9 May 2014 - When fighting first erupted between government troops and opposition fighters in her town of Malakal, SOS mother Nyanyul Look did not imagine her family would be in danger. Surely, no one – not even fighters – would jeopardize the safety of a child. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Malakal, the capital of South Sudan’s oil-producing Upper Nile State, has repeatedly changed hands since fighting broke out in mid-December 2013. First opposition fighters loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar captured the town. Then government forces recaptured it, only to lose it to the rebels again days later.
"I told them the village was for orphans"
As the conflict intensified, artillery and rocket fire could be clearly heard in the SOS village.
When 12-year-old Samuel Lueth heard gunshots, he hid under his bed. “I was so scared,” he recalls. “I was not sure who was shooting whom. Everyone in the room became quiet.”
Then, the rebels entered the SOS village. Nyanyul spoke to them in their local Nuer language.
“I told them the village was for orphans and they shouldn´t trouble the people living there, nor damage property,” says Nyanyul, who is an SOS mother to seven children and has worked with SOS for over 10 years. “Some listened, but others didn’t care and demanded money and mobile phones from the mothers.”
Samuel, a child from a different SOS household than Nyanyul’s, was frightened by the gun-wielding rebels: “I was terrified the soldiers would kill my mum. They demanded her phone and money so cruelly.”
Nyanyul comforted her children and assured them that everything would be okay. Her youngest son, three-year-old Ramadhan, didn’t realise how dangerous the fighters were. “SPLA, oyee,” – “SPLA, hi there! Look here!” – he shouted, trying to make friends [‘SPLA’ is a short name for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, composed of rebel fighters].
Days after stealing phones and money from the village mothers, the rebels returned. They stormed into the village and looted everything they could find. They ransacked the village director’s office, and threatened and harassed everyone there.
That’s when Nyanyul knew it was time to abandon the village and home to protect her children.
Protecting Her Children in An Unthinkable Situation
The only safe place to stay was at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal, where tens of thousands of people were already seeking shelter and protection from the murderous gangs.
The SOS families were escorted to the UN camp by Nyanyul´s relatives, who were armed with weapons to protect the families.
“The UN base was so congested; it was overcrowded,” recalls Nyanyul, who acted as the representative for the mothers. “We did not have enough water or enough toilets and I was afraid there would be a disease outbreak. I was also scared the children would get lost in the masses; often they disappeared into the crowds and the mothers had to go looking for them. My seven-year-old daughter was also making it difficult. I think she was severely affected by the incidents of the past few days. Every time I gave her food she refused to eat.” Nyabiel Ayiik, an SOS mother in Malakal for the past 11 years, didn’t feel safe even within the confines of the UN compound.
“I could not sleep well at night,” she says. “My fear was that the rebels would force their way into the camp.”
Nyanyul’s greatest comfort, though, came from the knowledge that child protection and welfare are key to SOS Children’s Villages, and that it was only a matter of time before a rescue effort was underway.
“Constant communication with staff in Juba also gave me assurance that plans to free us from this nightmare were in progress,” she says.
The Escape to Juba
On 13 and 14 March, 92 SOS children, as well as their mothers, ‘aunts’ and SOS co-workers, were successfully evacuated from the UN compound. They were airlifted by a United Nations Humanitarian Air Services (UNHAS) plane to the capital, Juba, about 650 km away.
The families had been at the UN base for a month.
“I was so excited when we boarded the plane at Malakal airport” said Nyanyul. “I wondered how it had been possible to organise the rescue because there were no flights landing at the airport. This was an experience I will never forget.”
Twelve-year-old Nyabech Long says: “I was amazed. I didn’t think it would be possible to evacuate us. It was unbelievable.”
In Juba, the SOS families from Malakal have been living all together in a 21-bedroom house.
Nyabiel sighs with relief: “There is food, there is a place to sleep, and there is water. What more can we ask for?”
Nyanyul can already tell that the children’s health and spirits have improved.
“The meals in Juba are far better and the children are happier,” she says. “The joy of being here has made them hyper-active.”
Now that the children are slowly putting the traumatic events behind them, it is time to go to school again. About 56 youngsters have been enrolled in local primary schools while 28 are attending kindergarten.
Meanwhile SOS Children’s Villages is in consultation with relevant government officials in an effort to find a durable and sustainable solution that will guarantee the families a more permanent and secure dwelling.