For War Refugees, Bedsheets Are a Reminder of Home

Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese fled with only what they could carry.

Irene Sonia is a 17-year-old South Sudanese refugee living in Bidibidi, a South Sudanese settlement in Uganda. She hopes to someday become an accountant.

On her first day in the sprawling South Sudanese settlement of Bidibidi in Uganda, home to almost 300,000 refugees, Swedish-German photographer Nora Lorek approached a woman and asked what she’d brought from home. “Nothing,” she replied, “except for some clothes wrapped in my bedsheet.” Lorek scribbled, “bedsheet???” in her notebook.

Civil war between the north and south has plagued Sudan on and off since the 1950s. In 2011, South Sudan separated from Sudan and became the world’s newest country. Soon after, in 2013, a power struggle erupted between leaders, and the country plunged into civil war. There were periods of quiet, but in 2016, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of independence, a peace deal fell apart and war resumed.

Every day thousands of refugees streamed across the border into Uganda, where they’re allowed to work, farm, and go to school. For some it was their second, third, or fourth time fleeing home. Bidibidi soon became one of the world’s largest refugee settlements. In August 2017 the millionth refugee arrived since fighting started in 2013. Uganda has one of the world’s more progressive refugee policies, but the number of new arrivals threatened to strain its hospitality.

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