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 2016.
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 Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (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.
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. -Guardian