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Washing motorbikes in Uganda: Young South Sudanese refugees battle poverty

Davis Mugume
Millions of South Sudanese have fled their homes due to violence and many young refugees try to make ends meet abroad.
22.12.2015  |  Kiryandongo, Uganda
Bol Deng washing a motorbike in Kiryandongo, Uganda, November 24, 2015. (photo: The Niles | Mugume Davis)
Bol Deng washing a motorbike in Kiryandongo, Uganda, November 24, 2015. (photo: The Niles | Mugume Davis)

Before the 2013 violence erupted, 17-year-old Bol Deng lived a normal life like many others. While studying in Uganda, he would travel back to Juba each holiday to be with his family.

But all this changed suddenly in 2013 when the family found themselves at risk in their own home in Konyo Konyo. “Some bad people would come at night and want us to open the door to kill us,” he said.

Fighting flared after President Salva Kiir accused his former Vice President Riek Machar of plotting a coup, sparking widespread violence, often along ethnic lines. The International Crisis Group estimates more than 50,000 people have been killed in the ensuing violence which spread across the country.

According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2015 on South Sudan, horrific attacks on civilians began within 24 hours of the start of South Sudan’s new war in mid-December 2013. Thousands of civilians were killed, homes destroyed and key infrastructure, including clinics, hospitals and schools, were looted, razed to the ground and abandoned.

Deng and his family, like millions of South Sudanese, fled for their lives. They first settled at the Nimule border in January 2014 until they were sent to Kiryandongo Refugee Camp, in Central Uganda, in June 2014.

The life of refugees is full of hardships, Deng says. His parents, decided to travel back to South Sudan with his two sisters while Deng and his brother Majok (20) and Lul (14) stayed at the refugee camp. He says he was left with the responsibility of taking care of his brothers, which he did by starting to work at a motor washing bay.

Located at Rift Valley swamp in Kiryandongo District of Uganda, Deng sets out to work each evening after school. “For each motorcycle you get around 2,000 Uganda Shillings,” he said, adding that he makes around UGS 8,000 per day.

Keeping in business is expensive and Deng spends at least UGS 1,000 on detergents for his work. The rest of his earnings he uses to buy clothes and to complement the food rations given by aid agencies for refugees.

While Deng toils, many other young people stay at home. His elder brother, for example, prefers to stay in the camp, playing cards with his peers. His younger sibling is also in school and probably too young to work like Deng.

Kiryandongo Refugee Camp shelters thousands of Kenyan and South Sudan refugees. Data from the UNHCR website, estimates that the settlement has a population of 45,595 South Sudanese, of which 40,290 fled to the camp after December 2013.

Children are in the frontline of the conflict and UNICEF estimates that the fighting has affected at least seven million people, half of them children. As violecne spread, children were increasingly forced to halt their education and were often recruited into army ranks. The UN says both government and opposition forces used child soldiers during the conflict.

UNICEF estimates that hundreds of thousands of children have been forced out of school since the conflict began. But Deng is determined to retain his dream of becoming a civil engineer and help rebuild South Sudan. At Panyadole Senior Secondary School, he is now in form five, where he studies Physics, Economics and Mathematics.

“If I go there I will be able to do something little for my country and my family. You know there are few engineers in South Sudan,” said Deng, who does his revision at school each day before rushing to the washing bay, about a kilometre away from the camp.

“Sometimes here you just get two thousand shillings a day. That won’t help you do anything,” he said, adding that around a dozen youngsters, both Ugandans and South Sudanese refugees, work at the washing bay.

With a smile on his face, Deng pushes the motorbike out of water and hands it to his client, 22-year-old boda boda driver Stephen Opio. “If I give him a job it means I am helping him,” Opio said, adding that he himself regretted dropping out of school due to a lack of school fees.

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