I had not imagined, when I joined UNICEF as a child protection officer, that burying the bodies of children would be something I would do. Sadly, in Malakal last week, I did help to bury the dead after devastating violence shook the town, penetrating even into the UNMISS compound where civilians had taken shelter.
Masumi Yamashina is a UNICEF Child Protection Specialist in South Sudan. Earlier this week Masumi left Malakal in Upper Nile state where she and other UNICEF staff were trapped for nearly a week amidst fierce fighting for control of the town. They were sheltered at the Protection of Civilian (PoC) site at UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) with over 20,000 displaced people. The fighting that erupted on 15 December last year has triggered a dire humanitarian crisis in the world’s newest country.
I had arrived from the capital, Juba, on Friday, February 14, sharing the sense of optimism among UNICEF and other humanitarian workers about what we could achieve for the displaced children and families sheltering in the UNMISS PoC and nearby displacement sites.
My mission was to work with social workers to identify unaccompanied children among those displaced by the crisis that swept the country in December last year so we could help to trace their families and arrange foster care for them. We were also preparing to create child-friendly spaces for children to feel safe and play. We were feeling positive and we had a plan.
That was Monday. By Tuesday, everything had changed.
Shortly after I awoke in my tent, the morning quiet was shattered by gunfire. The rumours that had been circulating for days of an opposition attack on Government forces in Malakal turned out to be true.
We ran to the bunker in search of safety from stray bullets, but it was quickly filling with families from the PoC area. So we huddled outside and hoped for the best. The gunfire was intense and seemed to last for hours – if there was shelling nearby, we thought we would probably be killed.
The tension in the camp was high and fighting soon broke out between some of the displaced men from different ethnic groups in the PoC area, some using cement blocks and metal rods as weapons. It was horrific.
By nightfall, there was still no safe place. Our tents would have afforded no protection against shells or bullets. We got what sleep we could and on Wednesday morning, awoke to renewed gunfire outside and fighting among the displaced population inside the Protection of Civilian Centre.
By the end of the second day of the assault, there were 17 bodies inside the PoC, including two infants who had died of natural causes. We could not leave the bodies unburied and the next morning I volunteered to help UNMISS staff bury them outside the PoC site. As we worked, we saw children carrying guns, some who looked as young as ten. These child soldiers had certainly witnessed brutal killing, or even killed themselves.
Later that day, Thursday, peacekeepers patrolling beyond the PoC and into Malakal town reported seeing countless bodies, including children; there were bodies in the Nile, where women were collecting water. They said women had reported being raped.
As time and the fighting in Malakal dragged on, we began to run out of food and water. Some humanitarian workers and women from the PoC risked their lives to collect water from the Nile for the displaced families in the camp.
By Friday, the shooting had lessened and we were able to get back to work. I brought water and oral rehydration salts to children. We started to identify unaccompanied children so that we could keep them safe, and rape survivors to start support services, including the provision of medical care from our partners. Adrenaline and an incredible team spirit kept us going through these terrible events; we knew we had to continue delivering for the children and families in need of our support and protection.
On Sunday, a flight was finally cleared to go to Malakal and I was able to return to Juba. I wanted to stay, but at the same time I knew I was exhausted. Friends and colleagues came to meet the plane in Juba and it was hard to fight back tears when I saw them.
I’ve worked in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka during the conflict in 2009, Zimbabwe and China following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but this was the worst humanitarian disaster I have experienced. It was unimaginably terrible. And of course, it was women and children who suffered and will continue to suffer the most.
The recent devastation will have set us back weeks or even months in keeping the women and children of Malakal safe and I worry that more fighting will get in the way of our work for children.
The needs in Malakal are now even greater. We have to bring separated families back together, identify unaccompanied children to keep them safe, and ensure that displaced families have access to safe drinking water and health care. We have to make sure everything is in place before the floods that the rainy season will bring in just six weeks. And we have to investigate the grave children’s rights violations that occurred so there can be some hope of justice and reconciliation in the future. It’s sad, it’s traumatic and it’s dangerous. But along with my colleagues in UNICEF, I am determined to go back and see this through, for the children of Malakal, for the children of South Sudan.”