these eyes have seen worse

When I arrived in Adjumani, Uganda, I found the place pleasant and serene. It’s a quaint town, and despite the already intense heat at 9 am, I liked it. But I hadn’t come for a vacation, and everything was not as it seemed.

Adjumani is home to the largest refugee camp for South Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda. There are several camps set up, but Adjumani has received by far the most people as they fled for their lives. In Numanzi 1, there are nearly 25,000 people, and the camp is seriously overcrowded. Also in Adjumani, Barutooku is much smaller but still holds 7000 people. The next largest campsite is in Arua and houses 8,500 people. Numanzi 1 is receiving around 400 new people every day, a significant improvement from the 3000 pouring in daily a few weeks ago, but our contacts here fear the worst as the recent ceasefire turns out to be holding very little water.

Can you image increasing food supplies by 400 people every day? What about increasing it by 3000 people every day?

We visit the camp right away in the morning, and though I’m not shocked as easily now as I was when I first left home in July 2013, I must admit that I am stunned. The camp is an undeniably desperate place. Mothers and children crowd what sparse shade is available under hot plastic tents. Endless lines snake toward water points meant to serve 50 people at the most. Exhausted looking women trudge along the road and down rough paths carrying impossibly large bundles on their heads. Crowds follow around the seriously overworked staff from UNHCR and OPM (Office of the Prime Minister). Everyone looks edgy, stressed, angry, and tired.

We stop with our contact to talk to a few of the self-appointed refugee leaders under a food distribution tent. In a camp where 85% of those seeking safety are women and children, all of the leaders we speak to are men. They seem angry with us, saying that so many NGO’s have come to talk to them, but nearly all of them have gone away now and never come back. How much I wish in that moment that I could just snap my fingers and funding would appear instantly to meet their desperate and basic needs. There is so much lacking – adequate and abundant shelter, enough water, enough food, enough latrines, any waste pits at all, even the most basic hygiene items, household utensils. There’s nothing. Many are arriving on foot, carrying with them only the little they can carry on their long journey. Organization are here, of course. UNICEF, UNHCR, OPM, ACORD, Oxfam, Save the Children, Lutheran Worldwide Federation, World Food Program, and others. Despite the effort, though, the available resources are woefully lacking when compared to the size of the need.

In the short term, emergencies supplies of nearly everything are desperately needed. No one is passing out supplies for reproductive or maternal health, no one is passing out personal hygiene items as basic as soap, food supplies are not enough, people are only getting an average of 5L of water per day when the international standard is 15. I asked our partner contact what we could offer, saying that we didn’t want to duplicate the efforts of others. He simply looked at me and said no matter what we brought, nothing would be a duplicate. There’s not enough of anything.

In the longer term, the refugees will need emergency education services, basic livelihood support, and social coordination to prevent Gender Based Violence (GBV). Mothers need a safe place to give birth. Children need adequate sanitation services to avoid the classic killers such as diarrhea when the rains arrive.

They need everything. As we talk to them I look around at the crowd that has gathered. They’re frustrated. Many of them look exhausted, burnt out, upset, even angry. A few smile at me, but even those who do have tired eyes. All I could think was, these eyes have undoubtedly seen worse. As horrible and desperate as life here is, as awful as the camp is, these eyes staring back at me have seen worse. These eyes. These eyes that are so like mine. It could easily have been me standing in their shoes had I not been born in a more peaceful place. That thought alone is enough to haunt and drive me.