Congolese cross-border trader’s Ebola death fuels Uganda outbreak fears

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese health worker prepares to administer Ebola vaccine, outside the house of a victim who died from Ebola in the village of Mangina in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 18, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – A Congolese woman who died of Ebola this month vomited four times in a Ugandan market after crossing the border days earlier to sell fish, the WHO said, fuelling fears that the virus may be spreading beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The current outbreak of the highly infectious disease has been all but confined to Congo, killing 1,673 people there – more than two-thirds of those who contracted it – over the past year, and three in Uganda last month.

A World Health Organization panel is debating whether to declare the outbreak “of international concern”, a designation that the agency’s head suggested a case this month in the large Congolese city of Goma had made more likely.

The fisherwoman traveled across the border to Mpondwe market on July 11, according to a Ugandan Health Ministry report published on Wednesday by the WHO.

It said 19 fishmongers were listed as having had possible contact with her while another 590 could be targeted for vaccination.

The health response to the virus relies on tracking down and testing people who may have been exposed to it and vaccinating them and anybody they have had contact with.

Ugandan and Congolese officials were working to find people who might have been put at risk by the dead woman, who appeared to have used an illegal border crossing, health ministry spokesman Emmanuel Ainebyona said.

So far “no one has been found to be positive of the Ebola virus. The team is still monitoring the tested traders,” he said.

The report said health workers had not established where the fishmonger spent nights, who transported her merchandise and who cleaned up her vomit.

The Ministry and the WHO said there were currently no confirmed Ebola cases in Uganda.

The WHO’s emergency committee of international experts were meeting on Wednesday for a fourth time to consider if the 11-month outbreak constituted a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC), and will announce their decision at 1700 GMT.

A PHEIC declaration would be just the fifth in WHO history and include recommendations for international action. It could also help unlock sorely needed funds.

Last month the committee decided the potential disruption of declaring one risked causing economic harm while achieving nothing.

But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that the case in Goma was a potential game-changer since it meant Ebola might now spread among the urban population and into neighboring Rwanda.

A separate WHO report cited a very high risk for Uganda’s Arua district, which borders a Congolese area where an Ebola patient died after having had contact with over 200 people. Two deaths in Arua were under investigation.

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Nairobi newsroom; Editing by Gareth Jones and John Stonestreet)

Family sent back to DR Congo after two die of Ebola in Uganda

A health worker checks the temperature of a woman as she crosses the Mpondwe border point separating Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the ebola screening at the computerised Mpondwe Health Screening Facility in Mpondwe, Uganda June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Newton Nabwaya

By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Authorities repatriated the relatives of two people who died of Ebola in Uganda back to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday, including a 3-year-old boy confirmed to be suffering from the disease, the Ugandan health minister said.

The cases marked the first time the virus has crossed an international border since the current outbreak began in Congo last August. The epidemic has already killed 1,390 people in eastern Congo.

The family sent home on Thursday had crossed from Congo to Uganda earlier this week and sought treatment when a 5-year-old boy became unwell. He died of Ebola on Tuesday. His 50-year-old grandmother, who was accompanying them, died of the disease on Wednesday, the ministry said.

They were the first confirmed deaths in Uganda in the current Ebola outbreak.

The dead boy’s father, mother, 3-year-old brother and their 6-month-old baby, along with the family’s maid, were all repatriated, the minister’s statement said.

The 3-year-old has been confirmed to be infected with Ebola. His 23-year-old Ugandan father has displayed symptoms but tested negative, Ugandan authorities said.

“Uganda remains in Ebola response mode to follow up the 27 contacts (of the family),” the statement said.

Three other suspected Ebola cases not related to the family remain in isolation, the ministry said.

The viral disease spreads through contact with bodily fluids, causing hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.

UGANDA PRECAUTIONS

Authorities in neighboring Uganda and South Sudan have been on high alert in case the disease spreads.

On Thursday, Uganda banned public gatherings in the Kasese district where the family crossed the border. Residents are also taking precautions, local journalist Ronald Kule told Reuters.

“They are a little alarmed now and they realize that the risk of catching Ebola is now real,” he said.

