Betty Asha left her home and studies behind to help nearly 2,300 people escape violence and cross the border into Uganda.
Betty Asha’s phone rings constantly. Each time she picks up, a voice on the other end asks for help, and each time, she springs into action.
Asha, 23, has become an unlikely hero in the conflict that has gripped South Sudan since July, when warring factions of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) clashed outside the presidential compound before celebrations to mark the fifth anniversary of independence.
When the fighting spread from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and reached her home city of Yei, close to the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Asha decided to act. Reports of targeted civilian killings had begun to surface, she said, perpetrated by both sides of the SPLM – those loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, from the Dinka tribe, and those supporting the former vice-president Riek Machar, from the Nuer tribe.
In her first week on the border, Asha successfully brought 800 people from Pukuka village to safety in Uganda
Receiving distress calls from friends and family in her village, Asha left behind her studies and small apartment in Kampala and travelled north to the border between Uganda and South Sudan.
For the next month, Asha worked to coordinate the safe evacuation of 2,296 refugees across the border, a figure confirmed by the Ugandan prime minister’s office and refugee agencies working in the area.
With the help of Chris Hurley, an American sponsor, she arranged four lorries and 10 motorbikes to make numerous trips transporting people.
In her first week on the border, Asha successfully brought 800 people from Pukuka village to safety in Uganda. Over the next three weeks, she helped a further 1,496 Yei residents reach refugee camps after word of her hasty evacuation plan spread.
“When they arrived at Oraba, I was there to pay the drivers. It was also my responsibility to feed everyone, to be with them and to see that everybody was safe,” Asha said. “I took them straight to the UN reception centre.”
Most of the South Sudanese refugees she helped are settled at Rhino camp near Arua, in north-west Uganda, including Asha’s mother and five siblings.
They are the latest of more than 88,000 South Sudanese refugees to seek asylum at the border since early July. UN field coordinator Jens Hesemann said: “I thought the number of refugees from South Sudan was going down, but it has spiked.”
Ugandan refugee laws grant new arrivals the freedom to live anywhere in the country, either in a refugee settlement or a town. The UN has described this policy as a “model for Africa”.
Hurley met Asha six years ago when he visited southern Sudan as part of a church trip from Tennessee. Missionaries have played a key, if controversial, role in Sudan since the 19th century. They helped form a large Christian minority there prior to the separation in 2011. Many believe that this contributed to the religious unrest that caused the two Sudanese civil wars.
Hurley supports Asha’s studies and paid for the evacuation of the 2,296 South Sudanese refugees. “It cost only $5.66 (£4.26) per person [to transport them to the border]. I spend more than that on lunch every day,” he said.
“I am still shocked by the sheer number of people Betty was able to rescue. She is proof that people can achieve greatness if they are only given the opportunity and support needed.”
‘We just want to live’ – on the road with South Sudan’s refugees
Alemi Charles, 47, from Yei, was among those safely evacuated to Uganda. He lives with his wife and two children in Kampala.
“I received Betty’s phone number and called her to tell her I was in trouble,” he said. “Betty told me to board any vehicle leaving Yei for Oraba, at the border, and she will pay for transport. She really saved my life.”
Asha has since returned to Kampala and resumed her second year of university. She is sponsoring Viola, a 12-year-old South Sudanese refugee she helped evacuate from Pukuka. The two of them live together in a one-bedroom apartment.
“I want to make a difference in the lives of people from Pukuka,” Asha said. “I keep receiving calls from Pukuka and Yei. I want to go back and help more [people] get out of South Sudan safely. Yei used to be a peaceful town. Now it’s not.”
Asha’s phone rings once more, as it does constantly throughout the day. She answers it again.
By Adam Bemma in Kampala