The separated children of South Sudan
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Machar was torn from his family by the country’s brutal civil conflict. When the conflict broke out December 2013, Machar was in Bentiu for medical treatment. His family could not reach him. They were forced to make a decision now family should have to: to flee to Juba, leaving their nine-year-old behind.
Machar is one of South Sudan’s over 10,000 registered separated children. Every month, hundreds more like him join the ranks of children who have lost their parents.
Machar remembers the beauty of the village he grew up in on the Nile River bank and dreams of one day returning. He is from Panyijiar, in Unity State, where a bloody civil conflict has forced thousands of people to flee for their lives. As recently as May, over a three week period, at least 129 children in Unity State were killed in attacks against their communities. The reports from survivors were harrowing. They told of children being cut and left bleeding to death, rape and families burnt to death.
It is an uncomfortable irony, that amid the grave violations and violence, the mechanisms that support protecting children are routinely among the least funded in emergencies. Keeping children safe should be considered an essential part of the humanitarian response and receive the same level of priority as other key interventions such as the provision of food, shelter and water.
Amid the recent horror in Unity State, thousands more fled, resulting in yet more children separated from their families. Lost in a country that is losing any pretense of being able to protect its youngest citizens.
Machar spent many months with his grandmother, unsure if he would ever see his parents again. He was filled with sadness and uncertainty.
UNICEF works with a range of partners to trace – and then reunite – families, searching among the internally displaced in South Sudan or across borders in neighbouring countries where they might have been registered as refugees. In a country with broken infrastructure and few systems, it’s a huge task, in part done through the use of electronic data storage systems to quickly collect, sort and share information.
For Machar it ended with a tearful reunion with his family in Juba. When his father Marial saw him he was overcome with emotion. He scooped him up into his arms, tears streaming down his face as the two shared a joyful moment together. “We need peace so every person can get their sons and daughters,” he said.
Keeping children such as Machar safe amid horrific violence requires tremendous efforts and resources, especially in a country where close to a million children are suffering from malnutrition, more than 855,000 have been displaced from their homes and nearly 16,000 have been recruited or used by armed groups.
The United Nations, through the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, is helping to document some of these violations, in part to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. Since the conflict began, the UN has received some 1,359 reports of violations affecting over 56,700 children. Cases include the killing and maiming of children, abductions and denial of humanitarian access. Too many cases, too many numbers, too many lives of real children in tatters.
Often, the biggest hurdle in reaching some of these most vulnerable children is physically being able to access the worst conflict torn regions, especially during the rainy season, because it makes movement by road impossible. As a result UNICEF, the World Food Programme and our partners are increasingly using Rapid Response Missions where a team flies into remote areas of the country, providing lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
Through this we have managed to reach nearly 200,000 children under the age of five with essential vaccines, water, food and medical assistance. And our child protection specialists register children who are without parental care, and almost 40 per cent of the some 10,000 registered separated and unaccompanied children in South Sudan have been found during these missions.
So far, more than 2,600 children have been reunified with their families since the conflict began – each one of them a triumph over adversity for the families involved and an incredibly emotional moment to witness. But the task is enormous and the financial cost of reuniting each family is high. Thousands more are still waiting, and urgently need our assistance to return to a family environment, where their chances of stability, security, going to school and receiving love and attention, is so much higher.
International standards, systems and resources that protect children, especially in times of conflict, need to be strengthened and those who violate the rights of children and their families must be held accountable.