“Hand washing facilities have been put in place, with washing materials like JIK (bleach) and soap. There’s no shaking of hands, people just wave at each other.”

At the border, health workers checked lines of people and isolate one child with a raised temperature, a Reuters journalist said.

Uganda has already vaccinated many frontline health workers and is relatively well prepared to contain the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sent 3,500 doses of a Merck experimental vaccine to Uganda this week, following 4,700 initial doses.

Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, said that he expected Uganda to approve the use of experimental therapeutic drug treatments, to be shipped “in coming days”.

Monitoring and vaccination had been stepped up, but there had been “no panic reaction” so far to the cases there.

The WHO has said it will reconvene an emergency committee on Friday to decide whether the outbreak is an international public health emergency and how to manage it.

Authorities have struggled to contain the disease partly because health workers have been attacked nearly 200 times this year in conflict-hit eastern Congo, the epicenter of the outbreak.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Omar Mohammed and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Uganda makes arrests in kidnap of American tourist and her guide

U.S. tourist Kimberly Sue Endicott poses with her guide, Jean Paul Mirenge in Uganda, April 7, 2019, in this image taken from social media. Wild Frontiers/via REUTERS

By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Uganda said Tuesday some suspects had been arrested in connection with last week’s kidnap of an American tourist and her tour guide in a national park while a minister told a local TV that a ransom had been paid to free them.

Tourist Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and guide Jean Paul Mirenge-Remezo were ambushed and seized by gunmen as they drove in Queen Elizabeth National Park in the country’s southwest near the border with Democratic Republic of Congo on April 2.

It’s one of Uganda’s most visited parks, home to antelopes, lions, elephants, hippos, crocodile and leopards.

The kidnappers later demanded a ransom of $500,000. On Sunday Ugandan security officials said they had rescued the pair unharmed near the border.

In a statement on Tuesday, police said: “The joint security team actively investigating the kidnapping incident … has made some arrests of suspects, on suspicion of being involved.”

Police did not give details about the suspects but said they had been detained during “raids and extensive searches” in Kanungu district, more than 400 km (250 miles) southwest of the capital Kampala.

On Tuesday, junior tourism minister, Godfrey Kiwanda Ssubi, told NBS TV that a ransom was paid to secure the victims.

“Whatever these people (kidnappers) demanded for was paid,” Ssubi said.

“The money had to be taken … everything was done to save the lives of these people.”

Ugandan security officials had earlier refused to acknowledge the payment despite several reports in local and international media.

The United States has maintained it follows a policy of no concessions to kidnappers although the tour firm that arranged the safari told Reuters the captives were released after a “negotiated settlement” with the assistance of the US government.

In a tweet on Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump urged Ugandan authorities to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice “openly and quickly”.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Uganda says kidnapped American tourist did not take armed guard

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

KAMPALA (Reuters) – An American woman who was kidnapped with her driver at Uganda’s most popular wildlife park by gunmen had failed to take an armed ranger as required by the park’s regulations, a spokesman for the country’s wildlife authority said on Thursday.

Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and Ugandan driver Jean Paul were on a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park when four gunmen ambushed their vehicle on Tuesday evening, police said.

An elderly couple also at the scene were not taken and raised the alarm.

Various illegal groups from Somali militant Islamists to Congolese-based rebels sometimes operate in Uganda, but the kidnappers’ identity was not known.

“We have armed ranger guides, if you’re going out on a drive in the park you’re supposed to have one but these tourists went out on their own without a guard,” Bashir Hangi, spokesman for the state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told Reuters.

“From their camp in the park, they just got into a vehicle and went out. They should have notified us and informed us that they’re going out for a game drive and then we would have availed them a guard but they didn’t do this.”

California-based Endecott and the couple entered Uganda on March 29 and flew the next day to the park in the country’s southwest, the spokesman added.

There was no immediate comment on the progress of the investigation by Ugandan authorities.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Ebola outbreak in east Congo now world’s second biggest

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker wears a protective suit as he prepares to administer Ebola patient care at The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA) treatment center in Beni, North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Fiston Mahamba/File Photo

KINSHASA (Reuters) – The Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo is now the second biggest in history, with 426 confirmed and probable cases, the health ministry said late on Thursday.

