When fighting spread across some South Sudanese states in late 2013 following a political struggle in Juba, people ran for their lives. It reminded many of how the region used to be in the decades of civil war before independence.
During recent fighting the number of displaced people rose to around 2.2 million, more than 10 percent of the population, as almost two years of conflict erased early optimism about South Sudan’s independence.
The power struggle, which started with a clash between presidential guards, revealed that the country was a tinderbox, awash with weapons and plagued by a militarised political culture. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in ensuing clashes. Figures from December 2014 show that about 600,000 people have fled the country, while another 1.6 million people have left their homes to try to find a safer place within South Sudan.
Fighters show a “complete disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law”, according to an open letter to President Barack Obama written by 14 South Sudanese human rights groups, as well as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Global Witness, and Humanity United. The groups called on the president to impose an arms embargo.
Meanwhile, despite a peace agreement signed in August, clashes between rebels and government forces continue, with outbreaks in Bentiu, Nasir, and Maban. Hundreds of people are estimated to have been killed, and the number of citizens on the move within the young country continues to climb.
South Sudanese, who often fled into the bush with just the clothes on their back, have sought refuge at massive camps. Many, like Kakuma in Kenya, Pugnido in Ethiopia, and Adjumani in Uganda, were formed during what became Africa’s longest civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the government in Khartoum, which ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
These sprawling camp settlements, with their makeshift abodes and rudimentary health services run by international organisations like Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the American Refugee Committee, have expanded fast. Pugnido in Ethiopia’s Gambella region is the biggest, forming a temporary home to over 260,000 people. Some have developed into semi-permanent settlements dating from the last civil war.
And Khartoum has become the final destination of many South Sudanese, often taken in by extended family networks. According to United Nations data, neighbouring Ethiopia, especially the Gambella region, Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan, have all become home to more than 600,000 refugees. They mostly reside in camps near the border, often with insufficient food, education, and healthcare. Of these, Ethiopia hosts the highest number of South Sudanese refugees.
And the fighting never ends. Many refugees returned to South Sudan to vote for independence or to settle in the new state, only to move again, as violence spiralled afresh. These days, few of the displaced people can imagine a swift return home. Extended peace talks in Addis Ababa between representatives of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former Vice-President Riek Machar have failed to halt the violence, despite the agreement signed in August. A string of cease fires were broken within days.
Shortly after clashes broke out in December 2013, Kiir blamed his rival Machar for plotting a coup, although no evidence was found. But army commanders rebelled in three states and, over the following year, violence affected a number of other states, including attacks along ethnic lines between the Nuer and Dinka groups. Crude oil production, which makes up more than 90 percent of South Sudan government revenue, has fallen by at least a third during the conflict, as the army fought rebels in two key oil-producing areas.
The United Nations estimates that thousands more South Sudanese are likely to seek refuge over the border in Sudan, potentially doubling the size of the South Sudanese refugee community there.
Despite the ongoing conflict, South Sudan has also taken in refugees from neighbouring countries. Last year, it became home to some 245,003 registered refugees, mostly from Sudan, according to a recent update from the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR). This is part of a longer history showing South Sudan (previously Southern Sudan) has long been both a source and a receiver of refugees.
The area witnessed its most significant influx of refugees following the overthrow of former Ugandan leader Idi Amin Dada in 1979, when Ugandans sought shelter from the bloodshed. By 1982 the number of Ugandan refugees swelled to around a quarter of a million as Amin’s supporters launched a guerrilla war in the north-western part of the country in response to abuses committed by the Ugandan National Liberation Army.
In 1984-5, the UNHCR helped some of the Ugandan refugees to return home. At this time, Southern Sudan was relatively peaceful and Ugandan refugees settled. More than 200,000 Ugandan refugees opted to remain on the eastern bank of the Nile. “Most of the Ugandans had established relatively affluent livelihoods in Sudan (Southern Sudan), and were unwilling to return to Uganda with all the political uncertainties,” Jozef Merkx wrote in a UNHCR working paper.
Many stayed in Southern Sudan until rebels led by Yoweri Museveni took power in Kampala in January 1986, improving security in Uganda. That, combined with intensified fighting in Southern Sudan in 1988-89, prompted many Ugandan refugees to return home, joined by thousands of Southern Sudanese.
Ties between populations in Uganda and Southern Sudan date from earlier generations, in particular the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, partly due to the absence of Sudan-Ugandan border controls at the time. By the 1940s thousands of Southern Sudanese had migrated to Uganda to work in the cotton and sugar industries as Uganda’s economy grew. The movement of these early economic migrants helped tighten relations between tribes on either side of the border, including the Madi and Kakwa.
“The relations established during this migration later enabled Southern Sudanese to settle in northern Uganda,” the UNHCR wrote in its report, entitled Refugee identities and relief in an African borderland: a study of northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, adding that they arrived “among their kin when they had to flee from the civil war in Southern Sudan”. This trend of social upheaval continues to this day, and, observers warn, looks set to endure in the foreseeable future.