A search for mothers
How armed violence in a conflict-ridden region in South Sudan has left children searching for their parents.
The smiles on the faces of seven-year-old Achan Kuon and her twin brother Bak at a child-friendly space in Malakal mask the agony and trauma they have been through.
They have been in the internally displaced people’s camp for weeks now without their mother and father, from whom they have been separated for almost a month and whose whereabouts remain unknown after an attack on their village several days walk away.
Achan remembers how their mother cared for them, serving them food, washing their cloths, and pamper them into sleep in the evening in their quiet, remote village in Diel, south of Malakal in Upper Nile State.
One night, a loud bang of gunfire disturbed the quiet of the village, as an anti-government group attacked the area, causing the residents to flee in disarray.
I thought the bullets fell on me. I was scared for my life.
Her face showing clear trauma of the ordeal. “We came out and saw people running and we ran away,” she said. Both Achan and Bak don’t know whether their parents, who were in the same hut with them at the time of the attack, remained inside or also fled. They only remember how they scampered out of the hut in the dark to save their lives.
As they joined the crowds walking away from Diel to Malakal that fateful night, one woman, Nyayien Garjang, whose husband died in a separate armed conflict, identified them as separated children and offered to stay with them. On their way to Malakal, they spent another night in swampy, mosquito-infested marshes without food, mosquito nets, sleeping mats or any other household items.
“It was difficult. We needed our mother to be with us,” says Bak, who seems distracted between conversations.
I was just staying with them and nothing to offer. They missed their mother.
On arrival in Malakal, they got a temporary reprieve. Social workers supported by UNICEF helped them with essential survival items such as rice and sugar, along with mosquito nets, blankets, clothes, soap, buckets, shoes, and toiletries.
They were also introduced to a child-friendly space, where they meet other children in a safe environment to play games as part of psychological healing, as efforts are being undertaken to trace their parents for a hopeful reunification.
“We are using a network of volunteers to identify separated children for support and to identify the parents with missing children for reunification. It is not easy,” says Angelina Joseph, the head of social workers supported by UNICEF in Malakal.
So far from this conflict alone, 116 unaccompanied and separated children have been identified and are being given support. Three of them have successfully been reunited with their parents.
Overall, almost 800 children have been reached with services, key messages on psychosocial support, and some 3,500 women, including interim caregivers such as Nyajieth, have also been reached with lifesaving messages on prevention of gender-based violence and family separation.
However, further fighting in the area has hampered efforts to trace the families of the separated children. A fresh attack was reported recently in Adidiang, one of the camps south of Malakal hosting people displaced by the armed conflict in Diel.
Upper Nile is one of the states reeling out of a brutal and devastating conflict that has been on-going for almost a decade. Although a 2018 peace agreement envisions an end to armed violence and a shift towards healing and reconciliation, such cases of violent confrontations as in Diel and Adidiang have continued being reported, threatening to reverse the humanitarian gains that have been made towards recovery.
For Achan and Bak, who were informed of efforts to trace their parents in Adidiang, it is a despair as civilians displaced from Diel to Adidiang have, again, fled the new camp. Yet the need to reunite them with their parents rises each passing day. “I want to go back to my parents so that they can send me to another school,” she says.
UNICEF through support from the EU and Echo. UNICEF and partners are on the ground responding to these instances of displacement including supporting separated children. UNICEF will continue in the search for reuniting Achan and her siblings with their families.
*The names of the twins, Achan Kuon and Duoth, are fictitious, as their real names are not being revealed for privacy purposes.