Bidi Bidi, Uganda: The cemetery for South Sudanese refugees lies between two streams that flood when the rains come, leaving debris scattered across the otherwise unmarked graves.
That bothers James Malish, whose mother and sister recently died days apart. They were laid to rest here, along with about two dozen others on the edge of the world’s largest refugee settlement — and achingly far from home.
“Where we come from, we do not bury our dead people in the bush,” Malish said. “We bury our people in the compound, just in the front of the house.”
But the nearly one million refugees sheltering here in northern Uganda have to learn new ways of life, and death.
Malish, a father of six, witnessed killings in South Sudan’s civil war before fleeing last year. His brother was shot dead in the capital, Juba, allegedly by government soldiers, which sent shock waves through family members already living in Uganda.
His sister collapsed and died in Bidi Bidi in late April. A month later, his 78-year-old mother died after an accident that weakened her health.
Now the two lie next to each other in the isolated patch of land designated by Ugandan officials for graves. Malish has decided he can at least buy cement to make markers that won’t wash away.
The Bidi Bidi settlement has filled with people telling stories of violence and despair. Many hope to start afresh here. But some reach safety only to fall victim to meningitis, malaria and other tropical diseases.
When they die, their families face a dilemma: bury them without the traditional customs, or carry them home and face war again.
And now Bidi Bidi is running out of accessible land. Uganda’s government has received global praise for the way it welcomes refugees, even giving them plots for cultivation. But officials say they are overwhelmed as South Sudan’s refugees pour in.
Over 950,000 refugees now shelter in northern Uganda, most of them in Bidi Bidi, with more than 1,000 arriving daily.
A total of 100 refugees died in two of Bidi Bidi’s five zonal areas between December and May, according to the aid group International Rescue Committee. It was not possible to get a death toll for the entire refugee settlement since August, when it opened.
Most of the land here is customarily held, fiercely protected by clan leaders who know the boundaries and can apprehend trespassers.
Musa Ecweru, a Ugandan government minister in charge of refugees, said the government has been able to resettle refugees so far with the backing of locals who believe they eventually will return home.
The government also is working with local leaders to designate appropriate areas as cemeteries, Ecweru said.
Yet it comes too late for refugees like Tito Modi, who wished to bury his grandchild not far from the family’s new homestead but was refused by the authorities.
Instead the two-month-old baby, who died this month of meningitis, was buried in the same area that holds Malish’s mother and sister.
“In our culture, small children like that cannot be buried in a cemetery. It is a pain, but there is nothing we can do,” Modi said. “That place they gave us, really it cannot be a place for burying people.”
As the fighting continues in South Sudan with little promise of peace, Uganda’s government and the United Nations are appealing for $8 billion to deal with what has been called the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.
Modi said he hopes South Sudan’s warring leaders can find a way to end the years of violence, “so that we go to our land and live the normal way.”