My mission was relatively straightforward: to follow the joint UNICEF and World Food Programme (WFP) Rapid Response team going to Pagak, a small village on the eastern side of South Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, in Upper Nile state.
The town was one out of 24 priority locations selected to receive life-saving supplies before the onset of the rains, when access to remote areas are expected to deteriorate considerably. At least 200,000 children will benefit from the Rapid Response initiative by June.
Upon our arrival – we were a team of six – the parched landscape, combined with an excruciating heat, gave me the impression we were landing on a different planet. Children were waiting alongside a short, improvised airstrip, eager to shake hands with everyone who stepped out of the plane. Packed with our own tents, water and food, we walked to the compound where we would be staying for at least a week.
On the second day of registration, when at least 4,000 people gathered to receive their supply cards for next morning’s distribution, I met Nyakhat. She passed by with such determination it became impossible to miss her, even though I was running around trying to capture the various stories popping in front of my eyes.
She was tiny, certainly not older than five, I pondered, but with a very strong presence. One factor singled her out from the otherwise noisy, colorful crowd: she was pulling an old man by a wooden stick, guiding him through a multitude of people, dust and poverty. I immediately realized he was blind. Two dogs followed them loyally, scouting for any potential threats that may arise.
I needed to know more about this girl and listen to her story. My journalistic instinct was now at full capacity so I dropped everything else and ran towards her, grabbing a local volunteer on the way to help me with translation. He was busy supporting the UNICEF team with vaccination and malnutrition screenings but was also clearly intrigued by the uniqueness of that brave little girl.
We approached her and asked for her name. “I’m Nyakhat Pal,” she replied with a sweet albeit firm voice. To my surprise, she revealed to be only three-years-old. She had walked for four hours with her 70-year-old blind father, Pal Dhul, under a burning sun before reaching Pagak.
“We heard there would be food here, and vaccines, and other supplies we may need for the next months. We needed to come,” her father told me. He told me the story of how he lost his sight nearly 15 years ago, when he was struck by a vicious disease. He has never seen the face of his small heroine, but it was clear how deeply proud he was.
“My wife is alive but she left home two months ago to Guelguk [some 200 kilometers from Pagak] to look for my son, who is fighting in the war. He is 18-years-old. I have two other older sons who are also fighting but I don’t think they will come back soon. I don’t know if they will ever come back. All I have now is my daughter,” said Pal.
A while later Nyakhat’s mission in Pagak was nearly accomplished. She was registered together with her father, passed the malnutrition screening and managed to get vaccinated by UNICEF against measles and polio. She never shed a tear, even when facing the often feared syringe. Community volunteers offered to help carry their food ration back to their village the next day, after distribution.
While currently in good health, Nyakhat is one of the 740,000 children under five at high risk of food insecurity in South Sudan. Family food stocks normally run out during this time of the year, with households turning to markets for food supplies. Many markets have been destroyed by the fighting, or people no longer have access to them due to displacement.
The security situation remains volatile in many parts of South Sudan and getting supplies to distant areas is challenging. Despite the obstacles, UNICEF and WFP remained focused and committed to provide what was planned. I felt inspired and overwhelmed by the scope of what we were trying to achieve in Pagak.
Ricardo Pires is a UNICEF Communication Specialist on mission in South Sudan.