Gatwal Gatkuoth was about 11 years old when war in Sudan forced him to flee hundreds of miles, alone, to Uganda as a refugee. Now he works to end wars. When COVID struck Uganda, the nation’s sudden shutdown caught Gatkuoth touring remote refugee camps, seeking ways to help Africa’s largest refugee population survive the pandemic. So when the U.N. Security Council called him weeks ago to ask his advice on improving efforts to build peace, Gatkuoth’s briefing over an unstable cellphone line came straight from a fragile front line of human need.
Gatkuoth’s life as a young cowherd capsized in 2002. In grasslands near the White Nile River, Sudanese troops assaulted the camp where boys from his clan were minding their families’ cattle. Gatkuoth’s barefoot sprint away from gunfire would be his first steps in a months-long trek through Sudan’s civil war to years of life in exile. Living without a family in a camp of refugees from what would become the independent nation of South Sudan, Gatkuoth was saved, he says, by a benefactor who sent him to school. Only that education, Gatkuoth says, let him eventually return home to find his parents as a young man, and then to create an organization working with youth to end South Sudan’s grinding civil war. He says training from USIP has strengthened his work.
Gatkuoth does much of his peacebuilding work with refugees, engaging them to help resolve the wars that expelled them. His urgent message now is that the world’s privileged may be failing to notice the crisis of hunger for many among the 71 million people uprooted by war and the hundreds of millions of others living amid violent conflict. COVID’s disruption of economies and budgets has forced a 30 percent cut in flour rations for the 1.4 million refugees in Uganda. “We have to help refugees survive by giving them more chances to work and feed their families,” Gatkuoth said. Uganda has modelled the approach with its rare policies offering refugees farmlands and the right to travel and work, he said.
In April, Gatkuoth had ridden buses to Uganda’s western border to survey conditions for refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. To prepare his briefing for U.N. leaders, he used the sporadic electricity supply at a rural guesthouse to charge his laptop and write his appeal to the world’s nations. In a bare bedroom, he buttoned on a dress shirt and tie he uses for formal presentations, sat before his laptop camera and turned on his cellphone hotspot. Over that thread of connectivity from New York, Gatkuoth listened to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and others at the Security Council. Finally invited to speak, he introduced himself and his cause: “Excellencies, for me peacebuilding has become a necessity. I want to break the cycle of conflict … and contribute to a peaceful future where my own children don’t have to experience violence.”
How to Fight a ‘Hunger Pandemic’
The United Nations' World Food Program amplifies Gatkuoth’s warning that COVID is spreading hunger among refugees—indeed doubling the number of people globally who risk starvation by December, from 130 million to 265 million. “We are also on the brink of a hunger pandemic,” according to WFP Executive Director David Beasley. South Sudan is a worst case, with 61 percent of its people already short of food. The hunger pandemic also particularly menaces Yemen, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, Haiti, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The United Nations reported May 5 receiving $1 billion in promised new funding from governments to help prevent COVID from spreading a new scourge of poverty, conflict, and disease in 63 poorer countries. Two days later, U.N. officials said updated assessments show the need this year has escalated to $6.7 billion. With COVID’s costs spiking faster than any fundraising, Gatkuoth noted, the United Nations “has cut its ration of flour for each refugee in Uganda to just eight kilograms of flour instead of 12 kilograms.”
“The best way to help refugees—and the inexpensive way for host governments—is to give them ways to earn their own income,” said Gatkuoth. Uganda has won praise for years with policies that “do better than many countries,” Gatkuoth said. “Refugees can receive land to farm, they can move around the country instead of being imprisoned in camps. So they can engage in some small-scale trading. They have the right to employment, and they can get mobile money accounts to do their business.” Uganda offers “training in skills like bricklaying, carpentry and literacy, which makes them productive contributors to the local economy.” After five years, he said, “your assistance as a refugee is reduced because you are expected to be more independent economically.”
Underfunding, COVID Threaten Refuge
But even before COVID, it was unclear that Uganda’s relatively open policies toward refugees could be sustained. Amid the world’s applause for Uganda, the United Nations declared it a pilot country for a new global approach to helping refugees—and convened a 2017 donors’ conference to raise $2 billion for the improved policies. The international community provided only $350 million, and it has failed to meet the U.N. appeal for refugees in Uganda every year since. Last year, donors provided only 39 percent of the funds sought for refugee assistance. As well, Uganda’s open approach to refugees has been troubled by findings of corruption in its programs.
Now COVID has prompted Uganda, like many countries, to close its frontiers to refugees, and last week more than 10,000 people fleeing fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo were reportedly massed at Uganda’s border. In Uganda’s refugee camps and Kampala, Gatkuoth has been talking with residents and aid officials to seek ways to reduce COVID’s degradation of people’s lives. “Many refugees are more afraid that they may die of hunger than that the coronavirus,” he said. Curfews and travel restrictions prevent refugees, like others, from seeking income, health care or schooling.
At the Kiryandongo refugee settlement, one of the world’s largest, “pregnant women cannot get access to care” in the nearby town of Bweyale, Gatkuoth said. “We are trying to organize ways for Kiryandongo’s people to help themselves, perhaps by organizing and training traditional birthing attendants and providing medical supplies.”
Building Peace Through Civil Society
Like other South Sudanese, Gatkuoth voices frustration at the six years of civil war and the failure so far to implement two peace accords. After the second agreement, in 2018, the warring factions needed 19 months, until February, simply to agree to form a government. “The slow implementation of this accord has left a power vacuum in the different states,” said Gatkuoth. “There is no administrative authority. So different groups are fighting every day—in land disputes, cattle raiding, child abductions. After these years of war now the country is drenched in weapons,” so local conflicts are deadlier than ever. “In the north the fighting is almost daily in Jonglei, Unity and Warrap” states, he said.
In the face of that continued violence, Gatkuoth and other young activist peacebuilders are working to build civil society, and a basis for peace in South Sudan, among the country’s 2 million-plus refugees. His Young Adult Empowerment Initiative is one of more than 50 South Sudanese civic organizations “working at the grass roots among the refugees to break down stereotypes” and enmities among ethnic and tribal groups, Gatkuoth said. In his April 27 briefing to the U.N. Security Council, he urged better implementation—by the United Nations and governments—of decisions to widen the inclusion of women and young people in the work of ending violent conflicts.
For now, the COVID lockdown has forced Gatkuoth to halt much of his direct peacebuilding work in refugee settlements, because bringing people to new understanding and comity with opposed groups requires face-to-face meetings. Such efforts cannot be moved online in refugee communities that lack electricity and internet access.
“My usual work depends on daily contacts with the communities,” Gatkuoth said. “In my organization, I’m one of two or three people with access to the internet”—through his cellphone hotspot. So his team is shifting to other communication efforts—translating new materials into South Sudanese languages for sharing in the refugee camps, and working with international organizations on ways to counter the refugee hunger and poverty that is now being deepened by COVID.