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South Sudan, Republic of

In South Sudan, clean water at last

By Claire McKeever

After months on the run, a mother and her children forced to flee their home find safety – and safe water – at a UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan.

BENTIU, South Sudan, 24 September 2015 –The two Moses baskets that lie side by side in the corner of Mary’s sparse makeshift shelter hold a very special place in her heart.

© UNICEF South Sudan/2015/McKeever
Mary Nyalong, a mother of eight children, fills her bucket with clean water at the protection of civilians (PoC) site at the United Nations base in Bentiu, South Sudan.

When the family was displaced by a sudden attack on their village of Leer, in South Sudan’s Unity State, Mary fled with her eight children, including her two 6-month-old twins tucked inside the baskets. They hid in the nearby 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? Mary 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.”

Mary’s eldest son helped her look after 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,” she says. “I was not happy, but I just prayed to God that we could survive.”

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

On the run

With her mother Mary’s help, Rhoda, 9, 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, with a smile on her face as she waits in line at the water point at the site on the United Nations base in Bentiu, where civilians are living under protection of the UN Mission in South Sudan.

Rhoda is one of tens of thousands of children who have taken refuge at the UN base. Each one of them has a startling story to tell about the violence that has torn apart their lives.

© UNICEF South Sudan/2015/McKeever
Mary's daughter Rhoda, 9, carries water from the water point to the family's shelter at the PoC site in Bentiu.

“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.”

“We will be okay”

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 children. She knew they would be next.

Before arriving at the UN base in Bentiu, the family faced many dangers, 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.’”

Hunger and disease

Mary and the children knew they couldn’t go back to Leer, but living in the swamp was taking a heavy toll on their health.

“The water was so dirty. Now I have skin problems, and I am scratching,” Mary says. “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, waterlilies that grow in the river, ran out, Mary knew it was time to run for their lives again. “People started dying of hunger in the river. People are still dying there.”

After making it to Bentiu, the family were happily reunified with their father, who had been separated from them at the beginning of the conflict 20 months ago.

© UNICEF South Sudan/2015/McKeever
Mary's twin daughters sleep in the bed in the family's shelter.

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

A new start

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

“At night the children wake up screaming, thinking they are back in the bush and hearing gunshots,” she says.

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 to nearly 14,000 children at the site.

For Mary, there will be no return to their village in the near future.

“With peace, maybe we could go back,” she says. “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,” she says. “I feel safe and happy as long as I can go to school.”



UNICEF Photography: Water, sanitation & hygiene


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