When fighting became frequent in his country South Sudan, Gwongo Paul Dada decided to leave. The journey involved two days of walking with his wife and 3-year old son before they arrived at a refugee camp in Uganda, he said.
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“We would walk during the day and sleep on the way,” Dada told ABC News. “My son got sick on the way and we didn’t have enough food and water. Hunger became the biggest problem.”
He said they had to leave behind some belongings, including food, because they were too heavy to carry.
“It pained my heart to leave because before the war we were OK in South Sudan,” he said. “We lived a very good life and had water and proper food, and then from there, we were forced to move.”
The debate over the global refugee crisis centers on refugees who cross the Mediterranean into Europe, but nine out of 10 flee to low- or mid-income countries, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. In 2016, Uganda received more refugees than the total number of refugees and migrants who traveled to Europe by sea, said the NRC. Dada is one of nearly 490,000 refugees who fled from South Sudan to Uganda last year while some 360,000 people crossed the Mediterranean into Europe.
“Europeans, Americans and others who believe they’re having a massive influx of refugees live in a myth,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told ABC News. “The poor are generous and welcoming and we the rich are increasingly xenophobic and unwelcoming to those who desperately need protection.”
The Bidibidi refugee camp in northern Uganda was created less than six months ago and has quickly grown to become the second-largest refugee settlement in the world, the NRC said. It currently houses over 270,000 South Sudanese refugees, including Dada. At the end of 2016, more refugees sought safety in Uganda per day than in many wealthy European countries the entire year, according to the NRC.
“The reason for the enormous flow of refugees to Uganda is that South Sudan is completely unraveling before our eyes. There is an ethnic cleansing going on there,” Egeland said.
Hundreds of people were killed in South Sudan during a fresh outbreak of violence last July and more than 200 people were raped, according to a United Nations report published earlier this month. Rivalry between President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar led to a civil war in 2013 that has killed thousands of civilians and displaced two million, according to Human Rights Watch.
People are often killed because of their ethnicity or perceived political ties, international organizations say.
“I felt my life was in danger. Some people were taken in the night hours and were killed,” said Dada. “Sometimes, when someone has a problem with you, they can accuse you of being on the side of the rebel group or the government and then you are killed.”
Dada said his cousin was one of those killed. He went missing for a week before his body was found. Dada said he doesn’t know if he were killed by rebels or other forces.
His parents and brothers are still in South Sudan and he said he’s trying to think of a way to bring them out of the country. He said he is not always able to reach them by phone.
“I don’t know how they are living,” he said. “I can only communicate with them sometimes. We communicated last week and they told me they were okay.”
In South Sudan, Dada said he worked for the East African Ministry as a hygiene promoter and he said he got a similar job quickly after he arrived at the Bidibidi camp on Nov. 8. He educates people in the camp about hygiene by organizing plays and drama groups.
“It’s very important for avoiding contagious diseases like cholera,” he said.
Dada and his family were welcomed into the refugee camp and life there is good, he said, but the water supply is small compared to the number of people in the camp.
“Water used to come twice a day, now it’s once a day,” he said.
He said he plans to move back to South Sudan once the situation there improves.
“Even right now I would like to go back to South Sudan,” he said. “When South Sudan is a peaceful country, we will be going back.”
Uganda is currently home to more than 640,000 refugees from South Sudan. That number is expected to rise to 925,000 by the end of 2017, said the NRC. Uganda also hosts refugees from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Somalia and other countries, according to the NRC.