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South Sudan, 22 September 2015: Clean water at last

By Claire McKeever

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/McKeever
9-year old Rhoda, from Leer in Unity State, makes the short journey from the water point to her shelter in Bentiu PoC

22 September 2015, BENTIU, South Sudan – The two Moses baskets that lie side by side in the corner of Mary’s sparse makeshift shelter in Bentiu Protection of Civilians site hold a very special place in her heart. When the family was displaced by a sudden and vicious attack on their village of Leer, she fled with the children, including her two six month old twins tucked inside the baskets, to hide in the swamps.

“We would leave the river at night to sleep outside but at dawn, we’d go back into the water because they were hunting us,” says Mary. How deep was the water? May gestures to her neck: “It was deep water. A lot of children drowned. As a parent, if you weren’t taking care of your children all the time, they would drown.

“My eldest son helped me to hold the twins. When we could, we put them in Moses baskets and then placed them on the big grasses in the river so they wouldn’t sink and drown. I was not happy but I just prayed to God that we could survive.”

The Moses baskets make up almost all of the family’s belongings apart from cooking utensils and two UNICEF buckets for clean water.

We held hands and ran

With her mother Mary’s help, Rhoda carefully washes her UNICEF bucket before filling it with clean water and effortlessly placing the load on her head to carry back to their makeshift shelter. “My mother told me to collect fresh water,” says Rhoda, 9 years old, with a proud smile on her face.

UNICEF is providing over one million litres of clean water per day for the growing population in in Bentiu where civilians live under protection from the UN.

Rhoda is one of the tens of thousands of children who have recently fled to UN base. Each one of them has a startling story to tell as their young lives have been torn apart by violence.

“We came here when this disaster happened,” explains Rhoda. “My brothers and sisters and I were scared of being killed because we were hearing a lot of gunshots. I held their hands and we ran.”

“Don’t run, don’t fear, we will be okay”

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/McKeever
6-month old girl twins Nyakim and Charkuoth sleep on the family’s bed in their shelter in Bentiu PoC

Her mother Mary describes the scene they left behind: “What made us run away from our home in Leer is that soldiers were burning people in their houses. They were raping women and killing us. They took all of our cows. They also took girls with them.”

With smoke rising from her neighbour’s house, Mary made a quick decision to run with her eight children. She knew they would be next.

Before arriving to the UN base, the family embarked on a number of dangerous journeys including two months hiding in the swamps. Rhoda did her best to help her mother keep the family together.

“We suffered so much in the water,” she says. “We were sick and not happy standing for so many hours. I was the one looking after my brothers and sisters in the water when my mother had the twins. When they heard gunshots and were scared, I would tell them ‘don’t run, don’t fear, we will be okay.’”

People are dying of hunger and disease

Mary and the children knew they couldn’t go back to Leer but living in the water was beginning to take a toll on their health.

“The water was so dirty. Now I have skin problems and I am scratching,” Mary says holding up her arm. “The children got diarrhoea and were not feeling well. They still have a problem with the skin disease. Even the twins can’t sleep at night.”

When their only food supply, waterlillies that grow in the river, ran out, Mary knew it was time to run again for their lives. “People started dying of hunger in the river. People are still dying there.”

After making it to the UN base in Bentiu the family were happily reunified with their father who had been separated from them at the beginning of the conflict twenty months ago.

“Now there is no problem with water. It is good. It will be easier to keep the children healthy,” says a visibly relieved Mary. “I’m feeling really appreciative of the agencies who are helping us and the work they are doing here. We just want the UN to keep protecting us.”

A new start

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/McKeever
6-month old Nyakim in her mother Mary’s arms outside their shelter in Bentiu PoC with Rhoda, 9.

Mary knows that while the medicine she has received will help her children’s skin infection, the psychological damage inflicted on her children by the conflict will take longer to heal.

“Now all that remains is dreams. At night the children wake up screaming, thinking they are back in the bush and hearing gunshots.”

The family are preparing for their new life together in Bentiu and for the children that means a return to school. UNICEF is providing education in emergencies to 13,000 children in the site. For Mary, there will be no return to their village in the near future.

“Now there is no way out because what we saw in Leer is really hard. It is difficult to see that happen to your people,” she says, pausing a moment. “With peace, maybe we could go back. I’m just thanking to God that we are free here and that my kids will be in school. I will look after my children until they can take care of themselves.”

Rhoda, sitting beside her mother and the sleeping twins, agrees excitedly. “Now we are finally feeling safe, not like before. I feel safe and happy as long as I can go to school.”

UNICEF’s WASH programme in Bentiu is kindly supported by the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and USAID



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