Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The oldest of seven children, fifteen-year old Nyabel* is the de-facto leader of her family. Less than one year ago, she was in Form 4 (year 10) at her school in Bongki, and doing well in her studies, particularly in English and Arabic.
When fighting erupted across South Sudan in December, Nyabel’s parents thought they might be safe. They weren’t. A few days before Christmas, soldiers attacked Nyabel’s home town of Bongki.
Hundreds of men, women and children were killed. Cattle, goats and other animals were rounded up and butchered, homes were torched to the ground. Nyabel’s mother Angelina – who just days earlier had given birth to a young baby boy, Wal* – saw her sister and brother-in-law both shot dead.
Terrified, Nyabel and her family ran. They ran straight to the bush, aiming for the town of Panyang. They walked carefully through the night, terrified of being seen by soldiers.
“We could hear the sounds of bombs and gunfire. We just had to keep moving,” said Nyabel. “There was no one directing us, we just knew the direction we had to go. We hoped that, if we reached Panyang, we could be safe.”
By morning, the family reached Panyang. They rested under a group of trees on the outskirts of the town. But as they rested, Nyabel’s father explained to the children that he needed to return to Bonki, to defend their hometown. The children were terrified of what would happen to their father. It was a tearful goodbye.
The respite did not last long. Within a few hours, fighting arrived in Panyang too. Guns were fired, shelling began, many more were killed. The CARE-run hospital in the town was inundated, with CARE staff treating more than 200 patients with gunshot wounds in a single day.
With violence again all around them, Nyabel and her family kept moving. Walking without shoes in thick bush at night, Nyabel’s feet were cut and badly swollen. Despite this, in the absence of her father and with her mother nursing days-old baby Wal, Nyabel led her frightened younger brothers and sisters through the bush.
Many strangers who were also fleeing the attack asked to drink from the eight-litre jerrycan that Nyabel had been carrying. Within half a day, their water was finished.
“Once the water was gone, we suffered,” explained Nyabel. “But the situation just forces you to move. You just have to, even if you are tired.”
Some three days later, exhausted and overwhelmed, the family reached the outskirts of Yida. Baby Wal was now critically ill. Nyabel and her mother took him to a temporary hospital for urgent treatment. He spent the next five months there.
After a few days, they located a family friend, who gave them some space on the floor of his small house. Several weeks later, Nyabel’s father arrived in Yida and reunited with the family. He had, however, lost one leg in an attack.
Eight months on, the family has a new threat: hunger. The children go daily to the bush to pick vegetables and edible plants, and are living on one simple meal per day of what the family calls ‘paper food’; usually a paste of mill flour and water.
Nyabel’s mother Angelina says that without a house, food or crops, they are now dependent on others for basic survival.
“This land is not ours.We’re depending on other people, the kindness of strangers,” said Angelina. “We cannot fear to ask for help; we have to. And when we’ve begged, if someone has one or two dollars, they have helped us.”
Nyabel says her life has become focused on basic survival.
“Despite all we’ve been through to get here, we’re still suffering. We’re still lacking a lot of things, like shelter and food,’ said Nyabel.
“I really feel pity about what’s happened to my life. I was going to school, I was in Form 4. Now I’ve lost this year without any study.”
“We have nothing to eat. I’m just hoping for peace, so that we can get the possibility of going to school, for a better future.”
CARE has supported Nyabel and her family with seeds and tools to grow food for the coming months, but more support is desperately needed. Nyabel’s story is far from unique. An estimated 1.5 million South Sudanese have fled their homes since war broke out across the country in December, including more than 400,000 who have fled to neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. The massive displacement, insecurity and conflict has the potential to lead to a famine affecting up to 3.9 million people. There are already more than 900,000 malnourished children in South Sudan who could die without any support.
CARE International is providing medical support, supplementary feeding for malnourished children, sanitary services, seeds and other relief supplies to families across South Sudan’s hardest hit states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei. Visit www.care-international.org to learn more and donate.
* CARE is committed to being a child safe organisation. Names of children have been changed.