As a team of peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) entered Kajo-Keji town, scenes and smells of burnt houses and bat urine hung heavy in the air.
The same could be said of the void left behind by people fleeing their houses in 2017, when fighting escalated between government security forces and armed groups in the area.
But a handful of people are now choosing to end a life of refuge and trickling back to lighten the desolate situation.
“Living in the refugee camps is a matter of life and death. You take several days to fetch a jerrycan of water due to long queues,” said Reida Yoka, a 40-year-old female returnee from Pasu refugee settlement in Uganda’s Moyo district.
As many as 9,000 residents are reported to have arrived back in the area either from neighbouring countries or from their hideouts within the country.
“Even collecting firewood was at the mercy of the indigenes who did not want the cutting of their trees,” said Reida, continuing her tale of tough times away from home, before declaring, “I hope you have finally brought us lasting peace.”
The hardships in the camps are not limited to water and firewood collection, though, as Cecilia Konga, a 40-year-old mother of three and returnee from Palorinya refugee settlement, also in Moyo, recounted several ills affecting youngsters in the camps.
“Children are becoming anti-social; they go to night clubs and discos. Teenage pregnancies are widespread, drug abuse cases are high, and the level of trauma is beyond measure. I don’t know if our children will return home as true human beings!” Ms. Konga recalled, enumerating a host of challenges.
“When you go to the hospital,” she continued, “you get only painkillers for malaria. I am praying for peace to prevail so that all our people who are dying of minor diseases will come home to rebuild their broken lives.”
Even back home in Kajo-keji, livelihood conditions are dire, with basics hard to come by.
Residents recounted a litany of issues affecting them, including cattle raids, rape, widespread hunger, vandalizing and looting of medical, educational and other facilities, poor quality of drinking water and lack of shelter for both residents and returnees.
Kajo-Keji Town Primary School is the only educational facility operating in the county, with an enrollment of 250 pupils, 180 of whom are girls. The school has 10 teachers, all of whom are volunteers.
“Due to a lack of support for the teachers, there is no motivation. The pupils, too, survive on fruits, and when they go for lunch at mid-day, they do not return for classes, as they go foraging abandoned compounds to find something for lunch,” said Moses Pijakole, Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) secretary in Kajo-Keji County.
Greater Kajo-Keji comprises four counties of Kajo-Keji itself, Nyepo, Kangapo and Liwolo.
“We are drinking water from boreholes that are decaying, making the water yellowish, and when you cook with it the sauce turns black and unattractive,” said a local area chief of Likamerok Boma of Kajo-Keji County, Martin Lubajo.
“I eat once a day if I can find it, and if not, I go to bed hungry, like I did yesterday. Even today, as I have nothing at hand, I will go bed hungry, too,” Mr. Lubajo said.
But the area chief of Nyepo County, James Modi, had a different version of what triggered the exodus of the people of his county into refugee camps, including the reckless behaviour of cattle keepers who allowed their animals to storm farmland, and who pride in taking other people’s cattle as their own.
“We are talking about food, water, medicine and peace, but the issue of cattle is a threat to our peace and existence. If the government does not send the cattle keepers away, we shall sing songs of peace in vain,” Mr. Modi said, adding, “crops and cattle have no harmony.”
He continued, “The people who raid cattle dress in military uniform, and they possess more sophisticated weaponry than those in the hands of government security organs: machineguns, rocket propelled grenades and brand-new Kalashnikovs. Where do the so-called cattle keepers get their ammunition?” he asked.
“We do not share borders with the cattle keepers. What we need is not social cohesion, but we demand that these cattle be taken back to Jonglei State where they came from. The government has a sole responsibility to ensure these cattle are removed from our land.”
Over 2,500 herds of cattle have so far been lost since the cattle rustling started in the area nearly two years ago.
Edward Narsuk Gonda, a resident of Kigwo Boma of Kangapo County, said he lost 255 herds of cattle when the raiders invaded his village last year.
“The loss of my cattle has reduced me next to nothing. I used to support the schooling of my four younger brothers by selling milk and meat, but now my source of income is all gone. I don’t know how we are going to survive without them,” Mr. Gonda recalled.
To Nelson Lupai, a 38-year-old Kajo-Keji area youth leader, signing a peace agreement without putting practical steps to restore peace and tranquillity is not enough.
“Peace has been signed, and that is good enough, but what matters greater than all else is the behaviour, confidence and trust that the peace will offer to the citizens,” Mr. Lupai said. “Our leaders have to design a mechanism to end the suffering of the people by implementing the peace fully.”
“If soldiers still move about in villages with guns, it means that the leaders of this country doubt the peace they have signed, and this sends a wave of despair as it undermines the overall peace process.”
Mary Lipu, another resident of Nepo County who also returned from a refugee camp recently, said she is eating only enough to survive, and that she compromises quality to quantity to be able to do just that.
“I have to reduce the quality of my sauce by adding much more water to increase its quantity to last for at least three days. When it is about to go stale, I boil it once again and add local salt (kombo in Kuku dialect) to rejuvenate its taste. Life here is hard enough,” Ms. Lipu said.
“I live in a place not worthy to be called a house, but I am happy because I am back home…and there is no substitute for it.”
Greater Kajo-Keji County commissioners have issued a local order recently, prohibiting the removal (from houses), sale and cross-border movement of doors, windows and iron sheets outside the county. Greater Kajo-Keji comprises four counties, including Kajo-Keji itself, Nyepo, Kangapo and Liwolo.
“I want to appeal to all UN agencies, funds and programmes, including governmental and non-governmental organizations, to intervene and support our suffering population with whatever they can to rescue us from this humanitarian catastrophe,” said Moses Pijakole, Relief and Reintegration Commission Secretary in Kajo-Keni County.
Lauro Okello Ohiyu, the Team leader of the Relief, Reintegration and Protection of UNMISS’ Field Office in Juba, said that the peacekeeping body was willing to do what it could to help send the appeals of the suffering population to those who would be willing and able to support.
“We have come here to see things for ourselves, that there are people here who need humanitarian intervention. We are not going to keep quiet; we are going to share your grievances with our partners to see how to help you out,” Mr. Ohiyu said, before delivering a message of hope. “But overall, all this suffering you are going through will come to an end once peace is restored in the country,” he said.