Students experience first major test as foreign correspondents

As my colleague Victor and I rode along the severely misshapen and weather-damaged road from the base town of Arua to the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda, we confided that we were both incredibly nervous.

We had traveled to the Imvepi refugee settlement the day before with Frederic, a Daily Monitor reporter and our guide through this trip, but we knew it wouldn’t be the same. Imvepi hosts 90,000 South Sudanese refugees, giving us a sense of what was to come. But Bidi Bidi hosts more than 272,000, making it by far the largest refugee camp in the world.

So, as we bumped and slid across the back seat of the SUV, accompanied by Frederic and a driver from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office, we couldn’t help but think about the sort of issues or desperation that awaited us and whether we were prepared enough to really make sense of what we were seeing.

From my prior research and our time at Imvepi, I knew each family of refugees was given a 30-by-30-meter plot of land, which meant that the settlement itself would be extremely spread out. By the time we reached the base camp of zone 1 of the settlement, we had already been seeing the UNHCR logo-emblazoned shelters for more than half an hour.

Two teenagers wait patiently in line with other S. Sudanese refugees at one of the Bidi Bidi health centers to see a member of the inundated medical staff. (Nick Trombola | The Media School)

The base camp was perched on top of a hill overseeing the zone, so as we exited our car and wandered back onto the main road, we could see the little white tents spread across the dense scrubland for miles in every direction.

After receiving a briefing from Monique, a veteran UNHCR field officer and one of the top officials at Bidi Bidi, we began our tour of the settlement, with the first stop being the place I silently dreaded seeing most: the central health post. Did I really have the skill or gumption necessary to do the people suffering there justice?

The UNHCR and its partners have done their best with a limited budget and personnel, which means the health facilities and services are relatively adequate (if not optimal), but they still nearly overflowed, from expecting mothers in the makeshift maternity ward, to malnourished children awaiting physical screenings, to malaria and TB patients.

Yet even as it began to register that what I had feared was seemingly true, I decided that I couldn’t let myself be overwhelmed. Not only did I owe it to myself to see the story through after coming so far, but the patients didn’t deserve a scared kid who thought he was a journalist writing for and about them.

So as Monique and Frederic led the way into the crowded clinic, I took a deep breath, camera sling around my shoulder and notepad in hand, and followed them inside.