“The children and the elderly, they slaughtered them…. I've seen children tied to their dead mother and thrown in the river”
After a UN report warned “a process of ethnic cleansing was under way” in South Sudan and famine was declared in Unity State, refugees have described the horrors that forced hundreds of thousands of women and children to flee to sanctuary in Uganda.
Since the fighting escalated in July 2016, more than half a million refugees have escaped from South Sudan, the majority into Uganda. This is now Africa’s largest refugee crisis; more than 1.5 million people have fled South Sudan since the conflict erupted in December 2013.
Of these, 86% are women and children arriving terrified, hungry and often alone. Many children are too traumatised to speak and do not know if their parents are alive. Last year more South Sudanese refugees crossed into Uganda than the number who crossed the Mediterranean in the same period.
Sylvia *, a mother, 31, fled the conflict when she saw her best friend murdered by armed groups, along with the friend’s three month old daughter, in Yei, a city in the south west of South Sudan.
She said: “My closest friend and her children were slaughtered in Yei, she was still breastfeeding. The youngest was three months and the oldest was four.
"I've seen children tied to their dead mother and thrown in the river – soldiers have been doing this a lot. Children weren’t going to school, and there was hunger everywhere. Children would die of illness.”
Sylvia*, travelled from Yei with other people from her village, spending several days hiding in the bush from the conflict. On her journey she found a two-year-old baby, hungry, dehydrated and lying in the ditch by the roadside. Sylvia still does not know the girl’s name, or what happened to her parents, but is now caring for her as her own. Sylvia said it was her duty as a mother to take the child in.
“I found her crying in a ditch,” Sylvia said. “She was naked, malnourished and dehydrated. The grass had almost covered her. As a mother I felt so bad, I had to take her.”
Joan*,, 35 – who arrived with *Joy, a 14-year-old girl – completed the 80KM journey on foot while eight months pregnant. She described the terrifying situation for women and children in South Sudan, where young women were gang-raped by up to ten men, and women and children were slaughtered by soldiers.
“When the armed groups came to the village they would rape young girls. Ten men can sleep with one woman, no problem if you die. They used to not kill women, now they are killing women, children and the elderly.”
Flavia, a Save the Children worker, said: “They are telling us that back home they have witnessed their parents being killed. One boy said his father was hung next to him - it comes to him in his dreams and the next morning he wakes up and he’s speechless. We are also seeing cases of malnutrition; you can count their ribs when you see them.”
Pete Walsh, Save the Children’s Country Director in South Sudan, said:
“We are extremely concerned by UN warnings of atrocities in South Sudan and call on the parties to the conflict to protect civilians caught up in it.”
“The testimonies we are hearing are horrifying. Children are arriving alone, having been forced to flee their homes in search for safety and protection. Many are on the brink of starvation. Famine has already been declared in three locations and will spread, unless the world opens its eyes to this catastrophe.
“Save the Children is working across South Sudan and supporting refugees in Uganda. All parties to the conflict must ensure civilians are protected and aid workers are able to continuing delivering life-saving health-care and protection to vulnerable, innocent children.”