IMVEPI, Uganda – Eighty-year-old Alfred Wani walks across the wooden bridge over the Kaya River, the border between South Sudan and Uganda, clinging to his Bibles and family photo album, with his wife, three goats and 27 relatives in tow. Missing are a few sons (off fighting) and his cattle (stolen).
Alfred is one of more than 800,000 South Sudanese who have fled to Uganda since July. The civil war in South Sudan has killed tens of thousands and driven out more than 1.5 million people in the past three years, creating the world’s largest refugee crisis.
The Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda is now the biggest in the world, but Alfred is not going there. It’s full. Imvepi is his destination, where the Ugandan government will issue him with a 50-square-meter (60-square-yard) plot of land and hope for a better life.
But that will take a week, two more camps and three more truck and bus rides with his clan and their salvaged belongings.
Alfred walks two hours by foot to the first U.N. processing center for South Sudan refugees in the small Ugandan village of Busia. There, Alfred, a blind man named Ringo with two canes and countless others spend the night before being transferred by minibus to the Kuluba transit camp, 45 minutes down the road. It’s set up to accommodate and dispatch more than 1,000 refugees a day.
Michael Lowe, Alfred’s 28-year-old son, directs the women of their family to carry their belongings into the white tent they will share with Ringo and his wife, Charly Kenisha, for the next 48 hours. During that time, a well-oiled routine will take them through the hands of charities like the International Rescue Committee and Medical Teams International, who will do medical exams and vaccinations.
Alfred sits in a prized wooden chair carried from South Sudan while the grandchildren play. He opens his photo album. “These are my sons.” He points at a fading color image showing five of his eight sons. Six are still fighting in South Sudan. “And this is my favorite photo . me and my bicycle.”
Alfred, a farmer, shares a few regrets: “If I was young again, I would raise more cattle, and build a good house in concrete, and also pay for my kids’ school. I didn’t go to school and neither did my children.”
In the morning, all the family’s belongings are repacked and reloaded onto a truck for transport to Imvepi. More than 1,500 people will be transported in buses adorned with the word “Friends” on the side.
Sixty kilometers (36 miles) and two hours later, the convoy arrives at Imvepi, which is growing at a rate of over 2,000 refugees each day. Already a bustling town has emerged at the entrance to the processing camp, with locals offering vegetables, fish, clothing and cellphone credit at highly inflated prices.
In the morning, Alfred wakes up in pain. The night has been difficult, with no sleep and a bout of diarrhea.
He spends the morning at the clinic, which makes it too late for his clan to move today. They will spend one more night in tent 7A. The clan includes eight heads of families, some orphans and several widows from the war or disease: A representative sample of South Sudan’s rural society, squeezed into a tent.
As the line of trucks starts to fill up the next morning with goods and 500 people for the final leg of their journey, the clan sits amid their belongings under the broiling sun. More than 50 people in each pickup truck are driven the 15 kilometers (nine miles) to their plots of land on newly cleared dirt roads.
Peeking through the cover of the truck, Alfred can see the white tents that have mushroomed across the land, smell the smoke of their kitchen fires and hear the laughter of children. Soon he will be able to once again sit in his wooden chair, his trademark cowboy hat on his head, and call it home.
The next day, from his chair under an acacia tree, Alfred shouts his commands as his sons set up a tent. The sons cut branches from surrounding trees to build the frame of Alfred’s dwelling.
As the women and children settle in, Alfred and his wife, Kassa, reminisce.
“We met at home 70 years ago. No, 60! And this is my only wife,” Alfred says.
Alfred and Kassa have to move inside the unfinished tent with the others when a fierce storm moves in. They all cling to each other, 10 people on 5 square meters (54 square feet) of dirt floor.
Alfred whispers: “Are we going to get a solid house and not a tent?”
Tens of thousands of the refugees already have built the type of brick homes that Alfred now desires to replace the mud hut in South Sudan he was forced to abandon.
The couple does not hold out hope of returning home to South Sudan.
“I saw the killing, I saw burning houses, I saw the dead with their throats slashed,” Alfred says, clutching his cowboy hat tightly. “I cannot go back and see it again.”