The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: 'I Want to Go Back to Juba'

Photo: Julio Brathwaite/UN
Civilians displaced by fighting at a United Nations facility on the outskirts of Juba. Up to 13,000 civilians have sought refuge at UN compounds.

This festive season has been a happy one for the Meddie Semugenyi household in Kabowa - accidentally.

The South Sudan-based trader is usually at work. But as he told Joseph Kimbowa, rumours of a coup plot in Juba drove him back home - yet he can't wait to go back.

My plan was to make at least Shs 6m in profits from selling second-hand clothes in South Sudan's capital, Juba. All was going well. I had stocked commodities worth Shs 6m and customers were buying.

But on Sunday, December 15, allies of the axed South Sudan vice president, Riek Machar, attempted a coup on his former boss Salva Kiir. Machar's forces invaded Juba, causing an uprising that forced many Ugandans out of Juba.

I could not imagine myself at home during this period. It is a time when we make the biggest catch, but I am here playing with my children, listening to Christmas songs.

Black Sunday:

Just like the other days, I spent Sunday, December 15 at Konyokonyo market selling merchandise and I went to my home in Kasitam Nyakuron, at around 8pm. But there were rumours of an eminent war. An hour later, we started hearing heavy gunfire but since shooting is common in Juba, [people even shoot at stray chicken] we never took it seriously. But the shooting intensified, involving heavy artillery.

All of a sudden, there was a big cloud and huge fire over the city and that is when we knew that there was a serious attack. We could not sleep the whole night. Bullets were falling everywhere and even people in the neighbourhood pulled out their private guns and started shooting in the air.

Together with about 25 other Ugandans, we spent the night hiding in our house. The fighting continued until the next morning and nobody moved out. A barracks called Jebere was attacked by Machar's rebels but they were overpowered by the national army.

Then on Tuesday evening we managed to come out of the houses and buy something to eat and other essential commodities. But the fighting escalated again on Wednesday morning when the rebels [reportedly] attacked the Juba Parliament.

At this point, it was survival for the fittest. Some Ugandans started sneaking to churches, mosques and others to UN camps. We stayed in our house and the good thing is that it was fenced, although our houses are made of papyrus mats 'Kiwempe'.

On Thursday, the roads to Nimule border were opened and we all rushed to get bus tickets for Uganda. This time, the only thing I was thinking about was to go back to Uganda.

The cheapest bus ticket was going for 400 pounds (Shs 250,000) which I did not have. I got a chance to board a Fuso truck at a cheaper price. On the road, there was no fighting but many roadblocks. Luckily, we had been assigned a soldier to escort us up to Nimule and we reached safely.

Huge relief: tough start

Our truck was filled to the brim. At the border, we were not even asked to disembark and pay the usual visa fees. I felt like I was stepping from hell when I finally made it to the Ugandans side of the border.

But when I reached home, my three children were happy to see me, although my heart sunk because I knew I had gone back to zero. I had about Shs 50,000. All my merchandise was still in a store owned by some Arabs and I don't know whether I will find them when I go back.

For two weeks, I have been surviving on begging from friends and taking simple loans. In Juba, I had other people selling my goods but only one of them has communicated and sent me 1,000 pounds (previously worth about Shs 650,000) - the rest say they were robbed of all the money.

Low value:

To make matters worse, the Sudan pound has shrunk in value. Previously I would get Shs 650,000-700,000 from 1,000 pounds, today it is only worth Shs 300,000. Now I feel stuck. I don't have any money; the kids are going back to school, and I'm not sure whether my merchandise is still there.

I have been in close contact with a friend, who operates a video hall in Juba and he says they are now closing at 10pm - which means Juba is safer. I plan to go back on Monday, January 6, but I can't even try to buy new merchandise because I will be going for losses. For instance, I used to buy women's skirts at Shs 2,800 each and sell at Shs 4,900 ( seven pounds) in South Sudan.

But today seven pounds are worth Shs 2,100 which translates into a loss of Shs 700 per piece. Even extra charges are involved. To take a luggage, I pay Shs 150,000 to the transporters while the mere loading is Shs 15,000 and offloading is Shs 30,000 without considering the storage.

Not giving up:

Juba is a risky city but I will go back rather than live in Kampala. There is a lot of potential in South Sudan and that is why many Ugandans are killed and tortured but we continue going back. Last year I invested five million and got 12 million in returns.

You just have to know how to survive in Juba and you will make money. Whenever I travel, I have to make sure that I have at least 1,000 pounds for thieves. If they find you without any money, they will beat you seriously. Even when we sleep, we have to put some money aside in case they break-in.

I also worry about the landlord. We pay ground rent of 150 pounds (Shs 1,000) and then we build temporary houses but within a fenced wall. But even when you pay three months upfront and the landlord gets broke after one month, they can easily come and threaten to throw you out unless you give them more money, while ignoring the earlier payment. That is how to survive.

You, therefore, have to charge higher prices and get enough money for you to double pay the landlord, cater for the thieves and get home with a profit as well.

First trip to Sudan:

I had been operating a video hall in Lugazi but business stalled. I came to Kampala and started helping someone in Owino. I first went to South Sudan in 2008 but started business in 2009.

I had saved Shs 600,000 and I used it to buy used clothes. By then, the people were still less aggressive and they had a lot of money to consume. I made a profit of one million shillings from my first sales. Since then, I have not looked back.

The problem:

We do not have any banking services with branches in Uganda. You either move with the money or send it by mobile money, which is quite costly and risky.

The banks there can't send money beyond 1,000 pounds. They think we are taking away their money. Despite all that money, most people have nothing to show. People say it is quick money and thus cursed.

I'm happy that I have managed to build a house ... and I provide for my children.

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