It was a cold and dark April evening in the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Bor, Jonglei State, when Alice*, a 25-year old mother of three, displaced by the conflict that broke out in South Sudan last December, began to worry – again.
“I could sense the tension and fear. Earlier in the day, there were rumours that there would be an attack but no one knew when it was going to happen or who was going to attack. Just as I was putting my youngest child to sleep, the sound of gunshots filled the air. My two older children ran to me looking frightened,” explains Alice.
Like so many young mothers in South Sudan, Alice had already suffered unspeakable pain. When the fighting reached Bor in December she and her three children had fled. Tragedy struck as the family made their way to the nearest UN base – a stray bullet hit her five-year old daughter.
“I remember seeing her fall on the ground. She died on the spot,” Alice recalls, tears filling her eyes.
“That was one of the worst moments of my life – leaving my lifeless child there, knowing she will never have a decent burial – but I had to run for safety and to ensure my other children were safe.”
Facing the loss of her only daughter and separated from her husband and relatives, Alice and her two young boys sought protection at the UN base.
But everything changed again when on 17 April when a group of armed youths attacked the site, killing more than 46 people, including 15 children, and injuring nearly 200.
“I remember hearing loud screams and young men jumping into the camp while shooting. The majority of them were carrying guns and some had machetes. The look in their eyes was terrible. They had a mission and they seemed determined to accomplish it,” says Alice.
Alice and her children ran for safety but in the commotion she lost hold of her two-year old son Mawish’s* hand. When she went to look for him another woman told her she had seen him lying on the ground covered in blood. “When I heard this news, I started screaming. I felt desperate and hopeless. How could I lose another child in a war that I know nothing about?”
Hours later, when the attack was over, UN peacekeepers searching for survivors in the camp found a small boy, injured but alive, hidden among the bodies of victims. They carried him to the UNICEF office at the camp and handed him to Elizabeth Muthama, a Child Protection Officer with UNICEF.
“I remember the soldier saying to me, ‘I found this child among the dead and didn’t know where else to take him so I decided UNICEF would be the best place for him,” recalls Elizabeth.
It was only when she felt dampness on her skin that she realized he had been badly injured. “The child had a deep cut on his right leg but was not crying, probably because he was still in shock. I rushed him to the UN clinic immediately where the doctors advised for evacuation to Juba for further treatment.”
Elizabeth carried the boy onto a plane to bring him to the capital, Juba. In a UN clinic, he was treated for a machete wound to his right leg, malnutrition and anaemia. Not knowing whether his parents were alive or not, he was transferred to the UNICEF-supported Confident Children out of Conflict Centre while family tracing was carried out.
In the meantime, UNICEF and partner Nonviolent Peace Force were searching the camp for his family. When Alice reported her child was missing, it was quickly discovered that the little boy being treated in Juba was Mawish.
“I was so excited when UNICEF confirmed that Mawish was alive and recuperating in Juba. I was so eager to see him,” said Alice.
It took six weeks for Mawish’s wound to heal and the day he was reunited with his mother could not come soon enough for Alice. “I was so happy to see my son after such a long period. I thought he had died and that everyone was deceiving me. It was one of the best days of my life,” recalls Alice with a big smile on her face as she rocks Mawish to sleep.
With support from the Government of Japan, UNICEF works to identify unaccompanied and separated children and provide them with the care and protection they need while their families are being traced. Over 6,800 children have been identified as separated from their families in the violence that has gripped South Sudan for twelve months. To date, 583 of these children have been reunited with their families.
* Names have been changed to protect identities