Pibor, South Sudan - “I don’t know. I don’t understand,” says Nyalak Aru, when asked why she was abducted a year ago, together with her little sister from her village in close to Malakal. Several other children and women from the same village were abducted with the two girls. It happened in broad daylight, within sight of the entire village. But nobody was able to prevent it.
Nyalak does not know how old she is. Abraham Kabacha, a child protection officer at the shelter for abductees run with UNICEF’s support, estimates she must be around ten.
Abductions of women and children is common practice in South Sudan. Women and girls are abducted to give birth, boys to be trained as warriors and to join inter-communal fighting and cattle raiding.
The custom was originally limited to certain communities and specific counties, but over the years it has become a generalized practice affecting many states throughout the state. Estimates refer to at least 680 cases of abduction in 2020.
Nyalak has bad memories when she thinks about what she went though: “After we were abducted, we walked for more than 14 days, through the bushes. We barely had something to eat or to drink. Once I asked for water for my little sister. I was beaten.”
Eventually, Nyalak ended up in a village not far from Pibor. The man to whom she was given, got scared he could be imprisoned if the authorities would discover he was keeping an abducted child. Hence, he sent Nyalak to the chief of the village who returned her to the local authorities in Pibor. From there she was brought to the interim care center for abducted women and children.
“Here, she is safe,” says Bachuy Kier, a consultant who runs UNICEF child protection programmes in Pibor.
“In the shelter children receive the care they need, including psycho-social assistance. Meanwhile, we trace their families and plan for the reunification purposes. We provide them with a reintegration kit which includes clothes and a mosquito net.”
There are currently 22 children in the interim care center. Some children were abducted in Jonglei State or the neighboring states. Others have traveled much further, including from the Equatoria States in the far south of the country. The children ended up in Greater Pibor Administrative Area after long walks, before being released and transferred to the local authorities.
The UNICEF supported family tracing has been successful for Nyalak. Her mother is found. And Nyalak was able to speak to her a few days ago. Preparations are now underway to reunify Nyalak with her mother in Malakal.
Nayalak can’t wait. “I want to go home. I want to be back with my mother,” she beams.
There is a hope the practice of abduction could end, or at least the number of cases could reduce significantly. A few weeks ago, a peace agreement was concluded in Pieri in Jonglei State between representatives from several communities, which includes arrangements on ending abductions and the return of abducted children and women.
Bachuy is cautiously positive: “The agreement remains fragile. We have continued to see cases of violent cattle raiding with abduction of women and children. But the numbers have diminished. For now…”
UNICEF is working with 35 partners, both international and national, to assist and reunify unaccompanied and separated children, including abducted children. Since the eruption of conflict in 2013 in South Sudan, more than 19,000 unaccompanied and separated children have been identified and registered in a central database. More than 6,000 are reunified with their parents.
UNICEF is grateful for the support to our child protection programmes and would like to thank EU/ECHO, the Federal Republic of Germany through KfW Development Bank and USAID. UNICEF would also like to thank many governments who continue to support emergency response by funding part of our Humanitarian Action for Children appeal, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Norway and Sweden.