Children fleeing South Sudan struggle in CAR refugee villages
Lone children who flee South Sudan in search of safety in the Central African Republic still face difficulties in communities without clean water, health clinics or schools.
By: Patience Ntemgwa
BAMBOUTI, Central African Republic, June 9 (UNHCR) - At home in South Sudan, priests cared for Semo and Seto Abu, disabled 10-year-old twins who struggle to walk and look after themselves. But civil war swept through their home, forcing them to flee to the Central African Republic where they face a desperate plight.
“Armed people attacked our village in Source Yubu in November. We fled and spent several days on the road, and finally arrived here, where a family friend took us in,” says Semo. The brothers ended up in Bambouti, a small collection of villages in the east of CAR that is today home to more than 10,000 South Sudanese refugees.
Their father died late last year from a snake bite while farming his fields at home. The Lord’s Resistance Army – a militia that terrorizes swathes of the region – kidnapped their mother three years earlier during an earlier cycle of violence.
Here in Bambouti, they were lucky to come across Jules Sabu, an old friend of their parents, who has taken them into his meagre refugee shelter and is looking after them alongside his own seven children. “In South Sudan, we were helped by priests who sent us to school and provided us with tricycles,” says Seto, clearly upset at the memory of the specially-adapted wheelchairs he used to move around. “I wish I could go back to school.”
The problem is that the last functioning school here in Bambouti was destroyed in the Central African Republic’s own internal conflict in 2002. Similarly, there are no doctors or health facilities, no major markets, very little drinkable water, almost no government or humanitarian agency representation, and no tricycles for the twins.
The original population here was perhaps 950 people. The community’s tenfold increase since the refugees arrived has seriously strained local resources, and vulnerable children like Semo and Seto are the worst affected.
Meanwhile, a joint appeal by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and it partners to alleviate the South Sudan refugee situation across the entire east and central African region is only 17 per cent funded.
“The presence of several unaccompanied minors among the refugees in Bambouti is a big concern,” says Lazare Kouassi Etien, who heads UNHCR in CAR.
“We have made sure that they received special attention. Starting in mid-June, we will carry out a fuller registration of these refugees, while also identifying host families in the community in Bambouti who can provide a home for them. We will set up avenues for reunification with their family members, as soon as the security situation in South Sudan improves.”
South Sudan’s main civil war erupted in December 2013 and ended with a peace deal in August 2015. But it spawned a series of smaller-scale conflicts that rumble on today, like the one in Western Equatoria that the refugees at Bambouti ran from.
During a recent rapid assessment mission in Bambouti in May, UNCHR staff spoke to 10 unaccompanied or vulnerable children among the refugee population. Many more may be found when the wider registration exercise is completed in June.
Brothers Wenya, 10, and Essem, 12, became separated from their four older siblings as they all fled fighting in November near Source Yubu, where they lived in South Sudan. Their parents have both died, and in Bambouti they are being looked after by their aunt, Antunta. The family requested their names were changed to conceal their identities.
“We have received some basic household items like blankets and pots from UNHCR, and spades so that we can start cultivating crops to feed the children,” she said. “They can no longer go to school and this is a real concern for them.”
Humanitarian agencies face extreme difficulties raising funds to meet even the basic needs of water, food, shelter, and emergency medical care for the 2.4 million South Sudanese displaced by the conflict and its knock-on effects on the economy. A joint appeal for US$638 million by UNHCR and partners to aid refugees from South Sudan remains 83 per cent underfunded.
Providing schooling takes second place behind ensuring the basics of survival for these refugees. But that is not good enough for Susan Aminisa, 10, whose parents died in the same fighting in Source Yubu in November that forced Wenya and Essem to flee. She arrived in Bambouti in the care of her elder sister and her two young children.
Despite struggling daily for food and clean water and living in a makeshift shelter, Susan’s priority remains her schooling. “I wish we could pursue our education so that in future we can take care of ourselves,” she says. “I would like to become a teacher so that I can teach other unfortunate children.”