In South Sudan, a bumpy start to a joyful family reunion
Since the 2013 onset of the violent conflict South Sudan, UNICEF and partners have registered more than 12,000 children for family reunification. Hear one family’s story of being reunited after two years apart.
BOR, South Sudan, 18 April 2016 – As the plane lurches forward, so does Changkuoth. Nothing could have prepared him for this journey. Sure, it is his first time flying, but it’s also what – or who – awaits him at his final destination. Two years after their family was torn apart by conflict, 13-year-old Changkuoth and his siblings will be reunited with their parents.
Despite his nerves, he smiles. He has grown, but he knows they will not have forgotten his face.
“It’s a great feeling. I’m really very happy because I’m going to see mum and dad today,” he says, his smile growing.
Suddenly, mayhem. Changkuoth’s sister spots a familiar sight out the window. They are home.
Missing a mother’s love
Earlier that morning in Bor, Changkuoth and 17 other children were sitting in the dusty and sparse UN Protection of Civilians site, waiting for the car to take them to the airport. “We originally were brought here for school,” he says. “Then the conflict came in 2013 and we couldn’t get home. Since then I haven’t been in touch with my parents at all.”
The fighting in South Sudan began just before the Christmas holidays. Without any means of communication, they had no idea if their parents in Akobo were still alive. UNICEF and partners have registered more than 12,000 children like Changkuoth for family reunification since 2013.
His little sister Nyaneada misses her mother. “I remember my mother used to prepare the breakfast before school and when I got home, lunch was ready,” she says. “My mother used to care for me. I actually stopped believing I’d ever go home and be reunited with my mother.”
Nyaneada knows exactly what she will do when she arrives in Akobo: First she will hug her mother, and then she will look for the nearest school. When she grows up she wants to be a teacher and educate all the girls in her village.
An emotional homecoming
Meanwhile, the atmosphere is electric at the airstrip in Akobo where the children’s parents and grandmother are waiting patiently. It seems like the entire community has come out to welcome the 18 children that are due home today. Everyone watches the sky.
Once she catches sight of the plane, Changkuoth and Nyaneada’s grandmother Nyachol cannot contain her excitement and begins to dance and sing, with tears running down her face.
“It took me a long time to get to see these children, that’s why I was crying and dancing and running to embrace them. I didn’t think these children could still be alive. Now we have hope that other families who are missing their children will see their children come back home.”
After an emotional reunion full of tears, hugs and smiles, the children go home.
Hope for the future
“I wanted to jump out of the plane when I saw Akobo,” admits 15-year-old Jai, the eldest brother in the family. They are all more relaxed now that they are back in the calmness and familiarity of the family compound. “This is a huge change for us. It’s so different to where we were and now we are back with our parents. I’m so excited to be with my entire family and I’m really grateful to everyone who made this happen.”
In the two years spent away from their parents, Jai has become a father-like figure to his younger siblings, especially during difficult times. Now he goes house to house inviting old friends and neighbours to a celebration later that night in honour of the children.
“I want to help other children separated from their parents and reunite them. I will tell them that it can happen. I know because it happened to me.”
UNICEF’s Family Tracing and Reunification programme is kindly supported by the European Commission – Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), USAID, DFID, CHF and UNICEF France.