Humanitarians at risk: South Sudanese youth leader rescues children from harm

Thursday, 14 August 2014 15:14 GMT

Photo credit: Till Muellenmeister

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This post is part of our 'Humanitarians at risk' series, dedicated to World Humanitarian Day which will take place on 19 of August. The series features testimonies of humanitarians around the world who risk their lives daily, while saving those of others. World Humanitarian Day is our opportunity to recognise the personal sacrifice made by humanitarian professionals and pay tribute to those who were injured or killed while doing their job.

Isaac James, a youth leader at the 'SOS Children’s Village' organisation suddenly found himself isolated with 33 SOS children and teenagers as gunfire raged in Malakal, South Sudan in December 2013. In search of safety he courageously led them on a perilous journey that covered almost  200 km.

Eager to protect

The city of Malakal changed hands between the government and rebel forces several times; and every so often the armed combatants forced their way into the SOS village, stealing money and mobile phones from village staff, and from neighbouring communities sheltering the facility.

Isaac James had worked as a youth leader at the 'SOS Children’s Village' in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state. When the fighting broke out over controlling the town in mid-December, the youth leader took it upon himself to protect the children and young people of the children’s village.

He took advantage of a lull in the fighting and evacuated 36 children and adolescents , five mothers and three ‘aunts’ from the SOS village to the base of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), under armed escort. He then returned to the SOS village.

The symbol of sanctuary, associated with the 'SOS Children’s Villages', repeatedly received a battering. At one point about 60 armed men stormed in, breaking into the girls’ hostel, the village director’s house and office, and the store - and looting everything, including laptops, clothes, mattresses, bed sheets and personal effects.

The insurgents said they had come for property but the next time they would be on a killing mission.” Isaac recalled. “This threat made us think it was no longer safe to remain in the village.”

Flee to safety

A commotion triggered by a third round of violence left Isaac with 33 children, yet, separated from other village staff. With no time to waste, the group congregated at the river bank of the Nile in order to cross to the other side. Amid rocket-propelled grenade fire, a number of youth jumped into the river and swam across the crocodile infested waters, while the children were quickly placed in boats. When Isaac realised there was no space for him, he jumped into the river with a bag full of clothes on his shoulders. He protectively held onto the edge of the dinghy ferrying the children. Once safely on the other side, some children and youth were taken by their relatives. Isaac was left with 27 children.

Read the rest of Isaac's story here.

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