Shaking off the bush

The experiences from the bush are still with Sara, over a year after escaping

Helene Sandbu Ryeng
A girl leaning on a tree
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
16 August 2020

“When I came out, people would talk and point fingers saying ‘she is one of the bush kids’. They were afraid of me, but I would never hurt anyone.”

Sara’s (15) gaze is turned down as she re-lives the first weeks after she escaped from the group that kidnapped her and then used, abused and exploited her for a year. We are seated on blue plastic chairs under a large mango tree, dotted with green fruit soon to turn yellow and red with sweet, yellow juicy flesh inside. Mango season is not on Sara’s mind, she is still trying to shake off the time in the bush.

“If I hadn’t had this experience, I would have a free mind. This will always stay with me,” she says quietly.

She is reserved. During the interview she is uncomfortable with longer periods of eye contact, she often looks down or at the spot on her hand she keeps scratching. Her answers are very short in the beginning, but they get longer as she gets more comfortable.

“I was on my way to the market one morning together with my nephew to sell oranges. We were stopped by three men, they didn’t have uniforms, and was told to follow them to the bush. I didn’t know who they were. I was 13 at the time and my nephew 14.”

“They tied our hands behind our backs and tied us in a line. Six children were already tied up like this when my nephew and I joined the line. We walked like this without food for a whole day. We were captured in the morning, only late in the evening we arrived in the bush.  We were tied to a tree and we had to sleep like that. I had no idea where I was and who these men were.”

This was the beginning of a one-year-long nightmare.

“Evil things are happening in the bush”

“Life in the bush was not good. We didn’t have food. Only if we looted, we had food. I was part of that. They didn’t treat us well. I was scared a lot in the camp, as I didn’t know anyone there.”

“I was trained on how to use a gun, panga (local word for machete) and mines. Where on the body to aim hurt the adversary the most. I was often in battle; this is what they had trained me to do. I was happy about it, as I could perform what they had taught me. I liked winning the most. I was never scared because I had the training, I knew how to fight.”

“The worst part was when they sent us, the kids, in the front and the adults were in the back. We would be killed first.” “Evil things are happening in the bush”

A boy smiling
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
Sara doesn't smile often, but when she is looking at the children in the village playing her face cracks open.

“Do you think the experience of being a girl in this setting differs from being a boy?”

“Not really. They gave boys heavier jobs, and the girls did more of cooking and cleaning, but they treated us the same. In addition to fighting, I was doing cooking, fetching firewood and cleaning.”

After one year in the bush she managed to escape.

“I ran away with eight other children including my nephew in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep. We didn’t know where to go, so we just ran and hoped we would find something we recognized. When we came to a cemetery in the morning, we asked for directions and we were able to find our way home.”

“When I came home, my grandparents ran towards me when they saw me, and they hugged me. It was a happy moment. They realized I hadn’t eaten, so I finished all the food they had cooked, I was so hungry, and they had to go without food that day.”

A village setting where women are plating hair
UNICEFSouthSudan/Ryeng
The people in Sara's village have now accepted her and are no longer afraid.

Back to the bush

Shortly after Sara and the other children escaped, word around town was that people were looking for eight children.

“I knew they were looking for us. I couldn’t stay at home. I went into the bush again and would only come out at night to eat in order for them not to find me.”

In February 2019, Sara was formally released from the group and didn’t have to be scared anymore. She was also enrolled in a UNICEF supported reintegration programme where she got immediate practical and physical support, but also a social worker who will help her with the transition into a civilian life over the next three years, as there are no shortcuts back to a childhood.

“I got essentials such as clothes, shoes, soap etc from UNICEF and an NGO. I got food and someone is coming to see me regularly, checking up on me and we talk”

But the challenges didn’t stop. People knew she was one of the ‘bush kids’ and were afraid of her.

One time, I got really angry when someone was calling me names. After that, they stopped pointing fingers. I was in general quite angry at that time, I would lose my temper often. I was tense. My social worker has helped me a lot dealing with everything.”

Her social worker confirms and says Sara has come a long way since she left the bush, but she still has a distance to go before she has shaken the bush off completely. Part of butting the bush behind her will be education and planning for a future.

“I’m going to school, I’m in P5. When I grow up, I want to work for an NGO with something food related, and I want to build a good house for my grandparents.”

 

The UNICEF supported reintegration programme for children associated with armed forces and armed groups is possible due to generous donations from the EU and ECHO, USAID and the Global Humanitarian Fund. UNICEF South Sudan would also like to thank the National Committees for UNICEF for their contributions.