WIDER IMAGE-Nearly 15,000 lost children seek parents in chaos of South Sudan's war

by Reuters
Thursday, 16 February 2017 14:00 GMT

Nyagonga Machul, 38 converses with her daughters Nyameer Mario, 6 (L) and Nyawan Mario, 4, in their home at the United in Juba, South Sudan, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

Image Caption and Rights Information
Last year, reunifications dropped by 50 percent because there was not enough money to trace families

By Siegfried Modola

BENTIU, Feb 16 (Reuters) - In the chaos of South Sudan's civil war, it took three years for Nyagonga Machul to find her lost children.

Machul had travelled from her village to the capital when President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, in 2013. The dismissal triggered a civil war in the world's newest nation that has increasingly been fought along ethnic lines.

Machul found herself cut off from her son Nhial, now aged 14 and the protector of the family; 10-year-old Ruai and 8-year-old Machiey, brothers who love board games and swimming; 6-year-old Nyameer with her shy smile; and Nyawan, now four but then the much-loved baby.

A soldier walks past women carrying their belongings near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

For years, Machul prayed for news. In December, she heard her children were alive - but far away in Bentiu, the northern gateway to the nation's oil fields. More than a thousand 1,000 km (620 miles) of battlefield stretched between them.

Machul had left the children with their grandmother, but one night gunmen had attacked their village.

"I was in bed sleeping. All of a sudden I heard the sound of gunshots, then people shouting, screaming," said Nhial.

The panicked children scattered and hid near the river Nile. Wandering back, they found each other, but not their grandmother. They decided to flee.

They walked through swamps, in chest-deep water infested with snakes and crocodiles. They begged food from families with little to spare.

Internally displaced people wash and collect water in a reservoir in the United Nations Mission in northern South Sudan, February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

Then a former neighbour, Nyabika Temdor, took them in, camping with them on a tiny island in the Nile. But gunmen struck again and they ran.

"I had to pay someone to carry the little ones, as they couldn't walk," Temdor said.

After four days, they reached a camp for displaced families in Bentiu. The sprawling settlement of 120,000 people is bordered by barbed wire and watchtowers.

That is where CINA found them. A local organisation supported by UNICEF, case workers painstakingly trace separated families. They enter the names of lost children into a UNICEF supported database that holds nearly 15,000 names.

Having a parent vastly improves the long-term chances of a child's survival, said Marianna Zaichykova, a spokeswoman for UNICEF. But the programme is chronically underfunded.

Machiey Mario, 8, Ruai Mario, 10, Nyameer Mario, 6 and Nyawan Mario, 4 (L-R), wait to board a UN flight to Juba where they will be reunited with their mother, near Bentiu, South Sudan, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

Last year, reunifications dropped by 50 percent because there was not enough money to trace families, Zaichykova said.

Machul was lucky. UNICEF arranged for the children to fly to Juba this week. Their mother waited for them, in a tent made of sticks and plastic that looked just like the one they left in Bentiu.

She dappled drops of water on her children's faces in a traditional blessing. Her friends began to sing. And then she opened her arms for her children.

"God has answered my prayers," she said. "I am so happy."

For a Wider Image photo essay of the story, click http://reut.rs/2kVBzp0

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Alison Williams)

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