Mary Nyakuaikoch was born in Koch.
She was married in Koch, gave birth to her children and remained in the town despite violence raging around her when civil war broke out across South Sudan. She intends the town to be her final resting place.
“I love Koch. I will never abandon my home here,” she says.
The five-year battle between government and opposition forces has devastated the once-thriving town. A once-bustling market place now has only a handful of stalls open selling a few vegetables and fruits and some shoes.
“We went through a lot of suffering, some people ran away for their safety, for their lives,” says Mary. “They went with their children and left their belongings behind. When they came back, everything had been looted so they left again. Now there is nothing.”
The area has enjoyed relative calm since the signing of a revitalized peace deal by warring parties last September. As a result, many displaced families are returning to the area. But they are struggling to survive. Food, clean water, healthcare and education are in short supply.
“It is an incredibly poor area and this is partly the reason why we have conflict here,” says the Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, David Shearer. “A lot of people have moved out of this area and moved to our Protection of Civilians camp in Bentiu.”
A trust fund established by the United Nations and supported by generous donors is being used to give people the confidence to move back to the area by ensuring there is a protective peacekeeping presence and that basic services are established.
The Reconciliation, Stabilization and Resilience Trust Fund will spend $5.2 million dollars over two years in a series of projects led by World Relief and a consortium of non-governmental organizations, including CARE, Danish Refugee Council and Mercy Corps.
Koch is the first location to benefit from the fund.
The County Commissioner describes that decision as particularly fitting given the word Koch means “starting point”. He is looking forward to the fund restoring what was once the “blessed land”.
Just down the road from the Commissioner’s compound, hundreds of children line the road as a convoy of UN and humanitarian vehicles make their way into the schoolyard.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” their voices sing out in harmony as they clap their hands and stamp their feet in delight.
They are celebrating the opportunity of a new life – one of dignity and opportunity – where they can access all the basic things they need to survive and, even more than that, to thrive.
First on the list is the rehabilitation of the secondary school, which is currently closed.
“If we can put services here and start developing the area, then we know that people from the UN protection camps will come back here,” says David Shearer. “People here really value education so having a secondary school here will help cement the reconciliation that is going on and reduce conflict because people will be focused on making sure their children are going to school.”
Just down the road, the building that houses the local hospital still stands. But inside, it is barren with a couple of basic metal beds and a laboratory with no visible equipment. Medical garments that should be sterilized hang on washing lines outside in the dusty, dirty open air.
Renovation of this facility is another project on the trust fund list, along with rebuilding the court system, new support services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, the rehabilitation of roads and markets and educational opportunities for women who missed out on schooling so they can establish businesses to support themselves.
“My very, very strong feeling is that these people want peace more than anything else,” says David Shearer. “The two sides are obviously working together here, they are visiting each other, they are talking to each other. They don’t want to go back to war and we are told this over and over.”
It will not be an easy recovery for Koch. During a meeting with local women in a hot, dark tukul, one bluntly recounts her experience of being raped by five men during the conflict. She feels like there is no point in reporting the crime because all five offenders still live in the area and are unlikely to be held accountable until the justice system is restored.
Despite being brutalized by the conflict in so many ways, the women of Koch remain are optimistic about the future, especially now that they know development is coming to town.
“I am very excited that there is going to be peace,” says Mary Nyakuaikoch. “Women are not going to be running around carrying their kids and getting sick in the bush. They will have good medical services. They will have schools for their kids to go to and so many other services coming into this community. We are looking forward to a much better life.”