The epidemic in a volatile part of Democratic Republic of Congo is now only surpassed by the 2013-2016 outbreak in West Africa, where more than 28,000 cases where confirmed, and is bigger than an outbreak in 2000 in Uganda involving 425 cases.

Ebola is believed to have killed 245 people in North Kivu and Ituri provinces where attacks by armed groups and community resistance to health officials have hampered the response.

Congo has suffered 10 Ebola outbreaks since the virus was discovered there in 1976. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids and causes hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding, and in many flare-ups, more than half of cases are fatal.

“This tragic milestone clearly demonstrates the complexity and severity of the outbreak,” Michelle Gayer, Senior Director of Emergency Health at the International Rescue Committee said in a statement. “The dynamics of conflict (mean) … a protracted outbreak is … likely, and the end is not in sight.”

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; Editing by Tim Cocks and Andrew Heavens)

Congo Ebola outbreak poses high regional risk, says WHO

An ambulance from the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) drives through a street in the town of Beni in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Samuel Mambo

By Tom Miles and Fiston Mahamba

GENEVA/GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – An Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is likely spread over tens of kilometers and poses a high regional risk given its proximity to borders, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday.

Four people have tested positive for Ebola in and around Mangina, a town of about 60,000 people in North Kivu province, 100 km (62 miles) from the Ugandan border, the health ministry said. Another 20 people died from unidentified haemorrhagic fevers in the area, mostly in the second half of July.

Just last week, a previous outbreak on the other side of the Central African country was declared over after killing 33 people.

“It would appear that the risk, as we can surmise for DRC, is high. For the region it’s high given the proximity to borders, particularly Uganda,” said WHO’s emergency response chief Peter Salama.

“We are talking about tens of kilometers but I stress that this is very preliminary information at this stage.”

Ebola is believed to be transported long distances by bats and can find its way into bushmeat sold at local markets and eaten. Once present in humans, it causes haemorrhagic fever, vomiting, and diarrhea and is spread through direct contact with body fluids. Over 11,300 people died of an epidemic in West Africa from 2013 to 2016.

This is the vast, forested central African country’s 10th outbreak since 1976 when the virus was discovered near Congo’s Ebola river in the north. That is more than twice as many epidemics as any other country.

The response to Congo’s previous outbreak was considered a success despite the 33 deaths, as the use of a vaccine made by Merck helped contain the virus.

The kind of Ebola in the latest outbreak has been confirmed as the Zaire strain that the Merck vaccine protects against, Congo’s health ministry said late on Thursday. This should allow health officials to again use what has become the greatest weapon against Ebola epidemics to date.

Still, this outbreak poses new challenges. Eastern Congo is a tinderbox of conflicts over land and ethnicity stoked by decades of on-off war and this could hamper efforts to contain the virus.

About 1,000 civilians have been killed by armed groups and government soldiers around Beni since 2014, and the wider region of North Kivu holds over 1 million displaced people.

“FAST AS POSSIBLE”

Officials in Mangina rushed on Thursday to educate people about the risks of spreading the virus in a town that one local nurse told Reuters had no ambulance service.

Agents were deployed to warn people about the need for strict hygiene and the local radio station passed on messages about how to act, a local journalist said by phone.

“There is a great panic among the local population following the appearance of the Ebola epidemic,” said a nurse by phone, who asked not to be named.

The hospital where she works has already seen three people die recently of haemorrhagic fever. The hospital was awaiting help from the Red Cross to bury the bodies properly, she said.

Meanwhile, Uganda has set up screening at the land border it shares with Congo and at its Entebbe international airport.

“Ebola is highly infectious so we have put in place measures,” Uganda’s Junior Health Minister Sarah Achieng Opendi told Reuters.

An international delegation including officials from the United Nations, the World Bank and the WHO is in Beni, 30 km from Mangina.

(Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Fiston Mahamba in Goma, Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kampala, Writing by Edward McAllister and Tim Cocks, editing by William Maclean and Rosalba O’Brien)

Kenyan rose-farm dam bursts, ‘sea of water’ kills 47

An aerial view of rescue efforts near destroyed houses by flooding water after a dam burst, in Solio town near Nakuru, Kenya May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Thomas Mukoya

SOLAI, Kenya (Reuters) – A dam on a commercial flower farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley burst after weeks of torrential rain, unleashing a “sea of water” that careered down a hillside and smashed into two villages, killing at least 47 people.

The walls of the reservoir, on top of a hill in Nakuru county, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, gave way late on Wednesday as nearby residents were sitting down to evening meals.

Kenya is one of the largest suppliers of cut flowers to Europe, and roses from the 3,500-acre Solai farm are exported to the Netherlands and Germany, according to Optimal Connection, its Netherlands-based handling agent.

The floodwaters carved out a dark brown chasm in the hillside and swept away everything in their path – powerlines, homes and buildings, including a primary school.

The bodies of two women were found several kilometers away as excavators and rescue workers armed with shovels picked through rubble and mud searching for survivors and victims.

Local police chief Japheth Kioko said the death toll could climb. “So far it is 47 dead. We are still on the ground,” he told Reuters.

After a severe drought last year, East Africa has been hit by two months of heavy rain, affecting nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud.

In Solai, Veronica Wanjiku Ngigi, 67, said she was at home brewing tea with her son at around 8 pm (1700 GMT) when his wife rushed in to say the dam had burst and they needed to get to higher ground immediately.

“It was a sea of water. My neighbor was killed when the water smashed through the wall of his house. He was blind so he could not run. They found his body in the morning,” she said. “My other neighbors also died. All our houses have been ruined.”

BOULDERS, ROOTS

Nakuru lies in the heart of Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley, home to thousands of commercial farms that grow everything from French beans to macadamia nuts to cut flowers, nearly all of which are exported to Europe.

The region is dotted with irrigation reservoirs built in the last two decades to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding agricultural sector, the biggest foreign exchange earner for East Africa’s largest economy and a major source of jobs.

Vinoj Kumar, general manager of the Solai farm, blamed the disaster on massive rainfall in a forest above the dam.

“In the past two days the intensity of the rain was high and the water started coming down carrying boulders and roots which damaged the wall,” he told Reuters. “The dam wall cracked and the water escaped.”

Nakuru governor Lee Kinyanjui said 450 homes had been hit by the floodwaters and safety engineers had been sent to inspect three other dams to check for cracks or breaches.

Wanjiku, the survivor, said at least one looked like it was ready to burst. “There is another dam which is also overflowing which is looking risky,” she said. “We are scared.”

One primary school had been closed as a precaution, education officials said. Arriving at the scene, Interior Minister Fred Matiangi pledged central government assistance to those affected.

To date, heavy rains have caused havoc in Kenya, killing 158 people and displacing 299,859, according to the government and Kenya Red Cross. Roads and bridges have been destroyed, causing millions of dollars of damage.

The United Nations UNOCHA disaster agency said 580,000 people had been affected by torrential rain and flooding in neighboring Somalia, while the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia had also taken a hammering, with 160,000 people affected.

The flooding could yet get worse, with heavy rains forecast to continue in the Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria basin over the next few weeks.

(Reporting by Thomas Mukoya, George Obulutsa, Duncan Miriri, Humphrey Malalo and Maggie Fick; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

African migrants in limbo as Israel seeks Uganda deportation deal

Pepole take part in a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Ker

By Maayan Lubell

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel is finalizing a deal to deport thousands of African migrants to Uganda under a new scheme after agreements with Rwanda and the U.N.’s refugee agency to find homes for those expelled fell through.

About 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary program but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.

In January, Israel started handing out notices to male migrants from Eritrea and Sudan giving them three months to take the voluntary deal with a plane ticket and $3,500 or risk being thrown in jail.

The government said from April it would start forced deportations but rights groups challenged the move and Israel’s Supreme Court has issued a temporary injunction to give more time for the petitioners to argue against the plan.

