Before there wasn’t much. Bamboo walls, a thatched roof, a dirt playground. But the simple classroom in a camp for people who fled their homes after civil war erupted in South Sudan in 2013 served as more than just a place to learn.
For the 23,000 children living in the UN protection of civilians site in Malakal, the school was a place of refuge where kids from a range of ethnicities gathered every day. They went to school. Something too few children in South Sudan have the chance to do. A routine that served as a comforting reminder of more peaceful days.
After there was nothing. Charred canvas, twisted metal, the thatch reduced to ashes. Tents, tin huts, and makeshift shelters had all been burnt to the ground in the aftermath of fighting in the camp last month that left at least 18 people dead. Again – for the Malakal site has been targeted by violence in the past – families fled, lives were upended and children were robbed of even a veneer of normalcy.
Just a few weeks earlier I had been at the Malakal site to launch the second phase of a campaign to get more than half a million children into a classroom of some sort.
South Sudan has more children not attending school than any other country. More than half of all the primary age children are either not going to school because they can’t due to the fighting, or because they’ve never had the chance. UNICEF’s Back to Learning initiative seeks to give some of the most vulnerable children in the world the chance to learn and grow.
The scale of the destruction I saw when I returned to the site in the days after the fighting showed how challenging it can be to achieve even that modest ambition.
Frustration and anger were still palpable among the teachers, nurses, community leaders and humanitarian workers who had all seen months of work – and real progress for children – torched and looted over the course of 24 hours. But the determination to build back took precedence.
A temporary shelter has been built in which more than one thousand children have been able to play and sing in a therapeutic environment guided by social workers.Two mobile clinics are being run UNICEF partners where 20 mothers have safely delivered their babies and three thousand children tested for malnutrition. Families who lost children in the melee of the flight to safety are being reunited with the sons and daughters, 108 so far. And latrines that were destroyed are being replaced and communities being told of the importance of using them rather than open areas around the camp.
It’s not just families still living inside the site that need our help. Many people fled the camp and have taken refuge in Malakal town, sheltering in public buildings, such as this family in a local school. Some have been taken in by the local community.
These communities will need help to be hosts. Is the water supply adequate and safe? Are there enough toilets? How many children need to be reunited with their parents?
These are questions which staff on the ground are now working to answer and respond to.
What happened in Malakal was sudden, unexpected and deadly. The damage done goes beyond infrastructure. That can be rebuilt.
Here, as elsewhere in South Sudan, we need to ensure that children’s futures are not compromised because of violence. Keeping them safe, healthy and in school is not just what’s best for them. It’s also the best investment in the future growth and stability of South Sudan.