When the conflict broke out on 15 December last year in South Sudan, shattering two-and-a-half hopeful years of independence for the world’s newest nation, tens of thousands of people fled to the ‘Protection of Civilian’ (POC) site at ‘UN HOUSE’ in Juba. Most were from the Nuer tribe. Overnight, the Nuer people became displaced in their own country, desperate for security. In chaotic and violent scenes, children were killed, and many separated from loved ones.
INTERSOS, the NGO that implements UNICEF’s Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy (PBEA) programme Learning for Peace in the camp, also run a family reunification programme. As well as supporting children, they work with youth who are often isolated, having come to Juba from rural areas for secondary school, staying with relatives or attending boarding school. Now they find themselves separated indefinitely. Life as it was has been interrupted until further notice.
We attend a small youth meeting in Hangar 5, normally a hangar for UN planes. There we meet Lang, the 28-year-old youth coordinator of the IDP Youth Forum, and Raymond, an 18-year-old student who is one of those youth living on his own. He’s wearing what looks like a brand new shirt with smart trousers, a black belt and black leather dress shoes. Later when we see where he lives, sharing a small tent with another youth, I ask him if his clothes are new. He laughs. “No, I’m just pretty meticulous about washing and ironing.” Washing is done with part of the morning’s water ration, and ironing is done with a coal iron, on his bed, with borrowed coals from the ladies group next door who sit beading all day long.
Raymond is an aspiring lawyer and a peace activist. He says that although he was aware of some tribalism at play before the conflict broke up, he was shocked by the speed and severity of the slide into violence. Raymond says he has no desire to join some other youth who have drifted out, through anger or boredom. Instead, he works hard to build peace.
“Reconciliation” is the buzzword among Raymond and his fellow youth leaders. They feel powerful through their talk of peace.
“We discuss reconciliation for both inside the camp and outside of camp life, the bigger picture, but also arguments amongst the youth, youth unity, the future, other peacebuilding concepts.” He and Lang tell us that for the monthly youth meetings around 5,000 squeeze into and outside of Hangar 5.
We meet Sara from Street Children Aid, who’s been deployed to work at one of UNICEF’s Child Friendly Spaces, supporting severely traumatized children. “When they first came in they started drawing pictures of men with guns, shooting,” Sara tells us. “But we encourage them not to draw that, to draw churches and houses instead.” Sara also talks about how they used to fight each other at first, but says they are much calmer now. They play games, learn math and English. Kids outside play football and jump rope. They laugh, squeal and do handstands against the tent. Children somehow find a way to play in all circumstances.
While some of the adults feel “trapped”, many are managing to return to a semblance of village life. They collect water every morning to wash their clothes, they run businesses – restaurants and tea shops, complete with hookahs and apple tobacco – grocery stores, airtime booths, photocopy services etc.
Raymond has other plans. He wants to study law at university, take his peace campaign to the next level, and see his family again. And on the weekends, he just wants to chill out with his friends.
The text accompanying the video originally appeared on the Learning for Peace site.