Government representatives told the court on Tuesday that an envoy was in an African country finalizing a deportation deal after an arrangement with Rwanda to take migrants expelled under the new measures fell through.

The representatives did not name the country in court sessions open to the public though Israeli lawmakers have previously said the two countries it was planning to deport migrants to were Rwanda and Uganda.

Israeli Deputy Foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely also identified the countries it was seeking to strike new deportation deals with as Uganda and Rwanda in closed-door comments leaked to Israeli Army Radio.

After the Rwanda deal fell through, the government struck an agreement with the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) to relocate 16,250 migrants to Western countries but Netanyahu scrapped it after an outcry from right-wing politicians furious that thousands more would be allowed to stay in Israel.

The fate of tens of thousands of migrants who entered Israel illegally through its desert border with Egypt and were granted temporary visas has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a national home for Jews and a haven from persecution.

Israeli rights groups say the country can absorb the estimated 37,000 migrants still there, or should find them safe destinations such as those agreed under the defunct UNHCR deal.

The rights groups have accused Netanyahu, who is under police investigation for corruption, of playing political games to appeal to his right-wing supporters.

The government calls the migrants “infiltrators” and says they have come to find work. The migrants and rights groups say they are asylum seekers fleeing persecution.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

The U.N.’s refugee agency and rights groups are also concerned because many of the Africans who left previously for Rwanda and Uganda voluntarily did not get the protection they were promised and some ended up back on the migration trail.

Both countries have denied having any deals with Israel to resettle migrants. Uganda, a key Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants in East Africa, also denied there were discussions about accepting deportees under the new scheme.

“We are not aware of any Israeli envoy here. Let Israelis tell you who that envoy here is going to sign an agreement with, sign with who? With the foreign affairs, with the president, minister of internal affairs, with who? On what date are they signing?” Okello Oryem, Uganda’s junior foreign affairs minister told Reuters on Wednesday.

At the Supreme Court hearing in Jerusalem, one of the three judges asked the state representatives why Uganda was denying the deal, if indeed there was one. The state said it would provide the court with an explanation in a closed session.

Five migrants interviewed by Reuters said they had been told by immigration officials this year that they could go either to Uganda or Rwanda, if they chose to avoid detention.

Ristom Haliesilase, an Eritrean migrant living in Tel Aviv, said he was given until April 15 to decide whether to be deported, or detained.

“My mind is full of worries. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. The first thought I have in the morning is what will they do to me today?” said Haliesilase. “It’s heartbreaking. It breaks the people. It breaks the community.”

Many migrants live in cramped apartments in poor parts of Tel Aviv where eateries serve Eritrean food, clothing stores with signs in Tigrinya display traditional garb, and abandoned warehouses have been converted into makeshift churches.

‘IT’S ALL A SCAM’

Rights groups such as the International Refugee Rights Initiative have been documenting the plight of Eritrean and Sudanese men who have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda for several years.

In the past few months UNHCR has also documented at least 80 cases of Eritreans who found none of the protection promised upon their departure from Israel, prompting them to go on a perilous trail through conflict zones to reach Europe.

Along the way they were subjected to arrests, torture and extortion before trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy, UNHCR said. Israeli rights groups have documented dozens more such cases.

Under the voluntary scheme, asylum seekers say they were given the option of going back to their country of origin, remaining in detention in Israel or flying to a third country where they were promised they could stay and work legally.

Sajir, 27, an Eritrean now living in Uganda, told Reuters by telephone that he flew there in January after spending five months in Israeli detention.

“They said that my life would be sorted there,” Sajir said, speaking in Hebrew. “But it’s all a scam.”

Notices handed out this year to migrants already in detention or those trying to renew their visas have promised residency and work permits in their destination country. “A local team that will meet you at the airport will provide guidance in the first few days,” the document says.

Sajir said when his flight landed in Uganda, he and 10 other migrants were not taken through passport control. “We were taken out the back. Then someone loaded us onto a bus and took us to a hotel,” he said.

The group was met by a man who offered to set them up with traffickers to take them to Sudan, Kenya or Ethiopia – for a price, he said.

