By Kuol Arou Kuolnuer
My neighbour, a little girl called Nyanechek, died needlessly in Ayilo refugee settlement two months ago. On Friday, she developed a stomach ache, headache and fever.
Concerned that it might be malaria, her mother Rebecca took her to the nearest Health Centre 45 minutes away, but after queuing for hours, she was told to come back the following day because the centre was closing.
“They didn’t even give me paracetamol, which is what they usually do’, Rebecca told me when I saw her that day. I touched Nyanechek’s forehead. It was boiling hot.
I saw Rebecca again the following day. Nyanechek was still unwell but she decided to keep observing her condition for a while.
After her experience the day before, she didn’t trust that she would get any help if she went to the Health Centre again.
As we talked, she looked up at the clouds gathering in the sky above. She was also conscious of the fact that she had little time left to clear as much space as she could in her small patch of farmland before the rains started to fall. We said our goodbyes and Rebecca went to her farm.
At home, Nyanechek’s 14-year-old sister Sarah kept an eye on her while catching up with her studies. Classes are now broadcast on radio since schools closed down across Uganda in March.
Nearby, kids crouched together in a circle playing with clay. Nyanechek lay on the floor on the veranda with both her arms squeezed between her thighs, shivering.
As Rebecca cleared her farm, she thought of the life she was trying to rebuild, away from the violence in South Sudan, which had forced her to flee with her four children four years earlier.
So far, she had managed to build two grass-thatched huts and to fence them with wooden slats. She had enrolled her children at the local school and she worked hard every day to cultivate her small patch of farmland. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely better than life in our home country.
Then a neighbour came running. Nyanechek had made a turn for the worse. Rebecca rushed back home and found her daughter having convulsions.
She grabbed her and ran to the Health Centre. But it was a Saturday – they only work half days – and by the time she got there it was shut.
Not knowing what else to do, she waited on the footsteps of the clinic for a few hours, praying that a nurse would come by.
No one came so she took Nyanechek back home. At 3am on Sunday morning, Nyanechek’s breathing became laboured. Rebecca ran back to the Health center.
At 7am a Doctor informed her that her beautiful Nyanechek Monyjok was dead. The Doctor told her that the cause of death was anemia but no tests were done to confirm this.
The next time I saw Nyanechek she was wrapped in a sheet in her mother’s arms. In 2014 a child had died in my arms and seeing Nyanechek’s tiny two-year-old frame all wrapped up brought it all back.
I have a son myself and he is my pride and joy. I was furious when Rebecca told me that the nurse had told to take her daughter home, and that she didn’t know what to do with her body.
I walked her home. When we arrived, Nyanechek’s brother and sisters saw the tears on their mother’s face and the bundle in her arms and broke down, throwing themselves on the ground.
It was heartbreaking. Other neighbours came in to condole with them.
As a South Sudanese refugee living in Uganda, I have seen my fair share of suffering, but I just can’t let this go. There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.
Why would the nurses at the Health Centre send such a sick child home in the first place? Why are there no medical services for a population of 24,000 people on the weekends?
And why, at a time of Coronavirus, when there are clear protocols on how dead bodies should be handled, was Rebecca sent home with her dead baby?
I am frustrated because I feel like the most vulnerable members of our society are being failed. At a time of global crisis, refugees have already had to face 30% cuts to their food rations.
Children are at home, many unable to attend classes broadcast on TV and radio simply because they don’t own these luxuries. On top of all that, refugees are facing medical negligence.
Ayilo 1 refugee settlement is one of the 19 settlements in greater Adjumani district. It is located across the plains of the land of the Madi people of Uganda.
The view is breathtaking, with hills to the North, West and South. Most people live in grass thatched huts – new homes that they built for themselves when they had to flee South Sudan after violence erupted in our country again in 2013.
We don’t have much, we are survivors. We have survived war, displacement and countless traumas. But this feels like too much.
For years refugees have been complaining about the lack of adequate medical services at the camp. I did not expect that a pandemic that has taken the lives of so many around the world would be handled so badly.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have noticed much anxiety about the lack of healthcare in my community. People feed abandoned.
The system was already struggling before but now there seem to be fewer healthcare workers, and those that are there, are afraid of touching the dead.
When the first cases of Covid were reported in Adjumani district, the healthcare workers were more terrified than the refugee themselves.
They wouldn’t want to touch or come close to patients, leaving the miserable patients to lie helplessly on the hospital veranda or under the trees in the hospital compound.
Besides being poorly paid, the health workers had no personal protective equipment at the time so they would watch and do nothing.
At most, they would give the family protective gloves. The lucky ones would be offered an ambulance with only the driver. Offloading the corpse is up to the relatives.
Bodies are released to the families without instructions. Generally, it is up to them to find means of transportation and to bury their loved ones.
This is making us all more vulnerable to the virus. And I fear that this could unleash a vicious cycle of infections if not addressed urgently.
Sadly, Nyanechek’s story is not the only one I’ve witnessed first-hand or heard about that makes me question the ability of health care providers, the international agencies working at the camps and the host government to protect refugees during this pandemic.
I have attended the funerals of four family members and friends since the start of the global pandemic. I also spoke to a young woman called Achol who told me the story of her father Paul Majok.
He was about 60 years old and blind in both eyes. Achol looked after him in Ayilo settlement. On April 6th he started vomiting and complaining of chest pains.
He had spent days without eating. Worried, Achol took him to the Health Centre. His condition got worse upon admission and at midnight he took his last breath.
The nurse on duty alerted Achol that her father had died and told her to mobilize people to dig the grave in the morning. The cause of death was undisclosed. Family and friends gathered to lay him to rest in a dignified manner, but all were worried that they didn’t know the cause of death.
Like everyone else, refugees are living in fear of contracting Covid-19.
More so because they know that if they get sick, they will not get the healthcare provision that they need.
I know the pandemic has hit the world hard. Even the most economically advanced countries have found it hard to cope.
But I took these pictures because, as the world goes back to focusing on what Donald Trump has said about China or Iran, the plight of refugees and how they are being impacted by the pandemic must not be forgotten.
I cannot help but feel that international agencies and host governments are lying when they say they are helping us. Where is the money going? We are stuck here.
But we should not have to choose between going back home to die by the barrel of a gun, or staying here and risk dying of Corona and hunger.
The writer is the Chairman of the Network of South Sudanese Civil Society Organizations in Uganda.