Reuniting children lost amid the violence in South Sudan
By Sarah Crowe
With large-scale displacement and insecurity in South Sudan, many children have been separated from their families and their communities. Bringing them back together is a major challenge, but the efforts of UNICEF and its partners are making it possible.
JUBA, South Sudan, 14 February 2014 – Far from home, in the company of strangers who speak a language they do not know, a small group of boys and girls play in the dust of the Juba child welfare centre. They are among hundreds of children lost or unaccompanied in the chaos of intense fighting in South Sudan.
Government forces rescued these children in the town of Bor, Jonglei state, around 200 km to the north, and brought them to Juba. Nobody here knows their names or exact ages. The children speak little Arabic. Some speak Murle, a minority language. Most say nothing.
“We brought them here. They were miserable – they have been suffering a lot. It was really very bad – they are totally traumatized and sick. They didn't know even what to do, that's why the social workers here worked very hard to bring them up to this level that you see them now,” says Bishop Martin Moga, Director of Child Welfare for Central Equatoria state. “Through the help of UNICEF, our partner, we care for the children, we give them medication, food and clothes. They receive a good bath, and they sleep well.”
Tracing their stories and their families is an uphill battle at a time when more than 700,000 South Sudanese have been displaced inside the country, and nearly 150,000 have fled to neighbouring countries.
Although a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed on 23 January, many families are still afraid to return home. Around 75,000 people have taken shelter in bases of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. In Juba alone, 245 children have been registered as separated from their families and unaccompanied by an adult.
The humanitarian needs are dire in South Sudan, and aid agencies have been severely restricted in getting help to those in need. So far, UNICEF has been able to reach just 300,000 of the internally displaced — fewer than half the total. Huge funding gaps, widespread looting of supplies, and the lack of access to affected areas all play havoc with getting help to children and families.
At the centre, UNICEF and partner organization Nonviolent Peaceforce have set up a family tracing system to reunite families like 29-year-old Nyawal Ruach, from Bor, who was delighted to have found her two young sons through the centre.
“There was a big tank shooting where we were staying. I tied my children together so that they would not be separated,” she says. “Then I went to the house to get my newborn baby and some clothes, and in that time these two boys ran away, following those who were running away. My husband is still missing. But thanks to these people here at the centre, I at least have my children back.”
A matter of time
The biggest concern for child protection groups and UNICEF is that while their families are searching for them, unaccompanied children can be trafficked, abused, illegally adopted or taken out of the country.
“In a delicate period like this, we've learnt from all the emergencies all over the world that the one things that we shouldn't do is to take those children out of their community, out of this country,” says Cornelius Williams, Regional Child Protection Advisor for Eastern and Southern Africa. “This would break the links of those children with their communities, and if we find their families, even their extended families, then the children are gone too. This is a state that has laws, that governs how you move children.”
Despite the continuing risks, Mr. Williams is confident that children and families can be reunited.
“It is just a matter of time, with the cessation of hostilities, with the work that we are doing,” he says. “Most of these children will be back in their families.”