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South Sudan is in the midst of a brutal civil war. Thousands of people have died. Millions have been displaced. Most of the people fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring Uganda are women and children. Some of them spoke with NPR's Eyder Peralta, and what they have to say may disturb some listeners. Note we're using only their first names in this five-minute story out of concern for their safety.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The refugee camps in northern Uganda are vast. They're now home to more than 700,000 refugees, and they continue to grow and spread as thousands more South Sudanese head south into Uganda every day. The camps are a collection of small mud huts far away from each other, deep into the bush. I meet Angurese at her house about two hours away from the nearest paved road. She's 14, a slight girl holding her baby son.
ANGURESE: (Through interpreter) We ran away because the war has turned onto us civilians. When the Dinkas comes, they either slaughter you with a knife, or they cut you with a machete. So we're now running away because we could not wait.
PERALTA: She says the violence in South Sudan got worse as the Dinkas and Nuers, the two biggest ethnic groups in the country, began fighting for power. Then the only midwife in town took off, and her mother saw no choice but to send a pregnant Angurese with her. They walked for four days from a town called Lainya to the border with Uganda.
South Sudan has been an ethnic battleground on and off for decades, but Fatuma, the midwife, says this conflict is different. She says she saw young pregnant women raped and the road in front of her house become a killing field.
FATUMA: (Through interpreter) They used not to kill women, but these days now they're killing women, children, elderly, even the pastors, the bishops. They don't spare us. So this is what I'm seeing does happen in South Sudan.
PERALTA: South Sudan became independent in 2011. But within two years, ethnic tensions erupted into civil war. Now human rights groups rank South Sudan as one of the worst places for children. They've documented fighters raping girls and sexually mutilating boys. Both sides have abducted thousands of children for use as soldiers.
Cecilia Tabu is a caseworker for Save the Children. She deals with traumatized kids every day, and a big part of her job has become finding foster families for children who flee South Sudan on their own.
CECILIA TABU: So we have the first unaccompanied minors - are these two.
PERALTA: She takes me to meet the family of Kani Jane. She came with two children of her own and then kept on accepting foster kids. Now she lives with 13 in a small mud hut that the older kids built. Cecilia points to one of the little ones, 6-year-old Santo, whose parents took whatever money they had saved and sent him off in search of peace.
So Santo came alone from Juba?
TABU: Yeah, they came alone from Juba with their neighbor. The father just sent him to come. So sometimes he doesn't talk, and at least now he's recovered.
PERALTA: Finally she introduces me to Ludiya. She was 17 last year when her mother gave her some money and told her to flee with four younger kids.
LUDIYA: There's no education, and the people are killing themselves, hanging themselves. That is a problem that we came from there to Uganda.
PERALTA: Their foster mom, Kani Jane, says it's hard to take care of 13 kids especially because she constantly worries about her own adult children still in South Sudan.
KANI JANE: (Speaking in Arabic).
PERALTA: But she's accepted these kids as family, she says, because she has no other choice but to deal with the cards she's been dealt. Cecilia, the caseworker, says all of this is hard. She says some of the kids still don't have shoes, and at school, they don't have educational materials. But here in Uganda, she says they have a chance.
TABU: I know how it is because I have a personal experience, and I grew up as an unaccompanied minor.
PERALTA: Back in the '90s when she was 13 and war was raging between North and South Sudan, Cecilia's parents sent her off to Uganda on her own. She lived right here in this same camp. And it was hard, but she had peace, and she managed to reunite with her parents and go to college.
Cecilia walks me from the family's house to a big playground built by Save the Children.
PERALTA: Cecilia says when they first opened the playground, kids would fight along ethnic lines. But slowly they've helped them understand how to solve problems without violence.
PERALTA: So as we stand there, kids play tag through a cloud of dust. They slide, and they swing, and they chase a football. And suddenly the world here feels normal. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING SONG, "SO MUCH FOR SO LITTLE")
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