I mentally headlined her story as "The Child With No Dreams."
For well over a decade of working in some of the world's worst conflicts and disasters -- Gaza, norther Nigeria, Pakistan -- I've met many children severely scarred by unspeakable violence and abrupt displacement.
As the world's youngest country, South Sudan, marks the third year of a vicious civil war, I am learning the heart-wrenching stories of some of the 200,000 civilians who have sought shelter in UN-protected camps. I'm here to learn about the impact of the conflict, especially on children.
It is in one of these camps -- Benitu, in the far northern reaches of the country -- where I met Cecilia, 17.
I knew from the dark, hollow look in her eyes that she'd just been to hell and back. Just 48 hours after the completion after a harrowing three-day walk from her destroyed village to the sprawling UN safe haven known as the Benitu Protection of Civilians site in Unity State -- one of five so-called PoCs in the country -- she was clearly still re-living the horrors of seeing her home and village destroyed by vicious armed men. As if that weren't enough she said her family was robbed of everything during the flight to safety, stripped of any last iota of dignity.
"When they find you, they'll kill you. They don't care about you," Cecilia, who was writing exams for her last year of primary school, said as she sat in a dark and quiet corner of a school in Benitu.
Cecilia pondering her future at the Benitu camp in South Sudan's Unity State. Credit: Michael Bociurkiw
What to make of the world's youngest nation which on Dec. 15 marked the third anniversary of the outbreak of a deadly civil war that has displaced more than three million South Sudanese and stalled economic activity to almost zero. Aid experts say that less than five per cent of arable land in the country is being worked; inflation has soared to 830 per cent; and, incredibly, there's no mains electricity in the capital, Juba. A just-completed IMF mission to the country found foreign reserves almost entirely depleted, partially as a result of a 15-month shut-down of oil production.
Looking beyond the heavily-fortified walls of the Benitu camp the prospects for peace look very bleak indeed.
Over the course of the past week I've met many children like Cecilia. She dreams of becoming a teacher but has no idea how to come up with the funds to continue her education outside of the country. Even here under UN protection, she tells me that she feels unsafe as a young woman, especially after dark. The sadness and emptiness on her face is haunting, deflating.
We need to help them to become children again. You look into their eyes and you don't see that innocence...just loneliness, UNICEF South Sudan chief of field office and veteran development professional, Mustapha Ben Messaoud, told me.
UNICEF estimates there are almost 900,000 children in South Sudan in need of psychosocial assistance yet the programme remains chronically under-funded. Ben Messaoud correctly points out that if these invisible scars aren't dealt with now, they'll follow the kids into adulthood, with devastating consequences.
The agency is also helping to reunite former child soldiers with their families; it estimates some 17,000 have been recruited -- with 1,300 abducted and put into uniform this year alone. Some are re-recruited, even after being placed into safe havens.
Looking beyond the heavily-fortified walls of the Benitu camp the prospects for peace look very bleak indeed. With a peace agreement between President of South Sudan Salva Kiir and his former deputy, exiled rebel leader Riek Machar, in tatters, there's no sign of an end to the human slaughter which has claimed, by some estimates, as many as 50,000 lives over three years. Grave violations, including killing, forced recruitment of children, sexual assault, attacks on schools and abductions are continuously reported in all parts of the country.
On a trip earlier this week to nearby Rubkona, next to the Benitu camp, the once-vibrant town has been burnt to the ground, with few people and signs of mass graves. Invading forces couldn't even resist looting the local hospital, destroying its four ambulances and leaving the maternity ward in ruins.
It is hard to imagine things getting worse.
There are plenty of reasons the international community should continue providing aid to South Sudan, even thought it's one of the most expensive places in the world to deliver humanitarian interventions. What is now a mostly self-contained crisis could easily spread to neighbouring countries -- bringing along with it further instability.
Aid officials cite the northern region of Bahr el Ghazal, which has stayed mostly peaceful, on the verge of famine. Rising levels of hunger there have forced people to now make their way to Darfur, the region in Sudan made famous by actor George Clooney and which has faced famine in 2004. So far more than one million South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries. Aid officials say they expect things to get worse before they get better.
It is hard to imagine things getting worse. Aid workers continue to get expelled and in July a UN warehouse in Juba was looted of $3-million of pre-positioned supplies. A third of schools in the country are out of action, says UN OCHA.
Ruling South Sudan officials seem to believe civilians face no threat, that reports of ethnic-based violence is simple criminality, and that people should return home. The deputy governor of Unity State told me as much earlier this week -- going so far as to say the safe haven camps should be emptied and the UN should wind down its work.