“We got no visa, no papers. There is no work here. It is no good. I cannot stay here. I will try to go to Sudan soon or somewhere, to Libya and then to Europe,” Sajir said.

Israel’s Immigration Authority and the prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kampala, Steve Scherer in Rome and Corinna Kern in Tel Aviv; writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by David Clarke)

Hungry South Sudanese refugees risk death in return home for food

Hungry South Sudanese refugees risk death in return home for food

By Jason Patinkin

PALORINYA, Uganda (Reuters) – Oliver Wani found sanctuary from South Sudan’s civil war in a Ugandan refugee camp. But when the food ran out, he returned home only to be killed in the conflict he had fled.

The 45-year-old farmer was one of more than a million South Sudanese living in sprawling camps just across the border in northern Uganda, seeking refuge from the four-year war that has devastated their homeland.

But funding gaps and organizational problems often delay or reduce their meager rations, driving some desperate families back to the lands they fled and underscoring the struggle to cope with Africa’s biggest refugee crisis in two decades.

Refugees from South Sudan have been arriving in Uganda at an average rate of 35,000 a month this year. The Bidi Bidi camp was home to 285,000 people at the end of September, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency, making it the biggest in Africa.

The U.N. agency (UNHCR) said funding had only covered 32 percent of $674 million requested to help refugees in Uganda in 2017 and the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said it was facing a $71 million shortfall for the next six months.

Wani, who cared for his elderly parents, received no food in October because distributions had been delayed, his father Timon said. The memory of the crops Oliver had left behind proved too tempting and he returned to South Sudan to find food.

Two weeks later, other returning refugees recognized his remains alongside another dead refugee on a forest path in South Sudan, where the ground was littered with bullet casings.

“He went back to look for food,” said Timon, a tall, thin man who wiped away tears with his handkerchief as he spoke at a memorial service for his first-born child in the Palorinya refugee camp. “I’m heartbroken.”

DESPERATE REFUGEES

The four-year war in oil-rich South Sudan, a country only founded in 2011, has forced more than a third of its 12 million citizens to flee their homes. Tens of thousands have died, some in ethnic killings, others from starvation and disease.

Palorinya is the second biggest camp in northern Uganda after Bidi Bidi and alone houses 185,000 refugees.

Each refugee is supposed to get 12 kg of grain, 6 kg of dry beans, cooking oil and salt each month, but the U.N.’s WFP said this was delayed in October because grain was scarce in Uganda and the roads to Palorinya were bad.

Food distributions did not start camp until Oct. 26, WFP said. It takes two weeks to complete a distribution, so tens of thousands of refugees did not get any food that month.

Desperate, some returned to the war zone. At least eight refugees from Palorinya were killed in South Sudan after returning to look for food in October, according to family members and the Anglican church, which tracks civilian deaths.

In August and September, when rations were distributed normally, just two refugees from the camp were killed when they returned to find food, the church diocese in South Sudan’s volatile Kajo Keji region said.

Modi Scopas John, chairman of a Refugee Welfare Committee in Palorinya, said refugees were returning home every day.

“If you have nothing to eat, what do you do?” he asked, perched on a plastic chair under a spindly tree. “You have to look for food.”

FOOD SHORTAGES

Wani was killed in Kajo Keji, where the government and two rebel groups are battling for control in a war sparked by a feud between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

Next to Wani lay the body of Yassin Mori, 35, who had also left Palorinya to look for food, according to Mori’s two brothers who ventured into South Sudan to look for him.

Mori left two wives and nine children behind.

“Now we need support because we are left with his children and widows,” Taha Igga, one of the brothers, said at a memorial service in the Ugandan refugee camp.

Mutabazi Caleb, from aid group World Vision, which runs the distributions, said that Palorinya is two months behind other camps in its food distributions.

WFP said it had substituted half the cereal ration with money in September in some other camps so refugees could buy food and was expanding its infrastructure to prevent future delays.

But refugees said even when food arrives, it doesn’t last a month. Of the 12 kg of grain, refugees said they sell one to pay for grinding the rest into flour, and another to buy soap, which is in short supply.

They also complained that the beans were sometimes inedible.

