Lost lives and opportunities for children in remote conflict-ridden South Sudan
Living without enough food, access to clean water, education, or a roof over their heads is normal for many children living in remote communities across South Sudan.
This is simply their reality after growing up in the midst of a conflict that has raged across the country since civil war broke out in 2013.
The security situation is now improving in some areas and many who previously fled as refugees or were internally displaced are beginning to return to their villages. In many cases though, they are finding little to return to.
In Kotobi, about 170 kilometers to the north-west of South Sudan’s capital Juba, residents who fled a few months ago because of violent clashes have begun to trickle back only to find that their homes have been burnt to the ground. There is simply nothing left.
“The houses we left here behind in Kotobi were burnt by wildfires,” says Juan Tebriwa. “When we arrived back here, we were given some tents but they have been damaged by the sun. Now we are just in the bush sleeping under mango trees. Children are living in fear. There is no one here to help us build a house. My husband has died, but we will stay here in Kotobi for now.”
Others say they may give up and just go back to the bush.
“Last year, we ran to the bush. Now the government has called on us to return but our houses are all burnt,” says one resident. “Back in the bush we have cultivated and we are staying near our crops. They are calling us home, but if we come back, we will not have our crops, not even a little for the porridge for the children.”
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) patrols conflict-affected areas across the country as part of its mandate to protect civilians. It shares information about humanitarian concerns like those in Kotobi with its partners so they can provide assistance.
On this mission, it witnessed not only the destruction of tukuls (thatched homes) but also the devastating impact on vital infrastructure and support services.
In Kotobi, the primary school has been severely damaged and lies empty.
“The children have not been going to the school for the last three years, which is very, very bad,” says Mundri Governor, Josephe Ngere Paciko. “I studied here in my youth so I also want the children to benefit from this school. We hope they will go back to their lessons later this month.”
The main hospital is also a crumbling wreck, leaving returnees without access to even basic health care.
“There is no hospital. We are just staying here. Many children have died, even my daughter was pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy but she lost him due to lack of medication,” says resident Juanna Tebriwa.
The facilities in Kotobi reflect the dilapidated state of other hospitals in the area, like Bangolo, where one resident says: “we don’t have medicine, when we get sick we just dig roots and herbs and drink it.”
“The health facilities are so dire we have learned that, in the recent past, some pregnant women died because they could not have access to medical services,” says UNMISS team leader Geoffrey Omon. “We have learned also that some children died because of hunger and with this kind of situation it is appalling to us and we are very much concerned.”
A local chief says, while they do get help from visiting medical teams, they need a permanent facility.
“Of course there is a problem with health because MSF usually comes here once a week, they have a mobile clinic,” says Ruben Manas, Paramount Chief of Bangolo. “But sickness will not wait for seven days so we need a permanent health center to be established here.”
Those living in Lui – roughly 40 kilometers away on a bad road - are much luckier with a good hospital but they’re still suffering from a lack of food and clean water.
“This hospital is where we are surviving but we are tired because our children here all have running stomach (diarrhea),” says Lui resident, Evan Simon. “Even though they get treatment there is no proper food here so we don’t know what to do.”
There is hope that the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement by all warring parties in December will bring durable peace. So that the children of South Sudan finally get the opportunity they deserve to flourish and reach their full potential.