One of the most poignant messages I heard during my visit to Benitu was from Nyajany Khan Ruot, a 28 -year-old mother who on Friday was reunified with three of her children who'd been missing since the start of the conflict. The reunion was the result of painstaking family tracing work done by UNICEF and its partners.
My message to the world is that war is bad. It separates children from their parents and they learn many bad habits along the way unless one parent is with them. Children are meant to be with their parents. In South Sudan there are so many children on their own.
Nyajany has one more child separated -- one among about 9,000 others in South Sudan who are apart from their parents.
Said Nyajany: "When I finished kissing my three children for the first time in three years my attention will then turn to my last child, who is still missing and is even further away."
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“I left Malakal because of the fighting, we were chased from there - they wanted to kill us. We walked here and the children were really suffering because we had nothing to eat on the way. Now we’re here, there still nothing to eat but leaves and my daughter is sick and malnourished. "Since the conflict started, life has become very difficult and we’re suffering every day. I would like to go home to Malakal where our lives were easier if there is peace, but I don't know what can stop this fighting. "It is good that South Sudan got its independence and we have our freedom, but it has not put an end to these wars. That is what I need for my children to have a better life, is an end to conflict.”
“It is good that we separated ourselves from Sudan because back when we were one country, we didn't have freedom. Now we are happy that we're with our own people, looking after our own affairs. "I wouldn't say I'm disappointed by the conflict which has broken out now, because I believe everything is in God's hands. But our lives were already hard, and this war has made everything more difficult. "I walked for ten days with my three children and mother to get here to Akobo, after the fighting broke out in Malakal and my husband got sick and died. My two daughters used to go to school, but now they have to go out to the forest with me to get leaves and berries for us to eat, or firewood for us to sell. [The leaves} are not enough and they’re getting sick from eating them all the time. "I hope there will be peace so that our situation can improve and we can go back to our home. But you know, there is always war here in South Sudan."
“This war has affected children in many ways. Some children have lost their parents; all of the houses have been burnt down and all of the food in the stocks has been looted or burnt. "During Independence, I thought we would be very happy because we had our freedom. When we were getting Independence and I gave birth to Nyabol I had hope. I said to myself when I gave birth ‘I won’t have to carry this child and flee the way we had to flee. This child will stay without any problems and when it grows big it will go to school’. "What I felt at the time of the war? I felt like it was taking us to zero level, we had to start again. Now I’m praying to God for peace Then our brothers who have run to other countries like Kenya and Uganda will be able to come back and build our country again, because at the moment it is completely destroyed. "My message to the world is South Sudan is one country and these are the same people who are killing themselves. They’re the ones that are looking for power. I hope the world can help bring peace and reconciliation to South Sudan so all of the South Sudanese people can be reconciled.”
“I was 16 years old when I got married. I did not go to school because there was no education when I was young. "My three eldest children now go to school. Their education has been interrupted because sometimes we don’t have the money to pay the school fees, and also because of insecurity. "We are always scared because when South Sudan got independence, it did not become a peaceful country. The armed groups stopped that – they were abducting children and killing people and now the fighting has started again so we don’t enjoy a peaceful country. "I hope South Sudan will be peaceful in the future with no fighting. I don’t feel good now because people are killing each other, they are killing themselves since they are the same people from the same country. We’re still running like we have been for 21 years.”
"My youngest son was one week old when the conflict started. I carried him wrapped tightly in a towel. I felt that if I would fall down I would drop him because we were running. "My husband left us here in the UNMISS camp and went to fight. [In April], attackers came around all sides of the camp. With the first shot they fired my child [William] was shot. I thought he was dead so I put him down and picked up my other child and ran. "William was found by an organisation who took him to Juba. After three or four days they brought a photo of him. I had lost hope he was alive, but when I saw the photo and I was shocked and happy to realise he was still alive. "I’d tell people outside of South Sudan – we’re dying here, there is a lot of sickness. We are scared of how long we will be here [in the camp]. All of us will die here. "We feel the children are not getting everything they need. William has problems – he does not eat. I want the international community to stop the war so we can live in peace and everyone can help themselves. "
“I grew up here in Akobo until I was 16, when I went to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to get an education and to escape the conflict. There was a lot of bombing in this area, even our church was bombed in 1999 and 2001. "When South Sudan became independent, I was really happy. I feel proud to be South Sudanese. We are black in colour and our culture is strong, and so is our faith. Under Sudan we were forced to be something we are not, but now we are independent everyone in the country should be free to choose their religion, culture, whatever they want. "For my son’s future, I really want him to study. But this conflict has made it difficult for him to begin his education. In truth, I’m very disappointed by the conflict. I feel like if this war goes on, my son won’t have the life I want him to.”
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