14 May 2014

Mother Courage: When War Came to Malakal

(5/14/2014): Malakal 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 rebels days later.

"I told them the Village was for orphans," SOS Mother Nyanyul said. She has been an SOS Mother for more than 10 years and currently cares for seven children.

“Some listened, but others didn’t care and demanded money and mobile phones from the mothers.”

Days after stealing phones and money, the rebels returned. They stormed into the Village and looted everything they could find. They ransacked the Village Director’s office and harassed everyone there.

Nyanyul knew it was time to abandon the Village.

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 and overcrowded,” Nyanyul said.  

“We did not have enough water or enough toilets and I was afraid there would be an outbreak of disease. I was also scared that the children would get lost in the masses. My seven-year-old daughter was severely affected by the incidents in Malakal. 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 came from the knowledge that child protection and welfare are vital 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 said.

The Escape to Juba

In mid-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 Juba after spending one month in the UNMISS camp.

“I was so excited when we boarded the plane at Malakal airport,” Nyanyul said. “I wondered how it had been possible to organize the rescue because there were no flights landing at the airport. This was an experience I will never forget.”

Twelve-year-old Nyabech Long couldn’t believe the group was flown to Juba.

“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 in a 21-bedroom house.

“There is food, there is a place to sleep, and there is water. What more can we ask for?” Nyabiel said.

“The meals in Juba are far better and the children are happier. The joy of being here has made them hyperactive.”

Now that the children are gradually putting the traumatic events behind them, it is time to go to school again. About 56 youngsters have been enrolled in local primary school, and 28 are attending kindergarten.

Meanwhile SOS Children’s Villages is in consultation with relevant government officials in an effort to find a long-term and sustainable solution that will guarantee the families a more permanent and secure dwelling.

>> You can support our efforts to care for people in emergency situations like this one in South Sudan by making a donation here.

This story is part of a month-long series telling the stories of women and mothers around the world. The series is part of the SOS Children’s Villages – USA ‘Celebrate Mothers. Empower Women’ campaign. You can find more stories, free eGifts and more at CelebrateMoms.org