a group of Dinka women at a food distribution point, accusing them of being the cause of their suffering.
In early June, Ugandan media reported that members of four Equatorian tribes ganged up on a group of Dinka in Lamwo district, injuring two who needed medical treatment, likewise accusing them of being at fault for South Sudan's conflict.
And, in yet another case, Equatorian refugees pulled an elderly Dinka man off a bus, slashed him across the face with knives, and robbed him, according to his sister, Rachel Kuang, who has lived in Uganda as a refugee since fleeing a separate conflict in South Sudan in 2012. The situation has become so bad that Ugandan authorities have started settling Dinka refugees separately from others to minimise violence.
"Before, there were no problems, the relations were good," Kuang said. "When the people started coming from Yei and Kaya, that's when the problems started coming."
There is now an ever-present fear of the war itself entering Uganda. The IO accuses the South Sudanese government of transporting troops through Ugandan territory and of using it as a refuge after battlefield retreats.
In April, Uganda's military had to block South Sudanese government soldiers from entering Uganda to attack civilians fleeing a massacre in the town of Parjok, in Eastern Equatoria.
"It was the SPLA," said Apollo Kazungu, Uganda's refugee commissioner. "We had to tell them, 'Look here, these are refugees, please go back.' "
Since then, militants have succeeded in crossing the border. In the last month, gunmen in South Sudanese uniforms raided refugee encampments in northern Uganda, stealing cattle and attempting to abduct civilians.
Uganda's political involvement in South Sudan's war creates additional risks. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has played both sides of the conflict, sending troops and weapons to the government while assuring Equatorian IO officials that there is a safe haven on Ugandan soil.
This double game means both rebel and government agents operate in Uganda, creating potential for further violence.
In 2015, suspected Kiir agents allegedly assassinated South Sudanese opposition figure Peter Sule and IO official Elias Lino Jada in northern Uganda.
In January of this year, Ugandan police arrested Dabe, the IO relief official, in Uganda's northern Moyo district. In Dabe's telling, the police accused him of smuggling weapons but refused to officially book him or take a statement. Dabe was later released thanks to intervention by higher level officials in the Ugandan government who have assured IO officials of safety.
Now, most IO members in the country are underground, and avoid places like Moyo.
"IO members [in Uganda] live in fear of arrest by the regime in Juba and abduction by individuals in Uganda community who might take bribe and abduct these members and hand them over to Juba," said one rebel official in Kampala, who declined to be named. "No one knows where my family lives. I do my business outside, but never bring anyone home."
Fifty more years
As the war worsens in South Sudan and puts more pressure on its neighbours, there seems little on the horizon that can bring an end to the conflict. The government has broken its own ceasefire, while the rebels fight on despite Machar's exile. No credible peace process exists.
Back in Kajo Keji, the rains have begun, which usually means a lessening of violence. But the IO see the change in weather as an opportunity. The dry season, after all, was a success, and the rains can give the guerrillas – less reliant on mechanisation – an advantage.
To Lokujo, there is no reason to stop fighting just yet.
"Of course more lives will [be lost in] South Sudan, so it's not easy. But a movement cannot be destroyed," he said. "Even more than 50 years we can stay here."
Kajo Keji has already experienced one half century of fighting. It's easy to see the latest conflict lasting just as long.