Fighting in South Sudan: “People ran for their lives.”

People from South Sudan flee to Uganda.
People from South Sudan travel to Uganda in search of safety.

Earlier this month fighting broke out in Juba in South Sudan, killing hundreds of soldiers and dozens of civilians.

By dawn on Sunday morning, after three days of fighting, there was a moment of silence; South Sudan had seen another 3 dark days.

I selected my clothes for church but before I could open the door I heard gunshots – including heavy weapons – being fired.

Running to safety

I stepped out to see what had happened.

Over the next 40 minutes I saw streams of people – children, women and men – running for their lives.

People who were in church when the fighting began were running with their bibles, they had nothing else with them.

People were stampeding, desperate for a safe place to hide, children were screaming. There was real fear, I could touch it.

Ahead of the stampede was a swamp. People went there to hide and for shade. Children crossed by wading through ankle-deep mud.

Scenes of chaos

By midday all the shaded areas were full and people were wondering where to stay for the night. It was exhausting.

Others had lost contact with their children and loved ones in the panic and chaos.

It was disturbing to see elderly people and children being pulled along in wheel barrows for safety because cars were standing still on the roads.

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Sheltering for safety

Sadly, my own disabled father couldn’t make it out of the house and there was no wheelbarrow to pull him in.

He had to lock himself in the house with my older brother and listen to the shooting in their neighborhood.

I prayed throughout the day and night for their lives to be spared.

In different hiding places, children slept in the open, hungry as their parents didn’t have time to take any food with them as they fled.

Shooting continued, the helicopters were hovering and shooting, the military tanks firing at the same time.

Refugees from South Sudan arriving in Uganda
Refugees from South Sudan arrived in Uganda on Tuesday, 19 July.

No food and water

From here the situation got worse. The market didn’t open for two days, and the only available water was the stream of stagnant rain water.

It was dirty but people had no choice but to drink it.

In my small compound I housed nearly twenty women and children for four days before they fled across the border to Uganda.

They came from the area where the violence erupted and their homes had been looted, but they brought what little food they had with them to my home and slept on mats and sofa cushions.

I didn’t have enough mosquito nets but we made sure the children were all protected.

Painful memories

It’s estimated that more than 36,000 people were displaced at the height of the fighting.

As I walked through the streets the day after the ceasefire was announced, I could see decaying bodies on the roadside while children and women were returning to their houses.

I wonder what memories these children hold, as they deal with what they saw.

The fighting broke out at a time when 4.8 million people are already lacking food across the country, and with many markets burnt or looted the situation has deteriorated rapidly.

Children have missed school for weeks, and while the schools have now reopened, the attendance is extremely poor.

Many children have been separated from their parents.

Other people, the majority women and children, have left Juba to locations where they feel safer or crossed the border to Uganda.

Those who remain in Juba continue to live in fear of attack at any time.

A child from South Sudan plays with her doll.
A child plays with her doll that she brought to Uganda with her.

An uneasy calm

Although there’s relative calm in Juba things are not easy for children. The traumatic experiences these children are going through now are unbearable.

The flare up in fighting has left children terrified, living in fear of a full scale war, and the biting hunger and long journeys to find a safe place that they know may come with it.

July 9th marked five years since South Sudan gained independence, but there were no festivities to mark the occasion.

Children’s hopes for a better future are at risk. Another generation of lost children is on the horizon if the world doesn’t turn its attention to South Sudan.

What needs to happen?

The international community must do whatever it takes to support the humanitarian needs of the South Sudanese people.

All possible pressure must be put on the warring parties to keep peace, and greater funding must be provided to make sure that families are able to live in safety, to make a living, to access food and to send our children to school.

We need this if there is to be a future of peace and prosperity – the future that the people of South Sudan hoped for when we became an independent country.

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