KIRYANDONGO SETTLEMENT, UGANDA
— Nyuon Isaac hammered a nail into a plank of wood at Kiryandongo refugee settlement in northern Uganda.
The South Sudan native is putting down roots, weeks after fleeing his home in Juba when the young nation plunged into violence.
"I became displaced on December 15," Isaac explained to VOA.
"That was in Juba. I lost most of my relatives and brothers. I will not come back soon to South Sudan, so... I decide to make a house around here so that my family manages to reside here until maybe the time comes for me to go back to South Sudan,” he said.
Isaac is one of more than 156,000 people who have fled to neighboring countries since fighting broke out in South Sudan. Nearly half of them -- 76,000 -- went to Uganda, a country that has been welcoming refugees for decades.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that as of Feb. 17, 2014, more than 716,000 people are displaced inside South Sudan and another 156,800 people have fled to nearby countries.
The Ugandan government allocates land for housing and farming in settlement areas to some refugees and allows freedom of movement to those who do not wish to live in a settlement, provided they have the means to make a living for themselves, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says on its website.
"Compared to camps, which are not found in Uganda, settlements such as the ones in Uganda provide greater livelihood opportunities for refugee families to achieve socio-economic security, reducing their dependency on food and other assistance," UNHCR says.
Kiryandongo also gives the South Sudanese refugees a safe place to live, basic food and water, and access to schools for their children. Few, if any of the refugees at the settlement have plans to return to South Sudan anytime soon.
'They came and killed Pastor Nyang'
James Bap Manyol, who was a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Juba, left South Sudan after several of his colleagues, including a senior pastor with whom he was very close, were shot dead in front of him.
"They came and killed Nyang Lam. I see that with my own eyes. He put on the cloth of leadership and they killed Pastor Nyang. And they also killed Racial Nyakan Biel, who is the deacon in my church, in the same church. I fear to go to South Sudan," Manyol said.
The refugees are reluctant to go back to South Sudan, even though a second round of peace talks is under way in Addis Ababa. The first round, although difficult, resulted in the pro- and anti-government sides agreeing to stop fighting and expedite the release of 11 political figures who were detained shortly after the fighting began.
Seven of the 11 detainees have been set free and are in the Ethiopian capital for the latest round of peace talks.
But even as the negotiations continue, the fighting in South Sudan has not stopped, with fresh clashes that broke out in Malakal on Tuesday between the SPLA and opposition forces claiming at least 10 lives, according to the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
Sunday Martin said she will not return to South Sudan. until she's sure that peace has been restored.
“People, they are telling us that there is peace, but there is not any peace," said Sunday, who lost her father in the fighting in South Sudan.
"Those people who went there, they don’t come back. Even those who are in UNMISS, if someone went out to get something, those people, they don’t return," she said, referring to the tens of thousands of South Sudanese who have sought refuge at U.N. bases and compounds in the country.
As Sunday spoke, Isaac's hammer pounded another nail into another plank of wood. He's not a carpenter by trade and building a house is a difficult and costly task for him. Building it so far from home makes it harder still, but Isaac and the others at Kiryandongo feel they don't really have a choice but to stay in Uganda as they wait for peace and security to return to South Sudan.