Uganda: More than conquerors
18 December 2008

Florence, who has pursued her education ever since she fled into exile twenty years ago. (Angelika Mendes/JRS)
I have learnt that suffering is a test for life and not something that should lead into hopelessness.
Adjumani, 18 December 2008 – I was born in 1988 in Juba, which is now the capital of Southern Sudan, in the middle of the war but old enough to remember the burning of houses and bullets passing the ears of innocent children. 

I remember that teenagers were being conscripted and taken far away to a place referred to as the “frontline” and that those who came back alive were considered lucky. 

It was not easy to escape this situation. Sudanese citizens were not allowed to move to another country because the government suspected them to support the Southern Sudanese rebel groups from outside the country. 

But my father was a determined man and by pretending he was Ugandan, managed to flee with his wife and four children to Uganda in 1991. With many other families who had managed to escape we reached Oliji, a refugee camp in Adjumani District. 

Building a basic education system 

We were given food and clothes but life in the camp was not easy. We experienced discrimination and abuse from nationals around us. The police harassed us, forcing us to bribe them or to spend a few nights in jail. The natives sometimes made fun of us for being refugees but we tried to ignore their remarks. 

At some point all the parents called for a meeting to find a way to construct schools for their children. They decided that each family would give poles and bundles of grass to put up some basic structures. 

There were no skilled teachers but there was no way to get qualified teachers either. Since classrooms were not sufficient primary one to primary four students were learning under trees. 

Sometimes the rain disturbed the lessons and since there were no books or pencils for writing we wrote on the ground. The teachers did not receive any salaries but parents collected beans and maize taken from the little ratio distributed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to show the teachers their appreciation. 

Going to school in exile 

In 1995, when I was 7 years old, my father sent me to school. UNHCR had constructed a number of permanent classroom buildings. JRS provided exercise books, chalks, blackboards and books with teaching instructions and paid a monthly incentive to the teachers. 

With most of the children going to school life began to change little by little. But the number of refugees kept increasing and getting water as well as adequate health care was a big problem. 

Sometimes people fetched water for cooking and for all other domestic work from the streams. As a consequence many children were suffering from severe diarrhea. My mother got infected with typhoid and almost died. 

In December 1995, we got resettled to Mungula refugee camp. Upon arrival, we were given basic equipment as well as a piece of land for both cultivation and building. My father constructed two huts which protected us from the rain. But also in the new camp, life was tough. In 1996 I started primary two. 

Regardless of the support given by UNHCR and JRS, my parents kept struggling for the good of their children. With other community members they started constructing Alere secondary school which became the first refugee secondary school in Adjumani District. 

Many of the pupils who had finished their primary education went on to Alere secondary school. Here, my father got a job as a volunteer teacher. JRS soon started supporting the school and paying incentives to the teachers. 

The LRA attacks the camp 

In 1997, the Lord’s Resistant Army (LRA) invaded the camp. Everybody was sleeping when suddenly there was shooting. I remember the bullets hailing on us and we ran like mad, profoundly confused. 

Some got lost in the bush, and others jumped into the river. In a small group we followed the bank of the river hiding in tall grass. We were able to cross the river holding on to a rope which we managed to tie on both sides of the river. 

I had lost my brother and my parents during the flight and we had not taken any food with us. Still, in search of safety we kept walking through the bush. 

The threat of the LRA attacking remained present. It was a point when I felt that refugees are people without self-esteem and identity. We were panic-stricken while time and again we had to pack our things and move to another place, often spending the night in the bush. The LRA abducted children and forced them to carry heavy loads for long distances. Some of those who attempted to resist were chopped into pieces, others lost their ears, or had their mouths locked with padlocks. Often the LRA robbed our food rations and we were left hungry. The insecurity also disrupted education, making it impossible for us to go to school. 

Moving again 

However, there were camps which the LRA did not attack and we decided to relocate to one of these camps, Keyo, where I went for primary three and four in 1997 and 1998 respectively. 

In 1999, the LRA activities subsided and my family went back to Mungulu where I finished my primary education. I emerged as the best among the girls and I was hungry for further education. 

My father then sent me to Alere secondary school in 2002. He paid my school fees from the incentive he received as teacher. Sometimes it was delayed. Then he would sell the maize given out by UNHCR to be able to pay my fees. 

Still, my clothes were either torn or very old; I lacked books and had to borrow soap from my friends. During the holidays I watered seeds to earn some money for my school uniform. 

In the same year, the LRA reappeared. They burnt houses, raped and killed many people. The Ugandan army (UPDF) deployed soldiers to re-establish security in the area but they were not able to manage the rebels. Again we moved to another camp and started all over again.

Escaping early marriage 

Then my father fell ill. He died after five days at Christmas and suddenly everything felt different. The death of my father also meant that my education was at risk. 

My mother had never gone to school and though she worked hard to buy scholastic materials she was unable to raise money for my fees. Sometimes I sold our food before going to school. We did not receive any financial assistance which made life ever more difficult and I felt discouraged. 

In March 2003, I went to the UNHCR office and explained my problem to the Head of the Sub-Office. He turned out to be very understanding and with support from UNHCR enabled me to continue my secondary education in 2003. 

But life at home was difficult because my mother still tried to force me into an early marriage. She hoped that when I got married, my husband would finally take some burden off her by providing support. The constant threat of being forced to marry made the holidays the worst time of the year. 

In 2005 I started my final year at secondary school. I knew my performance would determine what studies I could pursue after and also if I would continue receiving support from UNHCR. At the same time my mother kept appearing at school reminding me of marriage. 

Moving out 

I had difficulties to concentrat