South Sudan: where mothers cannot mourn their children
A distant outline of a person slowly walks an arid road. Only as it approaches closer to the cluster of buildings, one can recognize a woman holding a child in her arms. At first it is difficult to estimate the child’s age – his body is bloated and visibly feverish and weak.
The mother had been walking with her child in arms for several hours in order to reach the healthcare center. “My baby isn’t strong enough to survive, but please try to save him,”she cries. “If you cannot save him, I would be thankful if you at least try.” Mothers in South Sudan are not able to mourn their own children. They have to keep strong and preserve strength for possibly the worst outcome, when her child doesn’t survive. She would then have to take him back and burry him in their ancestors’ grave. Our colleagues have experienced number of similar stories, while helping both mothers and their children to survive. It is estimated that in South Sudan nearly 30.000 children under age of 5 die annually.
South Sudan is a forgotten corner of the world that occasionally appears on television screens. The actor George Clooney, who had been involved in humanitarian assistance and conflict resolution agenda in South Sudan, put the country on the radar of mainstreem media. The world’s youngest country, located amidst the African continent, has been for the most of the time swept by civil war ever since it gained its independence, while its population suffers of hunger and diseases. The Slovak media virtually ignores South Sudan, even after Conflict Armament Research published detailed reports, where it states that a Slovak company was transporting ammunition from Romania via Slovakia to South Sudan and to neighbouring Uganda. The report further documented more evidence of deliveries of illegal weapons into the country, despite the UN imposed weapon embargo.
Today, a fragile ceasefire is holding in South Sudan, however it is not the first time since the war began on 15 December 2013. This disintegrating state is hardly meeting basic needs of its population.None of the civilians is spare the a risk of violent death or rape. Any resemblance of a health system barely exists, and South Sudan depends virtually on international humanitarian aid. 80% of the health facilities are operated by foreign non-government organisations. It is estimated that nearly 400.000 South Sudanese have lost their lives within the last five years of the conflict and war. Hunger threatens more than half of the population, with hundreds of thousands exposed to famine. About two million South Sudanese are internally displaced and a further more than two million have fled the war to neighbouring Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At a camp for displaced people not far from the capital of Juba, we are in mud squeezing our way past tents tightly adjacent to each other. Some of the white tarpaulin for the tents is torn, others not so much. Near the place where we stand there are elongated tin shacks and camp latrines for the around 50.000 people, supposedly protected by UN soldiers. We walk over ever so narrow paths as a loudspeaker echoes in the local language,“vaccinations for children under 5 and pregnant women…”. MAGNA staff members call people out of the tents to a small open space. After a few moments, a pack of barefoot children wearing dirty T-shirts make their way toward us. Pregnant women receive vital tetanus vaccinations while the children are vaccinated against diseases that can kill them. MAGNA vaccinator Peter, in his 30s, living in the camp says,“… we fled the country when I was six years oldand for a while we lived at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. When South Sudan became independent, I returned home. I believed the situation had changed and we would be able to build a new country.” In the area around Bentiu where he lived, Peter nearly fell victim to the civil war. He was forced to flee once again, this time to the camp in Juba, where he is now helping his fellow countrymen.
South Sudan’s history has been distressful.It inhabitants fought for many years to break away from Sudan. The civil war lasted from the 1950s until 2005, with South Sudan separating from Sudan in 2011 after 99% of the people voted for independence in a plebiscite. But peace and the enthusiasm of forming a new state lasted less than two years. At that point, President Salva Kiir accused his then vice president of attempting a coup. The country descended into yet another civil war as government and opposition troops grappled for power. Although the conflict was sparked by politics, it also reflected differences between the country’s ethnic Nuer and Dinka tribes. Despite repeated peace agreements, heavy fighting continued until August 2018.
Duk is a region that lies on the left bank of the White Nile, right in the centre of South Sudan.Even here the people are fighting for their lives every day, threatened by hunger, disease and war.MAGNA personnel have told me stories no one could ever forget. They spoke of children who managed to cheat death, when soldiers invaded their homes and killed everybody inside. They were hidden in a nearby swamp and since then on their own, with the older sibling taking care of the younger ones. They survive on what they could find, many time their survivor dependent on diet of grass and leaves. The women talk about having been raped by soldiers. Whoever resisted was shot. Rarely do cattle raiders get along without killing people and burning homes. Armed with Kalashnikovs, they steal the cattle as families scatter in fear of their lives. Even several days later, these families are still looking for each other in the surrounding countryside. They also have come with what little they owned, having barely escaped with their lives.
Many of them believe the world has forgotten them. At Duk, MAGNA has opened a health centre, where sick and malnourished children and toddlers receive treatment and we assist women with deliveries, provide pre-school education, vaccinate the children and handle severe and acute cases of malnutrition. With our colleagues, we strive to give everyone a chance at life.
There are more than 65.000 people living in the marshlands and steppes far from Juba. The journey along dusty, muddy roads takes several days. Unless the place is reached before the rainy season, no medical supplies, aids, drugs and therapeutic diets will get to the area for another three months because the roads would be impassable. Almost everything – basic services and infrastructure – has been either damaged or destroyed by the civil war. Before the MAGNA health centre was built, people living in Duk had to walk over six hours to the nearest place offering basic medical assistance. Many tell stories with tears in their eyes about wandering three days after having learned about our medical centre. Others would get lost and the journey would last more than six days.
For us living in safety and prosperity within Europe, it seems unimaginable to spend several long hours walking in heat and dust to a hospital. Or the absence of basic health services anywhere, anytime. And all that besides immense threads to personal safety and while in risk of loosing once life, availability of drinking water and even toilets.
It is up to us at MAGNA, even five years after the onset of the civil war, for people in the middle of South Sudan to know that their lives are worth saving. To let women with children such as in Duk realise that they are more than just neglected figures found in humanitarian statistics. We try and continue making sure mothers never have to think about being able to mourn their ill or dying children. They do not have to weep anymore, because we are there and able to safe their lives.
Medical Aid Here and Now. Thanks to you.
Author: Denisa Augustínová, MAGNA Operational Director
Source: The article was also published as a blog on the internet portal Sme.sk – denisaaugustinova.blog.sme.sk
Read the latest news from our operations around the world.