In humanitarian crises like South Sudan’s protracted conflict, people with physical disabilities struggle to escape when their villages are attacked.
The civil war in South Sudan that broke out in 2013 has displaced 1.6 million people within the young state since 2015, and forced over 768,000 people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The conflict has brought the country to its knees, crippling the economy and creating tribal rivalry and social disorder.
Widespread violence has made it difficult for people to cultivate crops, which has led to acute food shortages across the country. Meanwhile, banditry and cattle rustling are on the rise as demand for meat and milk soars. This instability has an intense impact the lives of everyone, but leaves the old, infirm and disabled particularly vulnerable.
Twenty-year-old Cecilia Yiko has not been able to walk since she was diagnosed with polio as a baby. Using her hands to crawl has until recently been her only way of moving from one place to another.
A strong woman
"I feel lonely sometimes, and scared. Other people can run away when raiders invade our villages. But I can’t do that,” Yiko says. Instead, the mother-of-three hides and prays that the bandits won’t find her, and that they spare her if they do.
“Sometimes the villagers hide me in their farms before fleeing," she says. One time, she recalls, they lowered her inside a shallow well.. Cattle raids occur on average once every two months in Terekeka county, where Yiko lives. Raiders steal cattle, kill men and abduct women and children. When her village is attacked, Yiko’s condition makes it difficult for her to seek safety.
There are few people with physical disabilities like in Yiko in the village of Mangala Payam, but the young woman is determined not to let peoples’ reactions break her. "I keep myself strong. I do not let negative comments crush my spirit."
"Other people can run away when raiders invade our villages. But I can’t do that", says Yiko.
She has a small team of supporters. Her father-in-law and her brother's children make sure that she gets everything she needs. In 2016, she received a wheelchair donated by a local organisation. With support from EU Humanitarian Aid, we provide shelter and distribute washing utensils, soap and water treatment tablets to Yiko and her community to make life a little easier.
Too old to flee
Some 50 miles away in the village of Gemeze Payam, lives Tebisa Abuk, an old woman whose age is unknown, but who according to the village chief, has lived for 132 years. Tebisa can’t see anymore, and she can only walk a few metres at a time. Her remaining son, Majok, takes care of her.
Tebisa’s community, the Mundari, are surrounded by groups in conflict with one another. Men from the neighbouring Murle and Dinka-Bor tribes often raid her village using guns and arson.
At the mercy of bandits
Tebisa remains inside her house when her village is attacked by raiders. Her neighbours and son want to help her, but it’s difficult to escape with someone who can’t walk. “You need to be able to run to save yourself. No one can run for you. She will tell us to leave when we try to remain with her,” says Majok.
Sometimes, bandits burn down all the houses in a village. Tebisa has asked her son to take down the walls of her house so that people can see her from outside. This way, she hopes that the next time her village is attacked, raiders will see her condition, spare her, and hesitate to burn down her house.
We work to make sure that people with physical disabilities receive first priority when we’re on the ground to support displaced people.
With fishing nets, hooks and fish preservation training provided by NRC, Majok will be able to better support himself and his mother to survive the violent conflict.
On the fourth anniversary of the conflict in South Sudan, the number of people in crisis grows amid escalating violence.