“They are not okay, others are rotten, and they are smelling,” said mother-of-four Liong Viola, 32, picking through her sack of shriveled legumes during an Oct. 26 distribution.

WFP country director El Khidir Daloum said it was investigating the complaint and, “is committed to providing our beneficiaries with the highest quality of food”.

John, the Refugee Welfare Committee chairman, said he urged people to stay in the camps.

“At least let us die here of the hunger rather than go back to South Sudan and be killed like a chicken,” he said.

But hungry refugees often ignore the pleas. At dusk last Saturday, Pastor Charles Mubarak packed extra clothes into a plastic bag to take back into South Sudan where he hoped to harvest cassava fields he left behind when he fled in January.

“As a family, we are 10 in number, and I’m not in position to feed them,” he said. “If I get killed I get killed once, but dying of hunger is too difficult.”

Mubarak kissed each neatly folded shirt as he placed them in the bag.

“If they give us the food rations, I wouldn’t think of going back to South Sudan,” he said. “Food is life.”

(Reporting by Jason Patinkin; editing by Katharine Houreld and David Clarke)

South Sudanese refugees in Uganda near million mark

South Sudanese youths match to attend Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby's visit to Mirieyi refugees settlement camp in Adjumani district, Uganda August 2, 2017. REUTERS/James Akena

By Francis Mukasa

MIREYI, Uganda (Reuters) – Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, prayed on Wednesday with South Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda, home to a nearly million fugitives from a four-year civil war in the world’s youngest nation.

Around 1.8 million people have fled South Sudan since fighting broke out in December 2013, sparking what has become the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis and largest cross-border exodus in Africa since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Most have fled south to Uganda, whose open-door refugee policy is now creaking under the sheer weight of numbers in sprawling camps carved out of the bush.

“The Bible tells us that the refugee is specially loved by God,” Welby, leader of the 85-million strong Anglican Communion, said as he joined in prayers in a camp in the northern district of Moyo.

“Which means you who are refugees are specially loved by God, that Jesus himself was a refugee and he loves you and he stands with you and the suffering that you have is the suffering that he knows. So I pray for you, I will advocate for you.”

Officials from the United Nations UNHCR refugee agency say $674 million is needed to pay for the basic needs of the refugees this year, but so far only 21 percent of those funds have been secured.

The total number of refugees is due to pass a million in the next week, UNHCR officials said. Nor is there any sign of a let-up in the stream of desperate civilians.

Some days it is only hundreds. On others, it is thousands.

In the camps, refugees are already on half their standard food rations of 12kg of maize a month, and now critical services such as health and education are facing cut-backs, UNHCR officials said.

In Bidi-Bidi, the largest of the refugee camps, 180 South Sudanese died in the first six months of the year, nearly half of them small children.

“We came here to hide ourselves from death,” said 31-year-old Moro Bullen, standing next to a row of 16 freshly dug graves, mounds of rust-red earth arranged in three neat rows. Half of the graves were only a meter long.

“We did not come here to die. We came here to be rescued.”

SPLINTERED CONFLICT

Although the roots of the war lie in the animosity between President Salva Kiir, who hails from South Sudan’s powerful Dinka ethnic group, and his former deputy, Riek Machar, a Nuer, it has splintered into a patchwork of overlapping conflicts.

Machar is under house arrest in South Africa, having fled there last year to seek medical attention, but there has been little let-up in the levels of conflict, especially in the Equatoria region abutting Uganda.

“It has evolved significantly. There are many actors. Because there are many actors now it has become more violent. The prognosis is not encouraging in terms of achieving peace,” said Brian Adeba of the Washington-based Enough Project.

Refugees have told Reuters of towns and villages emptied by government forces, dominated by the Dinka, with men, women and children summarily executed, and their bodies mutilated.

Rights groups have also reported widespread rape and looting that the United Nations says indicates ethnic cleansing. It has also warned of a possible genocide in a country that only came into being in 2011, when South Sudan split from Sudan.

The government has denied the reports, and said its troops are merely conducting operations against rebel militiamen.

(Writing by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Ed Cropley and Alison Williams)