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'I keep hoping to see them': Tamma Joyce, 19, separated from family fleeing South Sudan bloodshed

Tamma Joyce, 19, lost contact with her parents when she escaped South Sudan. Thousands continue to flee the troubled country as conflict rages on despite a ceasefire declared in July.

Thousands of refugees continue to stream over the border to Uganda

Tamma Joyce, 19, washes her hands with a chemical designed to prevent the spread of cholera before boarding a bus that will take her to Bidibidi refugee camp in northern Uganda. Joyce had to drop out of school after fleeing South Sudan and losing contact with her parents. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

In a few short bursts of gunfire, Tamma Joyce lost contact with her family — and her future.

It was evening and quiet in a small town called Lainya in southwestern South Sudan. Suddenly, gunshots broke out.

"People just scattered," the 19-year-old said. She was in town. Her parents were at the house a few kilometres away, close to the lush teak forests for which the area is known.

"When I rushed home, I couldn't find them," she said.

Frantic to flee the fighting, Joyce packed a small black backpack full of clothes, grabbed her little red cellphone and left her family home behind in early September.

Calls to her parents' phones went unanswered. She didn't know whether they had made it safely into the bush. Whether they had been injured. Whether they were still alive. She still doesn't know.

For three days Joyce walked along the dusty and bumpy Yei road, through forests, toward Juba, South Sudan's capital city. The road is known for its insecurity: buses are regularly ambushed, people robbed and sometimes killed.

Dama Patrik, 7, who is disabled, munches on high-energy biscuits he received at the Elegu refugee collection centre in Uganda. His father carried him across the border from South Sudan. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

Joyce joined other people also fleeing the violence. Together, the strangers walked, eating nothing along way. Once in Juba, Joyce used the small amount of money she had with her to purchase a bus ticket to the Ugandan border.

Despite a ceasefire agreement in July, attacks have continued in some parts of the country, particularly in the southwestern region near Yei and Lainya, sparked by fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and forces loyal to Vice-President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.

Joyce is one of more than 100,000 people from South Sudan who have crossed into Uganda since then. It's estimated about 4,000 people a day are streaming across the border.

Many of them head to the Elegu Collection Centre, run by the Ugandan government and the UN. It's a few metres from the bridge that divides the two countries.

Those claiming refugee status are directed to the gates, where their belongings are searched for weapons. Then they are processed: medically screened, vaccinated, fingerprinted and fitted with plastic wristbands: usually white ones for those with special needs, such as those who are disabled, pregnant, or sick, and yellow for the rest. On days when supplies of wristbands are low, the code is reversed.

Refugees arriving at Elegu collection centre are identified with plastic wristbands: usually white for those with special needs, such as those who are disabled, pregnant or sick, and yellow for the rest. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

The fingerprinting is part of a daily challenge to stamp out "recyclers" — refugees who have already registered at a camp and are back at the border hoping to get more food and supplies for their families. In some cases, the recyclers are young children, sent by desperate parents hoping their son or daughter will be registered as an unaccompanied child and given food.

Aid agencies overwhelmed

The unexpected flood of refugees has overwhelmed the Ugandan government and the UN, as well as the agencies they contract to run services on their behalf.

"The situation has drastically changed, particularly with the influx we have been observing the last few weeks," said Jesse Kamstra, country representative for Uganda and Burundi with the Lutheran World Federation's department of world service.

Kamstra is in Ottawa this week to request more support from the Canadian government.

The LWF provides supplies and services to refugees at the collection centre and in many of the refugee camps. That includes identifying and counselling people suffering from trauma, and providing items like sanitary pads, soap and the high-energy biscuits refugees receive on arrival.

"The majority are coming by foot, having walked many days," he said. "The nutritional status of the people — particularly those under five — is becoming concerning."

A family of refugees arrives at Elegu collection centre in Uganda after crossing the border from South Sudan. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

He's hoping Canada will double its contribution. He also wants Canada's government to advocate for an arms embargo and put political pressure on the two warring parties.

Right now, the LWF is using $1.1 million donated by the Canadian government to provide refugees with supplies like jerry cans, basins, hand-washing containers, underwear and laundry soap, and to train them in farming and construction. The LWF also works to help refugees build shelters and latrines, especially for vulnerable households fostering orphans and for children who've been separated from their parents, like Joyce.

'I just hope we are reunited'

She was studying in Kampala, about to finish secondary school. But without her parents, she can't afford the school fees. She has to drop out.

Now, she's standing with other refugees waiting to board a bus to Bidibidi refugee camp. Before July, there was no camp in that part of northwestern Uganda. Now there are nearly 50,000 people there.

A South Sudanese refugee looks out the window of a bus about to depart the Elegu collection centre near the Uganda-South Sudan border, bound for Bidibidi refugee camp. (Carolyn Thompson/CBC)

Joyce will get a plot of land and tools to help her build a house of mud and sticks.

The yellow wristband around her right wrist looks much like the kind a teenager in Canada would wear to attend a concert or visit an amusement park. But Joyce's bracelet bears the ID number 0964520 and the logo of the UN's refugee agency.

For Joyce, it's a symbol her refugee application was accepted.

Each day, she tries to call her parents. Her calls are directed to an automated message. She hopes they made it to another camp in Uganda. She hopes to spot them on one of the photo boards of refugees seeking their lost loved ones.

She wants to find her family. She wants to go back to school. She wants things to go back to the way they were.

"I keep hoping to see them," she says. "I feel very bad. I just hope we are reunited."

About the Author

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