South Sudanese refugees in Uganda struggle to shake off ethnic tensions

South Sudanese refugees in Ugandan camps fear that tribal divisions stirred up by fighting in their homeland may have followed them across the border.

In camps, Dinka and Nuer groups get plots of land far from each other, but some people are still afraid

Luganya Francis says even in the refugee camp, he's still worried there could be conflict between South Sudanese tribes. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

South Sudanese refugee Luganya Francis has reached a refugee camp in Uganda but still isn't sure he is safe.

A member of the Kuku tribe, he fled his country's capital city, Juba, when fighting in July spread to his neighbourhood.

But like many refugees, he is worried that tribal divisions stirred up by the fighting may have followed him across the border.

"People are saying, 'We are one here, we are united,'" he said, shaking his head. "But here, there might be someone who did you wrong. It might happen here. You can see the tribes all around you."

South Sudan has been embroiled in conflict for decades, first fighting for freedom from Sudan, then in a civil war just a few years after becoming independent.

Reports of ethnically targeted killings

Most recently, fighting broke out on the eve of the young country's fifth independence day between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, of Dinka ethnicity, and forces loyal to First Vice-President Riek Machar, of Nuer ethnicity. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands have fled their homes, many crossing the border into Uganda.

At Pagirinya refugee camp, plots are assigned in different sections for Nuer and Dinka refugees. The quarters are divided by roads and institutions like schools or medical facilities. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

Human Rights Watch has reported ethnically targeted killings, particularly directed at Nuer people.

There has been a long-standing conflict between the Dinka and Nuer, particularly relating to cattle raiding. It intensified in the early 1990s during a civil war in Sudan and again in Dec. 2013.

In the recent conflict, heavy fighting has centred around Yei, a region in the South Sudan state of Central Equatoria.

Other ethnic groups from the regions in the south have been drawn into the conflict. About 4,000 people a day are crossing into Uganda from that area. There are about 14 different ethnic groups in the central Equatoria region, including Kuku, Bari, Madi, Kakwa and Pajulu. In South Sudan, there are around 60 tribes. The Dinka are the largest, followed by the Nuer.


"I don't trust any South Sudanese — civilians or people in government. I don't trust them," Francis said.

He said he expects he will die in exile. It's the second time he's had to flee his country for safety. The first time, in 1994, he lived in a Ugandan refugee camp for years. Like him, many in the refugee camps in northern Uganda have been displaced more than once.

Uganda tries to preach peace

The Ugandan government is making an effort to convince refugees that there is no place for tribal conflict.

But we tell them,you are in Uganda— and in Uganda we need unity.- Edema Gerald, official at Elegu refugee collection centre

"As government, what we always do is we preach to them peace," said Edema Gerald, registration assistant with Uganda's Office of the Prime Minister at Elegu refugee collection centre. The OPM runs the refugee settlements in partnership with the UN.

Gerald said the refugees come from all South Sudanese ethnic groups — including those that have a history of conflict like the Dinka and Nuer.

"But we tell them, you are in Uganda — and in Uganda we need unity," he said.

To protect the refugees' safety, possessions are searched for weapons before people are admitted to the collection centre at the border. In some of the camps, the Dinka and Nuer are assigned plots in different quarters, separated by roads and schools.

Homes are built on plots assigned to Dinka families at Pagirinya refugee camp. The Ugandan government takes away weapons at the border. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

At Pagirinya refugee camp — one of the newest settlements opened after an influx of refugees in July — the Dinka are given plots near the back of the camp, far from many of the Nuer refugees, whose plots are closer to the entrance.

Gerald says there are also OPM staff at each camp ready to respond to concerns and problems.

Not everyone's afraid

"If I come genuinely and say that I'm not comfortable staying next to you, then I have to be relocated," he said. "Reallocated another plot, maybe far from you, where I feel comfortable."

Not all refugees are afraid. Many say they feel safe in the camps and that the efforts to curb ethnic tensions are working.


Mayom Dau Khan, 30, is a Nuer who fled South Sudan's capital during July's fighting. There were numerous reports of targeted killings of Nuer during that time.

"In Juba, security is bad. You could be caught and you could be killed," he said. He fled to Elegu with his wife and children.

In Pagirinya refugee camp, he said he finally feels safe.

"In Uganda we are OK now," he said. "Here, we have no tribe. There are no Dinka, no Nuer. We are all South Sudanese."

Is tension ethnic or political?

David Gak, a Dinka refugee from Jonglei state in northern South Sudan, fled the fighting in Dec. 2013 with his wife, bringing along four children from his village who were orphaned during the violence. The group made their way south to Juba, but food scarcity pushed them further south, eventually forcing them to cross into Uganda in July.
David Gak, a Dinka refugee from South Sudan's northern Jonglei state, stands in a hole he's digging that will become his family's washroom on the lot he was assigned at Pagirinya refugee camp. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

Gak lives in the Dinka block of the Pagirinya settlement. He says he's hopeful most people in the refugee camps have left the conflict behind them.

"All of us have suffered a lot, so we would not think of causing more problems," he said.

Gak takes issue with those who define South Sudan's conflict as an ethnic war.

"I don't accept it as a tribal conflict. I think it is political issues," he said, adding that only when leaders Kiir and Machar find a way to agree will there be peace.

"That is the beginning," he said. "Then it is up to us to keep it."


Carolyn Thompson is a journalist and media trainer based in Juba, South Sudan. She previously worked for several Canadian newspapers.

With files from Lagu Joseph Lo-buga