On a rainy day in northern Uganda, Esther Ojabajon surveys the small plot of land that is now her home. Her children pull up handfuls of the tall grass, burning it to prepare the land to build a shelter of wood and tarpaulin.
Sheltering from the rain in a makeshift tent, Esther described how she and her seven children – the youngest only three years old – ran for their lives when fighting broke out in South Sudan: “I heard gunshots in our village and ran at night.”
Once they crossed the border, the family first registered as refugees at the congested Elegu collection point before waiting in a transit centre until they could move to the Pagarinya refugee settlement.
Here, they felt secure. “I haven’t heard any gunshots since I arrived,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about having to protect my children because they are free and safe.”
Esther, 43, believes she can create a better life for her family. “Even though we are far from the nearest town right now, I have hope that our lives will be better.”
She was already making plans: “I can dig my plot and grow peanuts, maize, sorghum and leafy green vegetables.”
This morning, Esther’s two eldest children, Calisto, 20, and Manuele, 17, went to find the settlement’s school to resume their interrupted education.
Fighting between rival factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar broke out in the world’s youngest country on July 7, forcing people to flee to Uganda.
So far 44,557 have made the journey. Last week an average of 4,000 people per day crossed the border.
At its peak, Elegu collection point, equipped to accommodate 1,000 people, hosted more than 11,000 new refugees. The influx soon filled the recently-opened Pagirinya settlement, requiring UNHCR and the Government of Uganda to rapidly look at opening new settlement areas.
Pagirinya settlement, which stretches in grid formation over rolling hills around 25 kilometres south of the point where the White Nile separates Uganda from South Sudan, has grown rapidly in recent weeks.
Josephine Nakabuubi Ssenyunja, a UNHCR field assistant at the site, said the new reception centres under construction at Pagarinya would accommodate about 15,000 refugees. Some will be allocated a plot nearby, while others will move to two new settlements.
UNHCR staff were being redeployed from refugee settlements in the south and mid-west of Uganda, and partner organizations were doing their utmost to set up health clinics in newly erected tents, she said.
Elias Lazerus Moga, who arrived in Uganda as a refugee on Sunday, recognized the settlement commandant because he had lived as a refugee in Uganda from 1989 until 2008, when he returned home to the town of Loa in Eastern Equatoria state.
Elias, 54, said he noticed differences at the settlement compared with when he first arrived nearly three decades ago.
“The refugees are much more integrated with the local community because we can do bulk farming together,” he said. “I could walk easily to my plot because roads have been built before the people arrived. It wasn’t like this years ago.”
Sibo Mutanguha, a UNHCR child protection officer in Pagarinya, said more than 65 per cent of the settlement’s population were below the age of 18.
Slightly built and talkative, Marta Abau, 21, is expecting her third child. Fearful of the growing insecurity, she fled her home town of Torit on July 6, a day before violence and looting flared up. Fast-tracked through the system, she received her plot of land two weeks ago.
Standing in the mud and stick house that is now her home, Marta considered her options. The plot she was allocated was covered with fist-sized rocks which need to be cleared.
“It’s too difficult for me to clear the rocks straightaway because I have a young child,” she said, gesturing to three-month-old Godfrey, slung on her back.
“But I have already made a deal with a neighbour to use a strip of her plot in exchange for some beans.”
Marta has to make up for lost time. She spent several days in the Adjumani hospital recovering from malaria, and when she returned she found that she could no longer find the tarpaulin, cooking pot and blanket issued to her by UNHCR.
Settlement officials made arrangements for her to receive replacements the next day. “I’m going to work hard to rebuild my life here. I’ll grow maize, cassava and green vegetables for my family because, as long as there is war in South Sudan, I am not going back there,” she said with determination. “This is my home now.”