In a group of around one hundred children − some singing, some playing, some crying − two young girls in particular stand out. Their names are Madiha*, 9, and Lina*, 4. It is not their unusual silence that catches my attention, but the way they frequently hug each other, often seemingly involuntarily.
Lina tightly grips her blue bunny rabbit, her eyes never leaving sight of it. Madiha hugs her tiny sister, keeping an eye on everyone and anything with a sense of alertness.
I meet Madiha and Lina at a 'child-friendly space', run by Plan International, in Awerial in the Lakes state of South Sudan. A ‘child-friendly space’ is a lifeline for children in disasters and for those displaced and separated from friends and family. Relief often comes in the form of a white canvas tent and a friendly blue logo of a child and sun − as long as the tent follows minimum standards.
The more I peer through the viewfinder of my camera, the more difficult the expression of affection between these two tiny children is to ignore.
Their silence is their story.
In December 2013, South Sudan descended into armed conflict, leading to human suffering of catastrophic proportions. Thousands have been killed, while the UN estimates that 900,000 people have been displaced from their homes, with some 190,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries. Thousands of children and women have also been trapped in the crossfire, displaced and separated from family and friends, and are now living an unending nightmare.
With fear in her eyes, Madiha recounts her tale. She explains how she saw armed men attacking everything, killing everyone in sight. Soon after the conflict began, her hometown of Bor, Jonglei state, turned into a flashpoint in the battle between government soldiers and armed rebels. The violence spiralled out of control, thousands died and a mass exodus began.
On 28 December, armed men seized Madiha’s mother and father. Later that day, they were shot dead at close range. The young girl witnessed it all.
Madiha’s first instinct was to protect Lina. She grabbed hands of her sister − the only thing left in her life - and ran. As they made their escape, this nine-year-old child was transformed into a mother and father to her four-year-old sister, leaving her childhood behind.
The sisters joined the wave of people heading to the River Nile, many of them wounded and bleeding from the violence and gun battle. The same night, Madiha and Lina managed to find a place in a boat ferrying people across the river. “There were lot of people in the boat," Madiha recalls.
The pair landed in Awerial the next day and been seeking refuge there ever since.
In this child-friendly space in the town, there are over a hundred children here who perhaps have similar stories − those of desperate moments when logic and reasoning had to be abandoned and the need for survival took over as the only instinct.
In July 2011, the world witnessed the birth of South Sudan as over 99% of South Sudanese who voted in an historic referendum cast their ballots in favour of independence. In 2005, Sudan's protracted civil war − in which over 2 million people died and five million were displaced − had come to an end. And contained in the creation of a brand new country were the collective hopes of its citizens. I was in South Sudan shortly after the referendum and remember listening to a group of youngsters in a makeshift football ground in the capital Juba. Their optimism was infectious.
Fast forward to December 2013, however, and a dormant political struggle between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar erupted into a full-blown crisis.
Despite peace talks in Addis Ababa, things in the country continued to deteriorate and in mid-February, the UN elevated South Sudan to a Level 3 emergency, the highest in the UN system and on par with the situation in Syria. Despite an agreement signed between the government and rebels in late January, clashes and insecurity continue to constrain the humanitarian response.
An estimated 3.7 million people are in need of the life-sustaining support, but limited funding, lack of media attention and looming food crisis have made the situation a race against time. Half of those affected have not received any assistance until now, and in addition to food, water and shelter, survivors such as Madiha and Lina also need emotional care and support.
Aid agencies and the UN desperately need resources to provide life-supporting services. Funding gaps are limiting the ability of organisations to respond to humanitarian needs and thus forcing them to make difficult decisions about how to use limited aid money.
The UN estimates that $1.27 billion is required by June to meet immediate needs but so far, donors have committed just 21% of that. Lack of media attention is one factor limiting fund mobilisation. In disasters, better media attention is key to mobilising resources.
Refugees and humanitarian crises are not new for South Sudan, and children such as Madiha and Lina are the ones who suffer the most. The majority of the country's population is under 18 and young people's need for education, protection and psychosocial care must be central to relief and recovery efforts.
Peace is a pre-condition for relief and development work, while education is a driver for peace. Both must be pursued simultaneously. I ask Madiha and Lina what they want to be when they grow up. Madiha says a doctor − perhaps a sign that life will continue. Lina wants to be a teacher − perhaps a reminder that education is a catalyst for lasting peace.
In conflict zones, time travels in one direction. It takes humankind back, where lives and landscapes are altered forever. But despite all that has happened, nothing can diminish the hopes of these two children.
*Names have been changed.
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For further reading around the subject see:
|Justice Cannot Wait in South Sudan||Donor-Driven Technical Fixes Failed South Sudan: It’s Time to Get Political||Experts Weekly: South Sudan in Violent Crisis|