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Walk in the footsteps of South Sudan’s lost children

Refugee resettlement camps offer a safer space for South Sudanese children, who make up 64% of all refugees in Uganda.

Manyang Deng solemnly contemplates the bleak landscape of white aid tents from the scrappy shade of a tree, his eyes weary beyond his 10 years. Nearby, oblivious to the baking sun, his two younger brothers are playing. One is six years old, the other just four. Manyang looks after them. He has done so for over a year, since his father died here in the sprawling Nyumanzi refugee settlement in northern Uganda and they became orphans. Manyang doesn’t talk about his father’s death, or the day he lost his mother.

That was two years ago, back home in South Sudan, before he fled with his father and brothers from the lawlessness and brutality of the conflict in the world’s youngest state. They had only the clothes on their backs.

“Life is very hard when you live without parents,” he says softly and stares at the ground. “Sometimes we don’t go to school because we don’t have books or food.”

Manyang and his brothers are among the wave of South Sudanese children who have sought refuge outside the troubled country’s borders since fighting broke out between forces loyal to the government and the opposition in December 2013. More than 3.2-million people have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nation’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Some 1.8-million are displaced inside South Sudan, and 1.4-million people have crossed its borders.

About half of all the people displaced are children and many have either been separated from their parents or orphaned, the UN’s undersecretary general and emergency relief co-ordinator, Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council last month.

“I have received more and more harrowing reports of families being separated with little to no provisions; of the sick, disabled and elderly simply terrifyingly being left behind to a inhuman — or sadly a too well-known; and of attacks including killing, rape and abduction of young men,” O’Brien said. More than 17 000 children are believed to have been recruited by the armed militias in South Sudan.

Children seek shelter under a temporary structure in a camp in Adjumani District. Many minors live without their parents and relatives in the camp. (Magume Davis Rwakaringi)

The kindness of strangers

Those who survive the marauding gangs and the dangerous journey south, often through marshland or dense bush and at risk from wild animals, find themselves in a foreign land with new perils — even in Uganda, which the UN has described as exceptional in its welcoming policy towards refugees.

Refugee families are given a small plot of land to build a home and to farm so that they can survive.

But Manyang, who was only nine when his father died in Nyumanzi, could not provide for his brothers.

This is really difficult for children without adults, Irene Nakasiita of the Uganda Red Cross Society says.

Concerned for Manygang’s welfare, a neighbour in the settlement — herself a refugee — took the three boys in despite struggling to provide for four children of her own.

Adau Deng (24) — no relation to the brothers — came across them in Nyumanzi after fleeing South Sudan with her young children when fighting broke out in her native Jonglei state. Deng lost touch with her husband, a soldier, and has been raising her children, aged between five and 12, on her own.

With Manyang and his brothers, eight people share her white aid tent. It is a daunting task looking after so many children, Deng admits. She was still a child herself when her eldest was born and not only struggles to get enough food for them all, but also to discipline the orphans she is fostering.

“Whenever I tell them to go and fetch water for bathing, they refuse. I have to do it. When I try and correct them, like when they are fighting, they get annoyed and refuse to eat,” Deng says. “Maybe if they had parents, they would understand [them] better. It is very difficult.”

Learning to care

Aid workers admit they struggle to cope with the huge numbers of children: last year alone 8 970 separated and unaccompanied South Sudanese children were registered for reunification and foster care in Uganda, according to the UN Children’s Fund.

The Lutheran World Federation, an international co-operative of Lutheran churches, is one of the organisations working to place unaccompanied young refugees with foster families in the refugee settlements.

The organisation helps to find suitable foster carers and offers rewards to make the lives of foster families easier, explains Alice Irene Badaru, field extension officer for the federation.

“We gave some of them houses and toilets so that they could have a home. We also handed out mattresses to make their homes comfortable. This is also to show that you can benefit if you take someone in,” Badaru says.

Crucially, they teach the foster carers parenting skills — that they not only need protection, education and food, but also love.

“These children live in fear. They are deeply traumatised because of the violence they have seen,” says Badaru.

Children who end up in the refugee settlements without parents — either because they got separated on their flight or because their parents died — are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and neglect, aid workers say.

“We know they are more vulnerable because they are firstly still just children,” explains Nakasiita. “It is their first time without a parent, without someone looking after them and doing things for them. They are refugees in a foreign land where they don’t understand the language or know anyone.”

South Sudanese refugees listen to a speech during an event to mark Human Rights day in the Maajji refugee settlement in December, 2016. (Magume Davis Rwakaringi)

Children’s trauma runs deep

Abraham Bior and his family are fostering a 15-year-old who does not know whether her parents are still alive. She is withdrawn and extremely angry, Bior says. “I talked to her because she did not go to school and she became really upset.”

The girl, who barely talks to her foster family, refused to eat and was eventually admitted a hospital in the settlement.

Strained relations such as these receive the attention of case workers from the Red Cross and the Lutheran federation, which monitor foster families. They help the children adjust and support the foster carers when the children are particularly difficult, Nakasiita explains.

Counselling is crucial for both the foster carers and their charges: many children are so traumatised that they need long-term counselling, she says. “We have to support them emotionally. These are children who have seen everyone in their family being killed, who don’t know where their parents are or who know they are dead and can’t visit their graves.”

Of the new refugees from South Sudan, 86% are women and children and 64% are children under the age of 18, figures from the UN refugee agency show. This makes it particularly difficult for the overstretched aid workers not only to make sure that children go to school, but also that they are safe from sexual and gender-based violence. Risks include forced marriage, early marriage, physical abuse and child labour.

Refugee students in Pagirinya camp in Uganda. Despite the very limited classroom facilities for them, they believe one day they will be able to make it if they get an education. (Magume Davis Rwakaringi)

Reuniting on the other side

The Red Cross helps to reunite children with their families through a tracing office in South Sudan. Aid workers help them phone, if they have any numbers to call, or circulate pictures. But with the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, it is difficult to trace people or even establish whether they are alive.

Adith Dau (16) is one of the veterans in the Nyumanzi settlement. She was 13 when violence broke out in Jonglei State’s Duk County in 2013. Adith grabbed her little brother, then five, and headed for the safety of the bush. They walked for days to an uncle in Bor County, who gave them money to get to the South Sudanese capital of Juba and eventually Uganda.

“I don’t know what happened to my parents or where they are,” says Adith. Slightly built and shy, responsibility has stripped her of any teenage light-heartedness. “It’s difficult taking care of my brother. When we come back from school there is nothing to eat at home and he usually starts crying.”

Adith has lost all hope of returning to South Sudan and finding her family. Despite the difficulty, she has settled here.

Nakasiita says: “This is no decent life for a child. But there is no option. We just have to keep on visiting them over and over and support them.

“This is not one session or two sessions: it’s an ongoing process. It is hard to undo their memories.” — Additional reporting by Adri Kotze

This is the second and last article in a series on South Sudanese refugees in Uganda.

Mugume Davis Rwakaringi is a journalist based in Juba, South Sudan.