By Ricardo Pires
A girl’s terrifying ordeal reflects a reality for thousands of children caught in the middle of South Sudan’s conflict – separated from their families, alone and in urgent need of help.
PAGAK, South Sudan, 2 May 2014 – Nyagonar* still remembers the last time she saw her mother. It was in Malakal, one of many towns in South Sudan where fighting and insecurity have become constant threats.
Nyagonar, just 10 years old, was forced to flee Malakal two months ago. She eventually found her way to the village of Pagak, nearly 300 kilometres away, along the South Sudanese border with Ethiopia, where she was identified as in need of support.
“I never saw her again”
“The fighting started in the middle of the night, and we woke up scared and ran out to find a place to hide,” Nyagonar recalls in a trembling voice. “When I got outside with my mother, we saw my father dead on the ground. My mother kept screaming, pulling me to run and hide.”
After hiding in the bush for four days, Nyagonar’s mother decided it was time to go back to the village, since the gunshots seemed to have stopped.
It was a false impression of safety, and the quiet lasted only a few hours.
“My mother came to me again as I was sleeping, saying we needed to run to the camp where they would protect us,” Nyagonar says. “Outside, everybody was running and screaming, and many were being killed. I didn’t look back. When I reached the place and tried to find my mother, she had disappeared. I never saw her again.”
Completely alone and frightened, the girl continued to look for her mother inside the United Nations base in Malakal. Weeks went by, and she started to lose hope, still unable to sleep at night, fearful that violence would start again if she closed her eyes. That was when Nyagonar decided to join a group of displaced people going to Pagak.
“We walked for two months with very little food and water. I didn’t know anybody, and I was alone. Many died on the way or couldn’t go on,” she says. “We had to cross rivers by boat or swimming, and sometimes we got the chance to eat and drink if we passed by villages where people weren’t fighting.”
As she talks, tears roll down her cheeks.
“I have nobody else”
To address the problem of unaccompanied and separated children, UNICEF established a Family Tracing and Reunification programme in Pagak and dispatched a rapid response team to the area. Nyagonar was one of 160 children identified in need of immediate support.
Across South Sudan, UNICEF has registered more than 3,000 children as separated or unaccompanied, and there are many more who have not yet been reached – thousands who share the same terrible uncertainty as Nyagonar. Despite the turmoil of South Sudan at the moment, UNICEF has managed to reunify 251 children with their parents or close relatives.
Before fighting broke out in South Sudan last December, Nyagonar was in school finishing grade 4. She dreamed of being a teacher, but her ambitions now are just to find her mother again and to have peace.
“I’m scared that my mother isn’t alive, but I hope other people will take care of me. I have nobody else,” Nyagonar says. “I would like to go back and study again, but only if there is a safe place. I just want my mother and to go back home. Sometimes, I wake up with lots of people holding me because they say I’m shouting and moving a lot. I’m scared I will never be able to have a good sleep again.”
- Name changed