Civil war has forced over two million South Sudanese to flee to neighbouring countries. Children make up 63 per cent of that number. Those that make it to a refugee camp are shattered, traumatised, malnourished and have no possessions.
Some of the children arrive alone, having witnessed the death of a parent or carer during the journey. Some of the children arrive on the backs of an adult because they have a disability and can’t walk. And some of the women arrive with newborns. Babies delivered under trees. Behind bushes. Babies born into a context of pregnant women fleeing to survive.
The boy who crawled
Modi Emmanuel had to crawl for parts of the journey from South Sudan into Uganda. His mother tried her best to carry him. An impossible task that. Carrying another human for mile about mile. And so Modi Emmanuel, unable to walk because of a disability, crawled.
I met Modi Emmanuel at Palorinya refugee camp in the West Nile region of Uganda. As of early 2021, there were 122,000 refugees in Palorinya. Three thousand have a disability. Four thousand are unaccompanied. Nearly two thousand have a serious medical condition. More than 5,000 are elderly.
When I saw Modi, he was on his hands and knees. Just before we shook hands, he looked at his own hand and wiped the dust off by brushing his palm against his t-shirt. Think about it. A disabled teenage boy who had escaped violence in his home nation by crawling across dirt was so concerned about my hand getting dust on it, that he brushed his hand clean first. It got me. Tears in my throat got me.
When I think of the South Sudan refugee crisis, I think of Modi and his courage, and his concern for others. I think of what he’s lost. What he’s seen. Of the people he was with who didn’t make it. He made friends in Palorinya. They look out for him. Boys his own age. Some younger. Each a witness to the trauma of war. Of separation from family. And of the grief of losing family.
Modi Emmanuel was given a wheelchair thanks to Hope Health Action (HHA) and support partner BMS World Mission. Around 1,000 wheelchairs have been distributed across three refugee camps in Northern Uganda. For Modi Emmanuel, it means respite from isolation as he can see his friends.
Terror in the world’s youngest nation
Modi and his friends are survivors of a civil war that started in late 2013. A civil war in which 380,000 people have lost their lives. A conflict in which villages have been looted and burnt to the ground. Women and girls raped. Children forced to flee. Children forced into fighting. Some given no choice but to crawl, like Modi Emmanuel.
The origins and continuation of the civil war are complex. Refugees were given hope of being able to return home when a peace accord between opposing sides was signed in 2018, and a coalition government formed in 2020. However, peace accords are often fragile and extreme violence remains in the world’s youngest country. More than 1,000 people were killed in the last six months of 2020. Returning home to a context of extreme food insecurity and human rights violations isn’t an option.
Mobility. School. Dreams
Nancy, 14, has a twisted right foot that prevents her from walking. When I met her in Palorinya she was in a wheelchair provided by HHA. In her words, “it can take me anywhere”.
Nancy escaped South Sudan with her grandmother. We all sat underneath a tree and talked through an interpreter. Nancy said how before she was given a wheelchair she’d been teased because she couldn’t get to school. She was quiet, though shared how she wished to become a nurse.
But had Nancy not been given that wheelchair, what then? It’s a question I didn’t consider at the time. I do now because I wonder… no, fear… for the young people who haven’t been reached and given a wheelchair. The ones who arrived in a camp today. Or the ones who’ll arrive tomorrow, carried by loved ones, or on the ground, crawling.
When a camp is too far
Modi Emmanuel and Nancy made it to a refugee camp. Susan didn’t. She has leprosy and managed to crawl to the Ugandan border. But when you cross the border, it’s not as though there is a bus waiting for you. Or a road to follow. Or signs. There is dust, fields and the unknown. About a mile or so inside Uganda, Susan, a woman in her 80s who had been forced to crawl away from men with guns, could go no further.
Not reaching an official settlement meant Susan couldn’t register as a refugee, which meant she was ineligible for UN food relief.
She was found by pastoral workers, refugees themselves and all round amazingly kind, wonderful people. They gave her emergency food rations and a wheelchair. Made sure she had shelter and that she knew there were people who cared about her wellbeing. And then they kept returning, checking in on her, praying with her, bringing her food.
Demonstrating humanity to a victim of mankind’s inhumanity.
The funding gap
South Sudan was established as a new nation in 2011. An update by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, states that of April 2021, over 900,000 South Sudanese refugees were in Uganda. The number in Sudan is nearly 800,000. In Ethiopia it is 370,000. In Kenya it is 120,000. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo it is 55,000. That makes a total of over 2.2 million people from a nation that pre-civil war had a population of around 12 million.
People continue to arrive in refugee camps, seeking safety, food, water. The number of ‘new arrivals’ reached nearly 45,000 in the first four months of 2021. The partner organisations supporting the refugee population have asked for $1.2 billion in funding for 2021 to support what is the largest refugee crisis in Africa. The gap between the requested figured, and the received figure, was 91 per cent as of April 2021. A mere $110 million had been received.
