It wasn’t the reports that street-fighting had reached South Sudan’s capital of Juba or that mercenaries were raiding villages in nearby Equatoria State; the first signs of the coming humanitarian crisis were the ghost-like figures wandering into the border towns of Uganda’s West Nile Sub-Region—many of them children, many of them alone. It was the summer of 2016 and millions of South Sudanese were preparing to flee their newly-independent nation, while just across the border in northwest Uganda, a harsh frontier land of savannah, sand and thicket was about to become Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement (pop. 285,000).
Bidi Bidi was an attempt by the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Ugandan government’s Office of the Prime Minister to resolve the region’s recurring cycle of conflict and humanitarian response by creating a permanent refugee city. And within weeks of the emerging crisis, government-issued construction trucks and emergency vehicles were clogging the single dirt road that links Uganda’s isolated northwestern province to the rest of the country, bands of foreign aid workers were haggling for rooms in the handful of hotels typically reserved for long-haul truck drivers and Congolese merchants, and Ugandan military forces were deployed to the border.
The second chapter of Refugee Archipelago chronicles the origins of Bidi Bidi from the perspectives and experiences of host communities, UN administrators, Ugandan relief workers, and Richard Akim, a South Sudanese refugee who dreams of becoming a filmmaker before a merciless orgy of violence strips him of his family and forces him to flee to Uganda, where he struggles to tell his own story and those who have no recourse to tell their own.