On a drizzly morning in early April, South Sudanese soldiers entered the town of Pajok, a trading hub southeast of Juba and opened fire, killing at least a dozen people on the spot. One of them was James, a 25-year-old man with a mental disability.
“The soldiers surrounded the compound and my son refused to move, so they killed him,” Rose, James’ mother, told me when I met her in Palabek, the newest South Sudanese refugee settlement in Uganda.
A UN team later found at least 66 civilians had been killed in the government’s attack.
Attacks like these are the reason Uganda now hosts nearly a million refugees from South Sudan, including a staggering 600,000 who have arrived in the past year alone.
This week, Uganda will host a two-day donor conference in Kampala, where President Museveni is seeking US$8 billion to support refugees in Uganda over the next four years. Unlike some of its neighbors, Uganda has kept the country open to refugees in need, and international donors should certainly support the government’s efforts. But these leaders should also speak out about the reasons so many South Sudanese refugees have been forced to flee in the first place. Since the civil war started in December 2013, both sides have committed horrific abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, often along ethnic lines.
Like Rose, most of the recent arrivals come from the Equatorias, the fertile region that borders Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, untouched by South Sudan’s civil war until late 2015, when government forces began fighting rebel groups and conducting heavy-handed, abusive operations against civilians. As the war spread, so did abuses – to Wau in the west, to Yambio and Yei in the south, and to small villages all over the Equatorias – with government soldiers targeting communities, often based on their ethnicity, for killings, detention, and disappearances.
It isn’t the first time many South Sudanese sought refuge in Uganda. During Sudan’s long civil war, hundreds of thousands fled to Uganda, returning only after the 2005 peace that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence. Now back in Uganda again, many seemed to have given up hope of building their country. And with the international community pinning its hopes on The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional body made up of neighbouring states with their own interests at play, the timeline for addressing the conflict seems to stretch indefinitely.
Museveni and the donors should do more than secure funds – they need to pressure South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to end the abusive tactics and recommit to holding those who have committed atrocities to account. These abuses are not just forcing people seek help in Uganda – they are ruining the foundations for a nation and condemning South Sudan to repeat its past.