Sports stars make more than this a year.
Do Governments care?
Not enough food leads to cases of severe malnutrition. Charities such as HHA and BMS have been doing what they can by providing children with food to keep them alive, and to get well. But there is only so much that they, and other charities with emergency response commitments, can do when faced with a refugee population of 2.2 million and a global population that has never heard of the South Sudan refugee crisis.
Governments have heard of it. But when you look at the funding earmarked to come to the UNHCR in 2021 to help South Sudanese refugees, you do wonder if you’ve misread something because it has Denmark at the top of contributing nations. Denmark. Not the United States or the United Kingdom, but Denmark.
Denmark’s population number is that of an average North American city. It’s also in the same ballpark (5.7m vs 5m) as New Zealand’s, which I mention as New Zealand is my nation and we haven’t even got an earmarked funding figure attributed (and yes, I know that New Zealand has significant, long-standing aid commitments elsewhere, and long may they continue, but still, we can do more).
The Lego Foundation (yes, Lego) gets a mention on the list. As does Samsung. And Toyota. There’s no mention though of the company that made the computer I’m currently writing this on. Would be good to see them on it. And all the others. Perhaps then you’ll see more pictures like this one below of Flora and her son, Modi.
The malnourished child tied to a tree
I met Flora and Modi in a camp in northern Uganda. Modi played with the football my travelling companion gave him and then came and sat down by his mum. Flora looks happy. Joyful. No suggestion of what she, and Modi, had been through. Of the time when she’d lost Modi in the camp for three days.
Modi has special needs. A HHA worker later found him tied to a tree, malnourished and with sores on his body. Flora had tied him because she was terrified of losing him again. You see, Modi was malnourished because monthly food provisions were inadequate.
And so Modi went looking for food. Like we all would.
That was a year before I met him. He’s looking healthy in the picture above thanks to the people who support charities like HHA, who provide lifesaving aid on the ground. You might support such a charity. You might have helped save Modi’s life. A boy like him. A mum like Flora. A mum like Joice.
We could have lost her
Joice, 29, is cradling her twins born in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda. I tell you this because of two conditions Joice had when she was pregnant. 1). Edema and 2) Pre-eclampsia.
If you’ve heard of these conditions before, you will know that if untreated, they can be fatal.
And if you’ve only just heard of them, know this: if untreated, they can be fatal.
Joice survived the journey to Bidi Bidi – now a temporary home to 230,000 refugees – with her two children. She kept her unborn twins alive. And she survived pregnancy thanks to the charity-supported health workers who identified the risk she was at. Joice had a C-section at eight months.
Joice named her girls Sarah and Sharon. Girls born in a refugee camp, just as Blessing (pictured below) was.
Like Joice, Blessing’s mum, Aya, was tested by health volunteers for the risk of pre-eclampsia, a condition that occurs in ten per cent of pregnancies, worldwide. Pre-eclampsia can affect different parts of the body, such as the liver, kidneys, cardiovascular system or clotting systems. Hence why detecting the risk early on is critical.
Joice and Aya were tested with a very clever, very easy to use device that measures blood pressure and heart rate. If the device flashes red, then the person needs urgent medical care.
Is that care available to every expectant mother in the world? Tragically, no. Around 500 women and girls die every day from pregnancy and childbirth related causes in conflict and disaster affected countries.
Every single day.
The young lives devastated by the South Sudan Civil War
Seeing children the twins’ age, or slightly older, is normal in the camps.
In the age bracket of 0-4, there are 131,000 refugee children in Uganda alone. Almost double that figure (it’s 245,000) and you’ll get the number of children aged 5-11 who are in camps as of 2021.
The children that survive, will have survived disease, food ration cuts, Covid-19, bereavement, unimaginable trauma and had their formative years lived out in a refugee camp.
I also know that they would not have survived without their community. Without the volunteer health workers. Or pastoral activists. Or the young men and women who rose early in the morning to make mud bricks for a school so that children could receive an education. And I know they would not have survived had it not been for people who heard about Africa’s largest refugee crisis and did something to help.
Sixty-six thousand South Sudanese refugees aged under 18 have arrived in a refugee camp alone. No parent. No caregiver. Alone.
And the number grows.
This is the South Sudan Refugee Crisis.
How you can help South Sudanese Refugees
This isn’t a fundraising article. But there are organisations out there, such as Hope Health Action and BMS World Mission, that need donations to help those suffering in the South Sudan refugee crisis. I’ll leave it there. Thank you for reading.
This article on the faces of the South Sudan Refugee Crisis was written by me, David Dunham. The photography is my work.
For further reading on pre-eclampsia, Action on Pre-eclampsia is a place to begin.