South Sudan: ‘We were there from the beginning’
In December 2013, South Sudan – Africa’s newest country – fell into a vicious civil war. Tens of thousands of people fled the violence. Now over year since the start of the crisis, Dom tells the stories of Save the Children staff living and working in the Awerial camp which is still home to 97,000 people.
Save the Children Child Protection Manager Sammy, was part of the humanitarian response from the beginning of the crisis and has clear memories of those initial days:
“The first thing I remember is the desperation on people’s faces. The sound of children crying.”
He goes on, describing his horror as he witnessed small children walking in the scorching heat, diarrhea running down their bare legs.
A choice to come back and help
Sammy was in Bor when the violence erupted. On the 20 December 2013 he, alongside other members of staff, were evacuated to the capital Juba. They left everything behind but the clothes on their back.
Painfully aware that the community he had worked so closely with in Bor was now displaced in Awerial, within days Sammy chose to join them.
By the time he got there, the number of people fleeing their homes was reaching 100,000 – with hundreds still arriving daily at the boat port.
There at the beginning
He speaks proudly of Save the Children’s involvement: “We were there from the beginning. Everyone used our compound, and as more organizations arrived we were an information hub, a reference point.”
Working in child protection, the primary task for Sammy and his team was to locate and register unaccompanied children, and ultimately reunite them with their families.
In the panic that followed the violence, children were separated – and without any infrastructure, mobile phone coverage or internet, and in a vast expanse of tents and people, tracing both parents and children is difficult work.
In Awerial, Save the Children has registered 1,046 unaccompanied children over the past year – and to date, only 196 children have been returned to their parents.
Sammy is acutely aware of the task at hand: “Despite so much effort, there are still over 500 children that we cannot find. It is a great challenge, a huge caseload and a huge pressure.”
A Return to Education
James also lived in Bor and fled with the onset of violence. Though his family has since moved to Uganda, he has chosen to remain in Awerial and assist with the response.
Now working as an Education Officer for Save the Children, he talks of the reality of life in those first few months. “We slept in tents, and it was cold at night.
“The food in the market was so expensive and not a lot. There were just too many people. We ate once a day, and slept hungry. This lasted until April.”
Despite the difficult conditions, there were successes. “The first year was so challenging. There was only one school and so many children. We put tents up for learning, and once the children saw, they wanted to come.”
“This must be a year of change”
As a consequence of the war more than 400,000 children in South Sudan were forced to drop out of school, fleeing for safety in locations without adequate educational facilities.
Save the Children South Sudan Country Director, Peter Walsh, speaks with pride about the work of Save the Children in Awerial: “Before the conflict there were only two schools in Awerial, and now there are 43 Temporary Learning Spaces, providing an environment for 4,258 children to learn.
“Challenges still remain however, and there is a long way to go. All children have the right to education, and Save the Children’s priority is to make this a reality for the children of South Sudan in 2015. This must be a year of change. ”