As gunfire raged in Malakal, South Sudan, in December 2013, amid an upsurge of violence, Isaac James, a youth leader at the Malakal village, suddenly found himself isolated with 33 SOS children and young people. In search of safety, he courageously led them on a perilous journey that covered more than 100 miles.
I will protect you
Isaac James joined SOS Children’s Villages in 2010 and worked in Khartoum as a social worker. In 2013, he was transferred to the Malakal Village. In peace time, Isaac worked as a youth leader and occasionally assumed the role of Village Director. When fighting broke out for control of the town between anti-government forces aligned with former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, and pro-government troops in mid-December, Isaac took it upon himself to protect the children and young people in the Village
Malakal changed hands between the government and rebel forces several times; and every so often the rebels forced their way into the SOS Village and stole money and mobile phones from staff and the more than 1,000 people from nearby communities who sought safety from the violence and were housed in the Village.
Olyek Odhong, another youth leader, said the rebels were bloodthirsty. The unrest was drawn on both political and ethnic lines. Odhong remembers rebels declaring war openly on anyone who did not belong to their ethnicity.
Isaac took advantage of a lull in fighting and evacuated 36 children/young people, five SOS Mothers and three SOS Aunts to a nearby United Nations camp. He then returned to the village.
The symbol of sanctuary that is SOS Children’s Villages repeatedly received a battering as soldiers continued to harass and frighten its occupants. Nearly 60 rebels stormed the Village once, breaking into the girls’ hostel, the Village Director’s house and office, and the store. They looted everything, including laptops, clothes, mattresses, bed sheets, and personal belongings.
“The insurgents said they had come for property but the next time they would be on a killing mission,” Isaac said. “This threat made us think it was no longer safe to remain in the Village.”
Flee to safety
A commotion triggered by a third round of violence left Isaac separated from other staff members. But Isaac wasn’t all alone. He had 33 children to care for, too. With no time to waste, Isaac and the children congregated at the river bank of the Nile. Amid rocket-propelled grenade fire, a number of youth jumped into the river and swam across the crocodile infested waters, while other children were placed in boats. There was no space for Isaac. He jumped into the river with a bag full of clothes on his shoulders. He grabbed hold of the boat ferrying children across the Nile. Once safely on the other side, some children and youth were taken by their relatives. According to Isaac, he was left with 27 children.
Ninety-three children and staff from the SOS Village in Malakal sought protection at the UNMISS base. They were among the nearly one million people displaced by the on-going war. Meanwhile, Malakal continued to suffer numerous atrocities. Fighters killed civilians en masse, allegedly raped girls as young as nine, looted shops and reduced hundreds of homes and public buildings to ashes. Attempts to end the crisis through peace talks between the warring factions in nearby Ethiopia fell through.
In his quest to safeguard the children, Isaac moved the children to a seemingly safer area. First they stopped at Wal Shilluk, where they spent 48 hours. Then they walked to Fashoda and arrived 24 hours later. It was here the children had food and water given to them from a colleague before continuing their journey.
“The youth were very helpful in carrying their small brothers and sisters and some of their personal belongings,” Isaac said. “I advised the youth not to stray far from every camp. This was to monitor their movement and to protect them from any possible harm by armed people.”
It took them nearly 12 hours to reach Kodok where they took a boat to Melut, a relatively safe town which has remained under the control of the government.
During this perilous trip, the group lost all contact and at one point there was great anxiety at SOS Children’s Villages. No one knew where the children were.
In Melut however, Isaac was able to charge his phone and spoke to Kiros Aregawi, the project manager of SOS Children’s Villages in Malakal, who was in Juba at the time. Kiros made arrangements for Isaac and the children to be transported from Melut to Paloich.
When they arrived, children who were hungry and thirsty were cared for in a camp belonging to the Dar Petroleum Operating Company (DPOC). Their desire for a peaceful night was curtailed by a drunken soldier who ordered them to move out at gunpoint. Fortunately, Isaac explained the situation to some soldiers within the camp who were familiar with the work of SOS Children’s Villages, and so they were allowed to stay.
“As the guardian of the children I was frustrated,” Isaac said.
“I couldn’t manage the children properly. I could not get nutritious food for them, especially the young kids. Lack of proper space to sleep and play irritated the children. During the night the small kids would cry bitterly calling for their mothers and there was nothing I could do."
After a month of uncertainty and worry, Isaac received some welcome news: SOS Children’s Villages had been able to organize evacuation of the group to Juba. Isaac said at first he could not believe it.
“The process took quite long and became cumbersome for reasons which I do not know,” he said.
“We went to the airport at Paloich several times, thinking that we would get a chance for free airlifting using cargo planes belonging to DPOC. So, when I got information from [Kiros] that SOS was going to evacuate us using a chartered flight, I told the youth and they too didn’t believe me. It was not until I boarded the flight when I surely thought we were leaving indeed.”
In Juba at last
On March 18, Isaac and the children were moved to Juba by a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service plane. They joined other children and staff members who had sought shelter at the UN camp and had been airlifted out of Malakal a week earlier.There were mixed emotions of disbelief and elation as the children were reunited with their SOS families. The joy of leaving those horrible scenes in Malakal and a chance to return to a relatively ‘normal’ life was overwhelming.
“I am happy that all the children are now under one roof and although the space is limited, it is better than what they had at Paloich in Malakal,” Isaac said.