With Nothing But the Clothes On Her Back

Displacement Emergency Response South Sudan Uganda

Abeer literally ran for her life.

From the sound of bullets in the near distance. From the fear that death was close. From the sense that this was it—now or never.

Run.

Run.

Run.

She grabbed her three grandchildren and fled for the Ugandan border.

WFP/James Akena
I met Abeer and two of her grandchildren in this tent along the border.

And that’s where we met one hot, sunny day in April just a few hundred feet from the wooden gate that marked the border between Uganda and Abeer’s homeland, South Sudan.

I was in Uganda with a film crew capturing the World Food Programme (WFP)’s food relief efforts with South Sudanese refugees. We were there to speak with families and children who had fled conflict and famine and were now starting a new life in Uganda.

But this particular trip to the Ugandan border was unplanned.

It was not supposed to happen.

Late one evening, one of my WFP colleagues, Claire Nevill, got a call saying that South Sudanese government forces had attacked the town of Pajok, very close to the Ugandan border. Some civilians were shot as they tried to flee. One man had his throat slit before his body was strung up from a door frame. Two children were run down by a car. 2,000 people ran for the Ugandan border and hid in the bush.

We scrapped our original plans for the next day and got up at 4:30 a.m. to drive seven hours to the border to meet these refugees, hear their stories and capture it on film.

A man rides a bike past a sign indicating the border
WFP/James Akena
The border between Uganda and South Sudan.

By the time we arrived in Ngomoromo, more than 4,000 people had arrived.

A field with lots of people and makeshift shelters, including one large black tent
WFP/James Akena
The thousands of people who fled their homes gathered here, with nothing.

We drove along a dusty dirt road enveloped in lush, green grass looking for the border until it was unmistakable that we had arrived.

It was the people—the sheer number of people. Hundreds of people walking down the road. Looking listless, hungry, tired, spent.

And this is where I met Abeer. In a tent, clustered with at least 40 other people, avoiding the hot sun, but melting from the humidity of so many bodies packed so closely together in such a small space.

Abeer had the look of someone who had lived a long, hard life. But it was in her eyes that I could see the sadness.

She—like so many others—arrived in Uganda with nothing but the clothes on her back and the three grandchildren she was able to save. She did not know where their parents were or their other sisters and brothers.

WFP was one of the first responders on the scene, rushing to provide food—High Energy Biscuits—to thousands of people clamoring for something to eat.

A small girl holds up two packets of High Energy Biscuits
WFP/James Akena
This child received High Energy Biscuits from WFP at the border.

But amid all of this chaos and suffering, there was hope.

That shocked me.

How could people who have left everything behind feel hope?

“I can now rest my mind,” said Abeer. “I feel at peace.”

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