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The third millennium, awaited as no other century ever before with a thrill of futuristic hope in the power of modernity, all-out technology and progress, has instead brought us into a feverish and unexpected era: that of Exodus. Ours is a world made up of continents that are emptying, endless wars, columns of people crossing deserts and seas. Even time and space have changed. Today’s time is that of fleeing humanity, which has had to rid itself of the past and launched itself into the search for a tomorrow. And yesterday’s spaces, the frontiers, the engine of the history that we have crossed, seem to be collapsing.
The Exodus is desecrating and overwhelming the frontiers, the structures of a world where models taken as absolutes are collapsing or trembling on their hinges. In this framework, new stories take hold, new protagonists appear on the scene, without any analogy with the recent past. On the one hand there are people, the refugees, driven either by their last shred of hope or maybe an extreme reaction to eternal despair, who make a long journey towards their destiny.
On the other there are the places that become lands of arrival, havens, like Uganda, the world’s 163rd poorest country, for decades confined to the margins of the globe, but today a leading player on the contemporary scene. In contrast to the dictates of the market and the logic of pre-established identities, it has created a unique model of reception on a global level, hosting 1.5 million refugees, 85% of whom are women and children: far more than any rich country in Europe.
The bridge at Busia is one of the many clandestine points of entry in the porous border between Uganda and South Sudan. On the South Sudan side are the men of the irregular group SPLML-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition, the South Sudan rebel group opposed to the government forces of President Salva Kiir), while on the Ugandan side the soldiers of Kampala ensure the passage every day to hundreds of people fleeing from a war that, since 2013, has already reaped more than 50,000 victims.
And the African savannah, with its searing temperatures, is the setting for the escape of South Sudanese refugees. The column passing over the small bridge is a line of people who have walked for days: a man clinging to an old bicycle, women with children on their backs and bags in their hands (containing the only belongings they have managed to save) and the elderly who drag themselves along exhausted supported by children and grandchildren. They have defied the ambushes and ethnic reprisals on their journey and everywhere, in their eyes, in their lined faces, in their silences, we observe the presence of tragedy. No words can be heard accompanying them and their sorrow is frightening, because it is mute, seemingly petrified inside them. By the hundreds they have crossed the border and immediately been taken to the collection point, a few yards from the clandestine entry point.
Here, under a small tent, they are registered and receive a first reception. An expanse of orange earth and small shrubs stretches away to the horizon and only the sound of the wind breaks a surreal and unsettling silence. In it we seem to hear, as if borne by the memories of the refugees, the echo of the screams of the wounded, the gunshots fired by the government troops, their prayers on their knees before soldiers drunk with waragi and venom, the fierce and vulgar laughter before the shooting, the weeping of children abandoned to themselves and the crackling of the flames in the burning villages. The echo of all this is etched in the memories of the refugees who have crossed the border between an inferno and a region of limbo where they wait to be restored to life.
Alex is 40. He arrived with his two children and has just finished showing the soldiers, crouched under a tree, the contents of the suitcase he has with him: some clothes, an X-ray plate, a colouring book and then, with the gestures reserved for those objects we cling to with sacred jealousy, because they embody our most secret selves, a dressing gown. He looks at it and clasps it to himself, as if searching in every fold of the fabric for the smell of the hours of love and the words spoken in that thrill of intimacy that more than anything else we think of as life.
And then two silent tears and a childish innocence mark his face like twin scars and reveal the all-encompassing anguish of living when the reason for doing so is lost. “This dressing gown is the only memory I have of my wife. She was captured by the Dinka soldiers and I haven’t heard from her. I don’t know what happened to her. Perhaps she’s been killed, maybe they tortured her or she’s alive and the soldiers’ sex slave.” He breathes deeply and with his forearm wipes his tears in a gesture of moving dignity, and then continues: “I don’t know anything about her. I can only pray she didn’t suffer. It’s the only thing I can do: just pray.” It is pure despair and absolute helplessness. This devastating sorrow, impossible to console, is overwhelming by its strength and the fact that it is the admission of the victory of suffering, in the presence of which the memory is only a splinter of death piercing his heart, killing him day by day. Alex leaves us with these words: “My life is over, I came to Uganda for my children, so they can be sure of having a future and they don’t have to live through what their parents suffered.”
Maneno Bako, 14, is in the same collection centre. She does not dream of returning to South Sudan, neither today nor ever. She dreams of the Land of the Great Lakes and nothing else. During her journey she was stopped by the rebels. She lost her mother and has no news of her father. Together with her sister, her nephews, and another one hundred refugees, she is loaded onto a truck to be taken to the first temporary reception centre, waiting for the start of a new life here in Uganda.
The Land of the Great Lakes has become the biblical point of arrival for over a million African citizens fleeing conflicts and humanitarian crises. One million South Sudanese, 280,000 Congolese, 40,000 Burundians and almost as many Somalis have recently sought refuge in the former British colony. To understand how it is possible for the African nation to give hospitality to almost a 1.5 million people, doing more than any state of the first world has done, we have to retrace the recent history of the country headed by Yoweri Museveni and understand the model of reception devised by the central government. On the one hand the people of Uganda have known at first hand in recent years the drama of war and being forced to flee and, on the other, there is the welcoming process created by Kampala, which works as follows: after entering Uganda, the refugees are registered, receive initial aid and then, in a period ranging from one week to two at most, they are relocated to one of the 30 tent cities present on the national territory.
But the peculiarity lies in the fact that each family receives, in addition to 12 kilos of food per month per person and free health support, also a plot of land of 900 square meters on which to grow food and build their own accommodation. The goal of the government is to assist the refugees towards complete self-sufficiency and full integration into society. For this reason freedom of movement is also permitted throughout the country. Further, a central government law requires 30% of international aid to be assigned to the host regions. This has allowed new infrastructures to be built in the areas where the refugees are housed, with the Ugandan citizens also benefiting by them.
Obviously the Ugandan model is not free from shadows. What is criticised most strongly is the political design of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Uganda’s leader, now in power for over thirty years and seeking to change the Constitution to stay in office for life, by welcoming more than a million refugees, has managed to attract internal approval and sympathy and international political support, so diverting attention from accusations of authoritarianism in his operational modality.
To understand what the lives of refugees are like in Uganda, you just need to visit Rhino Camp, once a tourist safari park and today the country’s second-largest tent city with over 250,000 inhabitants. Gentle hills and an expanse of field tents and huts built with mud and straw reveal the beginning of the tent city.
Among them is Emma Senya, 27, who arrived in the tent city in 2016 together with her two children and those of her neighbours. “We refugees have great sadness in our hearts. For what we have seen, for what we have lost, for the horror we have witnessed. They killed one of my sisters by shooting her in the head. Another had her throat cut.
My husband is still on the other side of the border and it’s been months since I’ve heard from him. What we bear within us is endless sorrow. I’ve created a theatre group and a music group, because in this way, by expressing ourselves through dance, music and acting, we feel less alone in dealing with evil.”