Field diary: UNICEF prepares to help victims of conflict in South Sudan
By Sunil Verma
Pibor county in Jonglei state of South Sudan is home to members of the Murle tribe, who have been in conflict with the Lou Nuer tribe over water rights and cattle rustling for decades. Over recent days, Pibor saw an eruption of violence between the two tribes, forcing thousands of people to take refuge in surrounding bush areas. UNICEF’s Sunil Verma joined an assessment mission organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to Pibor on 5 January 2012.
PIBOR, South Sudan, 5 January 2012 - It was 7 a.m. when I boarded a UN MI8 helicopter. Our team consisted of colleagues from the Human Rights and Child Protection section of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), representatives from the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, the South Sudan Peace Commission, the World Food Programme, and media representatives from South Sudan Radio and Television.
We landed at Pibor around 9:40 a.m. As we were approaching Pibor, everyone was looking out of the small windows of our vehicle to catch a glimpse of what was happening outside Pibor town area, and we could see some tukuls (huts) burnt down and the barren land, with no sign of life.
We were welcomed by the UNMISS Security Officer Ravi Nair at the airstrip, who gave us a security briefing and informed us about the latest situation: “Everything is calm as of now,” he said, “but the situation is unpredictable.” Therefore, we need to stay close together. We were all prepared to comply.
Together, we proceeded towards the County Commissioner’s office. The route took us through a residential area, where Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers live with their families. We also saw many families living under trees and under make shift shelters - people displaced by the conflict, we were told.
Displaced and abducted children
Pibor is a small town for a county Headquarter, and has recently seen an exodus of its residents for the violence which only stopped a few days ago. It had erupted on 23 December in Kurwanya village in Likuangole Payam, escalating further towards the end of 2011. Members of the Lou Nuer tribe were targeting the Murle tribe in what they called a retaliatory attack following the Murle tribe’s onslaught on the Nuer during August 2011.
We met the County Commissioner of Pibor, Mr. Joshua Konyi who welcomed the team and briefed us on the current situation. A detailed written report was shared by the Commissioner with the team.
There are unconfirmed reports of hundreds of separated and unaccompanied children. To date, we have confirmation of 117 unaccompanied children registered. The verification process will continue till all the cases are resolved.
I proceeded with Abraham, UNICEF Child Protection Officer to meet the unaccompanied and orphaned children. These children, aged between one month and 14 years of age, were sprawling on the empty ground in a secure compound, with little to wear and hardly anything to eat. There were some women who volunteered to look after them and cook with limited supplies provided by the Commissioner. These women were IDPs, who were seeking protection from any possible future violence.
Every child had a story behind them. I met Peter, 14, eldest of six siblings, with no trace of his parents. He had run towards the river following his mother when their village was attacked, taking his siblings along. His mother did not survive the attack and was killed in front of the children. Somehow, the children were left unharmed and are now in the care of Pastor Abraham Korok. Their father, a soldier in another county, has not yet come to look for them. They are still waiting for him.
Allan Joko, around 10, ran away from captivity after being abducted from his home in Kongor village about ten days ago. He was made to travel with his captors and other abductees, but two days ago, while the men were busy chasing cattle, he slipped away, spent a night alone in the bush, and reached the nearest community and the relative safety in Pibor on 4 January 2012. He is the third born and has six siblings, and he has no clue where the others are. “They never ill-treated me,” says Jacob about his captors, “but I don’t know if my parents are still alive and if they will come looking for me.” Hopes are dismal, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that.
Finally, I saw an eight months old baby, who had lost his parents in the attack, in the arms of an old lady, carrying her and nursing the infant’s wounds. The child apparently was tied behind the back of his mother, who when killed, fell backwards and the child suffered injuries on its back and head. The only medical attention possible was now difficult as the health centre run by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) had been ransacked and looted.
Meanwhile Abraham and the UNMISS Child Protection Officer were orienting the local NGO Representative Mr Jacob Logocho, Pastor Abraham Korok and the Social Worker from the Ministry of Social Development, Mr Samuel Chinchin on what they need to do to rehabilitate or reunite these children with their families.
Time was running out as the mission was permitted only for three hours. However, on our way we saw some people coming back from hiding, carrying their possessions with which they must have fled – just a handful of things, and their children.
The situation seems to be returning to normalcy. In the entire town, there was evidence of the disaster. We only saw limited external assistance being provided to the affected and it was clear that those still in Pibor wanted to stay close to either the SPLA or the UNMISS mission – for obvious reasons.
“It is not over yet, they are just two hours away by the river, carrying out their attacks, and can return any time,” the Commissioner had warned us. “Juba needs to send reinforcements for our protection and food for the children. We need your help.”
UNICEF is actively participating in assessments and reviews organised by the Government, the Inter Agency Sector Working Group and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT). As part of its emergency contingency plans, UNICEF has pre-positioned supplies for a humanitarian response ready to be used as soon as access to the affected population has been established.
UNICEF is deploying professionals from its Nutrition, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Child Protection and Communication programmes. We have started to plan our humanitarian response through partners in Boma. Three trucks of UNICEF WASH stocks including surface water treatment equipment, hand pump spare parts and hygiene kits are expected to arrive in Boma by 10 January.
UNICEF and partners have already commenced initial stages of family reunification for abducted children from both tribes and registration activities. Registration forms for separated, unaccompanied and missing children have been delivered to Pibor prior to the attack and additional forms are being sent to partners and government counterparts. During assessment visits, rapid orientation on the use of the forms is being carried out by UNICEF team to the partners currently on the ground.
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