The engines roar down the runway. A small plane, with 20 seats in all, lifts me into the sky. The sun is barely up, but it shines off the waters of Lake Victoria, which from the air, looks like the ocean. Once we are airborne, we are above the clouds. The sky is brilliant blue up here. The view from my window looks like peace. A sea of smooth white clouds as far as I can see. In the distance, the sky and the clouds meet with a blue line between them. Higher up, there are wispy clouds above. The whole scene makes me think of flying over the ocean.
It is hard to believe that below this peaceful view there is war happening, people starving, children orphaned or abandoned, and fleeing for their lives. It is hard to believe people directly below me are trapped by war, in a country that is not their own. We land on a dirt airstrip and once my things are dropped off and we pick up the team of three who are already here, we are off to visit the refugee camp to see for ourselves.
The road is an hour and a half of potholes which shake the van so that it rattles loudly. Along the way, we pass women carrying babies on their backs and loads upon their heads…branches, tubs of water, produce in bags, and buckets full of wet clothing they have just walked miles to wash. The babies are strapped to their mothers’ backs, in what looks like an uncomfortable position, but they sleep soundly there. There are young boys herding brahma cows along the road. Other young ones carry water buckets for miles to fill them at the nearest borehole. The men ride motor bikes, or bicycles, or are on foot. All along the road…going however many miles it takes to survive for this day.
The land in the dry season is desolate. Dust is everywhere. Many of the trees are bare and what little grass there is, is brown. There is a breeze, but the sun is brutal in its heat. The camp is not what I imagined it to be like. The people are more spread out and many have built huts made of mud to replace the tarps the UN gave them. Thatch roofs dot the landscape all around. They seem randomly placed, as if the people stopped and said this looks good, I’ll put my house here. On each plot, there are multiple “buildings” all made of a kind of mud or homemade bricks. Strung between them, clotheslines are filled with clothes of multiple sizes and colors, the same ones the women walked miles to wash. It is the only color amidst the muted surroundings.
It is currently brick making season. There are piles of dirt with men and boys in them. They are chopping it into finer pieces before mixing it with water to make mud. Then they pour the mud into a rectangular mold before moving on to the next one. Rows and rows of bricks lie in the sun to dry. Once dry, they are stacked into huge piles, which I am told are then burned to make them hard. It is only some of the backbreaking work I see. In fact, everywhere I look I see heavy loads, carried simply for survival. They walk for water. They make bricks. They cook over fires, in the heat of the day. They work dying gardens. They attempt to grow their food so they will have some beyond the once a month delivery from the UN.
Their eyes are mostly blank from the day to day routine. Walking along doing what they must, in the blazing sun and dust. I do not witness too many smiles along the road, but neither do I sense fear. They seem to have left the horror of war behind them and only deal with surviving today, in order to survive tomorrow, and the day after, and after. I recognize the look of simply putting one foot in front of the other. Moving, because if you don’t you will die. These are strong people. Hard and tired. They are brittle like the bricks, and their lives have seeped away out of their eyes, leaving them to fend for themselves in whatever way they can. Their dignity has been stolen by war. The land in the camps seems void of joy and hope. The spark which you see in people when they laugh and smile is not present here.
Within the camp, which is like its own city, there are settlements. The settlements are kind of like neighborhoods, only more random and spread out. In Rhino Camp, there are many settlements. Over 250,000 people are in this camp alone, and it is not even the biggest one. There are many more, all along the Ugandan boarder with South Sudan. It is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. The NGOs (non-government organizations) are all here doing some work, but there are so many people it is difficult. Feeding them all, for who knows how long, is not a viable solution, but seems to be the only one we have at the moment. I am overwhelmed at the size and scope of the crisis. It is a mass of humanity all looking with curiosity as we pass by. All of this before we even get out of the van. God’s heart is broken for these people…so is mine.