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South Sudan, 21 December 2015: UNICEF helps tearful reunion of separated children

By Marianna Zaichykova

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Rich
Children reunified with their parents in Akobo.

“All children should be with their parents,” 13-year old Nyaruot tells us when we first meet her in a Protection of Civilians site in Bor, Jonglei State in South Sudan. The tented enclosure has been home for Nyaruot and her two younger sisters for the past two years.

Until December 2013, Nyauot live in Juba with her mother, father and two sisters. Her father was a soldier there and had moved his family from their hometown Akobo, so that the girls could attend a better school in the capital. “When fighting broke out we all ran, in the chaos I can’t remember anything but shots everywhere and my father holding my hand and pulling me to run. We walked for three days before we reached Bor”, remembers Nyatuot. There was a long road to Akobo ahead but continuing walking for days with no food, water or protection was too risky for a family with small children. Parents needed to continue their journey and the girls had to stay with their relatives in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor.

Nyauot, with her two younger sisters Nyachan, 9, and Nyabang, now three, stayed in the camp with their aunt and two older cousins. They had to get used to a very different life. No electricity, no paved roads, no running water, just a small tent and little food. As time passes they got used to fetching water and helping around the kitchen, looking after their youngest sibling, and every day waiting to hear from their parents.

For days and then months there was no news, no information whether or not their parents made it to Akobo, whether they were alive or not. It was only in November 2014, eleven months later, the girls got a chance to hear their mothers’ voice. A family link programme allowed one phone call for separated families to contact their close relatives in different parts of the country. That’s when Nyauot first got the news that their father had died but their mother was alive and healthy in Akobo staying with their grandmother and uncles. She promised the girls that she would do everything to bring the family back together.

Life without their Parents

Life has not been easy in the PoC, a crowded camp with make-shift huts and tents to house some 3,000 families. Most of the families have no income and survive solely on support from the UN. Food is distributed by WFP and medical services provided by the International Medical Corps.

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Rich
Nyaruot, 14. in the UNICEF supported school in the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Bor, Jonglei state. Nyaruot is in grade 3 and her favorite subject is English. She wants to become a doctor.

Their aunt, Nyajok Koda, has taken the three girls into her care. She has enrolled Nyauot and Nyachan into a UNICEF supported school, while little Nyabang attends sessions in the child friendly space.

“It is very difficult for me to be a single mother and look after five children”, says Nyajok, who has two children of her own. “When the girls are in school, I usually cook, wash clothes and clean our tent. We don’t have any income and totally depend on the food that UN gives us. But I want them to study as this is the only chance they have for a better life.”

Another 11 months had passed before the girls got to see their grandmother and mother.

On 15 October, just five days before the big day of the long awaited reunion, the girls were sitting in a playground of the UNICEF supported child friendly space, giggling, together with another 20 children, all excited to be finally going back to their parents. All the children were from Akobo, most of them haven’t seen their parents for two years, some of them were too small to even remember them.

UNICEF, with the support of Nonviolent Peaceforce in Bor and Save the Children in Akobo, were able to make the dreams of these children and their parents come true. After months of searching, verifying, checking and working with the families in Akobo and Bor the news was finally brought to these 23 children that they would soon see their parents.

“I remember how my mom looks, I will recognize her from the helicopter,” said six-year-old Nyayiaw Kong Riek holding the hand of her brother, Chuol, who just turned four.

Their family was torn apart about two years ago when fighting in Juba spread and reached their town of Bor in Jonglei state. ‘In my dreams I see my mother, she asks me when she comes did something happen? I tell her people came to kill,’ says Riek when speaking about her dreams and memories of her mother.

Their grandfather Chuol Mok Yat, 87, who is originally from Akobo, has helped care for the two children in the Bor PoC for the past two years. He will miss them, he says, but is delighted that they are going. “Life here is not good,” said the former police office. He had told his daughter to flee when the armed men came to attack. “I told her you’re young, leave me with the kids and run,” said Yat. The grandfather will be staying at the PoC in Bor for now, along with hundreds of other internally displaced families. “But when peace comes, I will go back,” he said.

Coming home

The airport hall in Bor echoed to the sound of excited laughter. The children, dressed in their best freshly ironed outfits and new hairstyles- were eager to get on the helicopter. Akobo is only 400 km away from Bor near the border with Ethiopia, but the only way to get there is by air, no roads, no transportation, just a small airstrip and a landing field for helicopters.

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Rich
Children being reunified on the flight to Akobo.

This helicopter is special, bringing joy and happiness to 12 families who will finally be together. The minute the helicopter started its slow decent, all the children had their noses glued to the windows. The closer it got to the ground the more excitement, anticipation and laughter filling the cabin. By the time it landed it was so loud you could hardly hear your own voice.

Then came a moment of absolute happiness, kisses, hugs, tears of joy and uncontrollable laughter at a small landing area in Akobo. In the shade, under the tree where families were waiting for the arrival of the helicopter, three older women performed a traditional song and dance to welcome young ones home.

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Rich
Mary Nyakang with her children.

“I can’t thank you enough, this is the happiest day of my life”, said Mary Nyakang, mother of three of the boys and one girl who had just arrived from Bor.

We drove back to the hut with Nyauot, Nyachan and Nyabang, where they were warmly greeted by their 70-year-old grandmother. She hadn’t see her granddaughters for almost three years. “They have grown up so much. Little Nyabang was just nine months old when I last saw her. We don’t have much, but I will do everything in my power to provide for these girls. Now that they are back, they will have everything they need. We will send them to school and will try to keep them there until graduation. I have never been to school myself, but I know that this is very important for them” she said.

“I will never allow us to be apart again”, said Chuols’ and Nyayaiw mother Nyaruon. Then came some added joy – the introduction of the children to their newborn baby sister Nyagua.

Through the Rapid family tracing and reunification mechanism UNICEF and partners, with donations from the EU and the Government of Japan, have been able to reunify around 2,600 children in South Sudan since the outbreak of civil conflict nearly two years ago. In South Sudan alone more than 8,000 children are still waiting to be brought back to their parents.



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