Bare­foot and alone, chil­dren flee bru­tal South Su­dan war

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

NGUENYYIEL REFUGEE CAMP: Her feet bare and her home­town in flames, Nyadet walked east alone, eat­ing food given to her by strangers and fol­low­ing trails left by oth­ers es­cap­ing war in South Su­dan. She is 12 years old. Nine days af­ter she fled blood­shed in the flash­point town of Malakal last Novem­ber, Nyadet reached the coun­try’s bor­der with Ethiopia, and crossed over to safety.

“Maybe they are safe,” is all she can say of her mother, fa­ther, sis­ter and two broth­ers, whom she lost track of when the streets of her home­town trans­formed into a war zone. South Su­dan’s civil war has raged on for the past three years with such vi­cious­ness that parts of the coun­try are bereft of food and a third of the pop­u­la­tion has fled their homes, but few refugees present as vex­ing a prob­lem as chil­dren like Nyadet who es­cape the con­flict alone. “They are flee­ing def­i­nitely lifethreat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions,” said Daniel Abate of aid group Save the Chil­dren, which helps re­unite lost chil­dren with their fam­i­lies.

At the Nguenyyiel refugee camp near Ethiopia’s lush west­ern fron­tier, boys and girls who crossed the bor­der un­ac­com­pa­nied tell tales of mur­dered fam­i­lies and child­hoods shat­tered by the un­remit­ting vi­o­lence in South Su­dan. “War hap­pened,” is the de­scrip­tion Nyakung, 11, gives for the atroc­i­ties she wit­nessed in the cap­i­tal Juba, where her mother was left to die in­side a blaz­ing hut and three of her broth­ers were gunned down on a road while run­ning for the safety of a UN base. Aid agen­cies are try­ing to get chil­dren like Nyakung back with their fam­i­lies, but hu­man­i­tar­i­ans ad­mit that with the con­flict still rag­ing in South Su­dan, the odds of th­ese chil­dren see­ing their loved ones again are slim.

Tired and des­ti­tute

South Su­dan’s war, sparked when Pres­i­dent Salva Kiir ac­cused his for­mer deputy Riek Machar of plot­ting a coup in 2013, has been marked by nu­mer­ous atroc­i­ties against civil­ians de­spite the pres­ence of thou­sands of UN peace­keep­ing troops. Around 1.8 mil­lion South Su­danese have fled the coun­try, mak­ing it the fastest grow­ing refugee cri­sis in the world. One mil­lion of those refugees are chil­dren, the UN says, and of that num­ber about 75,000 were ei­ther sep­a­rated from their par­ents or with­out any fam­ily at all.

Aid work­ers say they reg­u­larly see South Su­danese chil­dren strag­gling across the bor­der, of­ten with an adult stranger, but some­times by them­selves. “You can tell they are very tired, their clothes (are) worn-out on them, they have not been show­ered for some time. So, you can see that they’re des­ti­tute,” Daniel said. Nguenyyiel is home to nearly 2,900 chil­dren that ar­rived with­out any fam­ily, who pass their days at­tend­ing school and play­ing in a tree-shaded jun­gle gym. Chan, 13, es­caped Malakal late last year when fight­ing erupted and the grass hut he lived in was torched. He then walked for a month un­til he crossed into Ethiopia. “I just go the di­rec­tion where I see a safe place,” he said. Some, like Nyadet, hope to one day re­unite with their fam­i­lies. Oth­ers hold no such hope. Chan says he doesn’t know where his par­ents are but be­lieves they must be dead.

Slim odds

With nei­ther the gov­ern­ment nor the rebels hon­or­ing a peace deal made two years ago, lo­cat­ing fam­ily mem­bers of lost chil­dren in the chaos of South Su­dan is dif­fi­cult, says Hi­wotie Si­machew, emer­gency re­sponse man­ager for aid group Plan In­ter­na­tional. Some par­ents have also likely joined the ex­o­dus that has dis­trib­uted hun­dreds of thou­sands of South Su­danese refugees to Uganda, Kenya, Su­dan and be­yond. Par­ents, if they are still alive, could be in refugee camps in any of th­ese coun­tries, or in other set­tle­ments in Ethiopia, Hi­wotie said. Plan In­ter­na­tional and Save the Chil­dren have man­aged to re­unite hun­dreds of youths with their fam­i­lies, but that’s just a frac­tion of the around 31,500 chil­dren Ethiopia’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Refugee and Re­turnee Af­fairs says have ar­rived with­out their par­ents.

Even when fam­ily mem­bers are lo­cated, some don’t want to take cus­tody of the chil­dren. In one case, aid work­ers found the un­cle of three un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors in Aus­tralia, but he de­clined to adopt them, Hi­wotie said. In other in­stances, it’s the chil­dren them­selves who re­sist re­union, be­cause they be­lieve that would mean a re­turn to the vi­o­lence from which they es­caped. “They are re­fus­ing to re­unify with their fam­ily and think­ing that, if they show their in­ter­est, they will re­turn back to South Su­dan,” Hi­wotie said. — AFP

GAMBELA, Ethiopia: Un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren who trav­elled alone from South Su­dan to the Ethiopian bor­der, play on swings at the chil­dren friendly space of Plan In­ter­na­tional Nguenyyiel refuge camp in Gambela, Ethiopia. —AFP

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