As starvation hits South Sudan, mothers tell their survival stories
WARNING: SOME IMAGES MAY BE DISTRESSING
COMMENT: Immediately upon entering the clinic in Juba's Protection of Civilians (POC) site I hear the screams of a woman giving birth next door.
I quickly try and focus on the task at hand, talking with mothers displaced due to violence and now living in this POC as they sit closely by their children who are suffering from malnutrition.
Each child seems to be at a different stage of malnourishment: Some were just admitted while some are already recovering and hopeful to be discharged soon.
In total, there are six mothers and some ten children in this Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMC) clinic supported by UNICEF. Some of the families arrived in Juba only days before while others have lived in this POC for over three years.
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What differentiates the mothers, however, are the stories they share about how they came here and what each experienced due to the violence.
NYAKENA'S STORY: HOPING FOR A PEACEFUL FUTURE IN SOUTH SUDAN
I first speak to 25-year- old Nyakena. She now has twins that are both two and a half months old. Their names are Both (boy) and Nyadouth (girl). The family is originally from Bor.
Before the war, things were good in her family. She was recently married and was leading a happy life with expectations to raise a family that loved one another and lived contently. The husband was gainfully employed and she was ready to give birth soon. Things were good. Then, the war broke out. It changed everything for Nyakena's new family.
One night, around two o'clock in the morning in her village near Bor, she awoke to gunfire. When she got up and went outside, she noticed flames everywhere. Her village was burning. At the time, she was pregnant with the twins. As the gunshots came closer and closer, she decided to run for her life, knowing all the time she was not running alone but with the children inside of her.
She had their safety to consider too. She ran for two hours straight – not an easy task for anyone, let alone a pregnant woman. But their lives were at stake. This is also the time when Nyakena lost touch with her husband. His parents were killed that night. Enraged, he fled into the bush to try to avenge their fate. She hasn't seen him since, but knows he is still close to Bor, fighting.
Nyakena finally reached a POC camp in Bor where she gave birth to the twins. She did not know anyone there. It was also becoming too difficult to make a living and care for the new-borns. She decided to fly to Juba to try and find her brother who was living there in a camp.
In the rush to leave she left behind her food ration card, making it difficult to get the food she needed for both herself and the twins. This loss made things that much harder for the young mother and her infants. She started noticing the twins becoming thinner and thinner. She decided to take them to a clinic to seek medical attention. Thanks to the care from the malnutrition treatment centre, Nyakena is now optimistic her children's condition will improve as they begin gaining weight and things, hopefully, get better.
Nyakena's goal for her twins is for them to become friends with children from all parts of the country, so they will never know hatred and will be able to love and respect their peers and elders. She wants everyone in South Sudan to put away their differences and come together for the sake of all their futures, and most importantly, the children's. She is thankful and happy UNICEF has supported the malnutrition treatment centre. She wishes that other mothers from around the country could be fortunate to have the same opportunity to restore their children's lives. Unfortunately, not all mothers are so lucky.
HELEN AND EMMANUEL'S STORY
It was around 10am on a July morning in a village near Juba when Helen started seeing and feeling bullets whizz by her head. She had just finished having tea and was now tending to the children's laundry. Immediately, she ducked down and ran back to her home, grabbing her two children and fleeing the village as quickly as possible with other villagers. Conflict had broken out and those caught in the crossfire seemed to matter little.
Helen spent four days on foot, walking while carrying her older child on her back and her youngest, Emmanuel, in her arms. She had no money for any alternative. Ultimately, they arrived in Uganda, but even when the safety of a camp was reached, an almost harsher obstacle confronted her – the lack of any food. When Helen and her children arrived in Uganda, the children were still healthy and strong. But the lack of food in the camp slowly began to weaken the children, particularly Emmanuel. At that time he was still only months old, growing frail in his mother's arms day after day. Helen knew they couldn't stay in this camp. She decided to make the perilous journey back to her village near Juba. She felt that facing death due to war was better than a potential slow death from starvation.
When Helen arrived back home, she was dismayed to find her village abandoned and her husband not there. During the initial conflict in July, the two were separated as he was working in Juba. She tried calling and calling but his telephone number no longer worked.
Now things were even harder for Helen: She had no parents to help her and nothing from the gardens was left to eat in her village. Due to the lack of food, Emmanuel's health got worse.
One morning in January, Helen found her son passed out unconscious in their home. She knew it was time to do whatever it took to ensure her youngest child's survival. She begged and pleaded for anyone in her village to help; finally, her brother was able to provide enough money for her and Emmanuel to make the journey into Juba to visit a malnutrition treatment centre in the hope of saving the child's life.
Helen prayed constantly for Emmanuel's survival. She named him Emmanuel because he was born one day after Christmas and she hoped the name, meaning 'God is with us', would bring the child luck. There were many moments in the past few months when Helen lost hope the child would pull through and survive. She recalled Emmanuel throwing up and having diarrhoea, additional signs of severe acute malnutrition, but at the time she was helpless to do anything.
Now, at the clinic, Emmanuel was in good hands and hopefully would recover to full health even though the road ahead still would not be easy. Sitting in the clinic, tiny Emmanuel grabs for his mother's breast. Thankfully, the clinic has enough therapeutic milk and ready to use therapeutic food to keep the child satiated. At the clinic, Helen has learned the importance of health practices for her children, especially, "When a child falls sick, to rush as soon as possible to the nearest centre." The spirit of the nurses is helping her stay positive.
Helen thinks about the war and explains, "If there was no war, my family would be together and we could have jobs to buy food for our family. But nothing is operating and no opportunities are available for me." She misses the comfort her husband provided the family, not to mention the money he brought in. If her child recovers, she thinks she will have a further message to share. For now, she doesn't know what the future holds. Helen and her family are still battling to stay alive.
UNICEF is assisting children and families affected by the conflict across South Sudan by providing food, shelter, medical assistance and education. To donate, and help the children, visit: https://www.unicef.org.nz/malnutrition.