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Adjumani: A Peep into Refugee Life in Uganda

Adjumani: A Peep into Refugee Life in Uganda

On the afternoon of April 3, 2022, I joined three professors on a week-log trip to Adjumani District. They were in the final stages of a research project they started in 2019 on the relations between refugees and their hosts in Adjumani District.

I had looked forward to the trip for many months after it had been delayed due to COVID -19 control measures which included restricted movement and association of people.  

I have for years been interested in understanding the refugee subject, especially in the case of Uganda, and this trip offered me a big opportunity to be with researchers who are studying aspects of the same subject in an area which hosts refugees. Uganda has been praised globally for creating a hospitable environment for refugees. My key interest is in understanding what it really means to be a refugee in Uganda and my work on this has just began.

We set off from Gulu at around 2:40, having convened a bit earlier at Pearl Afrique Hotel. Assoc. Prof Charles Nelson Okumu of Gulu University expressed regrets he would only join us the following morning after other engagements. So, in the van were left Assoc. Prof. Lioba Lenhart, formerly of Gulu University’s Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (IPSS), Prof. Susan Whyte of the University of Copenhagen, and me. A jolly dark-skinned and heavily accented Christopher would be our driver.

We took the Gulu-Nimule Road in our “drone” on which were painted Luo phrases that almost entirely covered its original colour. I forgot to ask Christopher what each of those phrases meant. The furthest I had gone along that road was Lacor where the famous St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor is located. This hospital, founded by the Comboni Missionaries in 1959, is among other things remember for not only treating the sick and injured during the 20-year LRA insurgency but also sheltering thousands of women and children every night as the fighting went on. In its history, also, are famous personalities Dr. Mathew Lukwiya who succumbed in 2000 to Ebola, a scourge he was fighting to contain, and celebrated Canadian surgeon Dr. Lucille Teasdale-Corti who was killed in 1996 by AIDS which she had contracted in 1982 from a patient during surgery.

Grass thatched houses, mostly in circular homesteads, sat scattered along both sides of the road. But there were also sizeable townships such as Parabong in Amuru District. The further we got, the hotter it became. By 3.30, we were at 35 degrees centigrade. The water I had carried with me in a bottle was too hot to be refreshing but I had to drink it anyway because my throat kept drying.

We turned off left at Atiak, a town most known for the infamous Atiak massacre by the LRA that claimed lives of more than 300 people. The road was being upgraded to tarmac but patches of bear ground remained. We arrived in Adjumani town in the evening.

The following morning we met a group of the elders and chiefs of the Madi people. The Madi are the traditional inhabitants of Adumani and they are the people who offered land for refugees to settle on free of charge from 2013 when South Sudan sunk into a civil war. Today, Adjumani has more refugees than the hosts, going by the figures at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Assoc. Prof. Lenhart (l) and Prof. Whyte (next to her) during a meeting with Madi chiefs and Elders

The professors had met and worked with some of the people in the group as they went about their research project which is in two phases. The first phase is Research on forced displacement in Adjumani District and the second is Establishment of a Forced Displacement Documentation Centre in Adjumani town.

This research project, supported by BSU, will result in the establishment of a research and learning centre about not only the culture of the host community, the Madi, but also the history of migrations between Uganda and South Sudan. Most of the refugees in Adjumani are from South Sudan. The biggest influx followed the start of the civil war in 2013.

“There seems to be international attention for refugees, but not the same to the communities,” said Prof. Whyte during the meeting sitting under a mango tree at Adjumani Multipurpose Centre.

“The Ugandan government is praised for its open door policy towards refugees but you [the Madi] are the ones who give land to the refugees,” said Ass. Prof. Lenhart in appreciation of the hospitality of the Madi. Lenhart informed the group that when the centre is established, the Adjumani District Elders Forum (ADEFO) will take lead in its management.  “And for BSU this will leave a footprint, in addition to what BSU does in the Acholi sub region,” she added.

The elders and chiefs openly expressed their views about the relationship between the hosts and refugees. They actually preferred to call them their “brothers and sisters” other than refugees. There is a history of crossing the border under difficult circumstances. The Madi of Uganda were also massively displaced into South Sudan in the 1980s following the overthrow of President Idi Amin.

While the hosts hold some grievances over the conduct of some refugees, as well as the conduct of some of the national and international institutions that give support to the refugees, the elders and the chiefs were in support of the refugees staying in Uganda until there was peace in South Sudan.

A Nuer homestead at Alere Refugee Settlement in Adjumani District

“We gave land for our brothers and sisters to settle on. You could walk in to meet your brother and your brother could walk out to meet you. They should stay until it is safe for them to return to their homes,” said Paulino Vusso, Chairman, ADEFO.

The days that followed were about interacting with key individuals among the host communities, the leaderships of the district as well as officials of the Office of the Prime Minister (which is in charge of refugees), and a brief visit to a refugee settlement, Agojo. We left Adjumani on April 8 and returned to Gulu after a brief visit to a refugee screening point at Elegu, at the Uganda-South Sudan border.

I returned to Adjumani on May 20, 2022, on a solo visit. Guided by some members of ADEFO, I visited Agojo again and another settlement known as Alere where I interacted with some leaders among the refugee community.

My early conclusion after these two visits is that while Uganda may seem to be open and offering a lot of support to refugees, they are far from leading a comfortable life in Uganda. But they feel safer here.


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Building Stronger Universities (BSU)-Gulu is a multifaceted programme aimed at strengthening research capacity at Gulu University in northern Uganda

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