Geographies in Depth

Meet the South Sudanese children turning five with the world's youngest country

After years of civil war, what's it like to be a child in South Sudan today? Image: Alissa Everett/Unicef

Peter Holmes à Court
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On 9 July, the country of South Sudan turned five years old, and so did tens of thousands of children in the country, who for much of their lives have known only violence, fear and upheaval.

After more than two years of civil war, what is it like to be a child in South Sudan today? Nearly one million have been forced from their homes by violence; some 400,000 have left school because of fighting and more than a third of all children are malnourished.

These are the stories of six of South Sudan’s five-year-olds.

Image: © UNICEF/UNI203954/Everett

Gatchang Moet, from Bentiu, photographed in the Bentiu POC, South Sudan

“I want to be a driver of an airplane,” Gatchang answered without delay, standing in the centre of the room he shares with eight members of his family. Moments before, his sister had brought home a ninth resident, her newborn girl, and he had just finished gently stroking the forehead of his niece.

Gatchang, his grandfather said, was born on a particularly hot day and can’t remember a time when he lived without conflict. When he was barely two years old his town was all but destroyed in the outbreak of civil war. His family fled to the safety of a UN-controlled Protection of Civilians camp and, despite his home being less than five kilometres away, he has spent most of his life inside the heavily guarded site.

When Gatchang was asked what he hoped for when he grows up, it was his grandfather who interjected: “Peace. South Sudan needs peace for him to grow. We put him in school so that he knows something about the world and can use it when he grows.”

The second time Gatchang was asked for his response, his grandfather again responded: “We are on the corner,” he said, and using the vocabulary of the news reports that were playing on the small radio nearby, added: “And we need the international community to help us come back from this crisis.”

Once more, the young boy was asked and finally he smiled warmly and said something under his breath.

The translator leaned in and asked him to repeat it several times, finally concluding: “He said he wants what his parents want: peace. Then he can go home.”

Image: © UNICEF/UNI203953/Everett
Madadr Tuok, from Bentiu, photographed at the Lich Primary School, Bentiu POC, South Sudan

“My mother helps me with my buttons every day before school,” he said as he stood up to show off his small suit.

Madadr was seated on an empty tin can that once contained four litres of USAID-donated cooking oil. “I carry it as my stool from home each day. It is not high. If I sit at the front, I can see the teacher.”

His teacher is Tabitha Imano, an energetic 18-year-old, and every bit of her enthusiasm is required to contain a class that numbers over 130 students. “Not too bad today,” she said, “sometimes it can get to over 200.”

The Lich Primary school is one of eight primary schools operated by UNICEF inside the Bentiu POC (Protection of Civilians) camp. On its busiest days, up to 6,000 students squeeze into a series of reed-sided, canvas-roofed rooms. The camp has a population of over 90,000, and with more than 60% of the residents under the age of 18, the demand for education is overwhelming.

Keeping the discipline of so many students is a challenge, and one method employed is to require all children to wear clean clothes each day. The punishment that the children say they fear the most is to be sent home and miss out on a day of school.

In Class 1, Madadr joins his classmates singing and chanting, repeating Tabitha’s lesson energetically. The hardest part, Tabitha says, is the lack of organization and the noise. “But,” she adds, “they are learning, all of them. Slowly."

Image: © UNICEF/UNI203955/Everett

Sabri John, from Magwi but photographed outside the house that his mother is renting in Torit, South Sudan

“My boots came from Juba,” Sabri said, proud that his boots had come from the capital of South Sudan, a city he has never been to. “My mother has a sister there and she works in a hospital.”

Sabri has two newborn siblings, twins born six months ago, and a 10-year-old brother, of whom he cheekily admitted: “Sometimes I fight with him.”

Later, his mother Rose mentioned that he also has a big sister, Hadia, aged 13, who is the only family member working at the moment. As Rose is nursing the twins, Hadia works to provide a little for the family. Her job entails collecting cassava bark that is used in producing the local alcoholic brew. She works from 8am to 8pm, six days a week, in return for her meals and 10 South Sudanese pounds a day. After the recent devaluation of the local currency this is equivalent to about 30 US cents.

Rose was able to obtain some schooling, and speaks well even as she juggles the twins whom she is simultaneously breastfeeding.

“Since my husband left me to marry another woman, there is no money for school. But when the babies are a little older I will go back to work, and Sabri will go to school. I want him to have an education like my sister. He could do anything. You can see, he is a good boy."

Image: © UNICEF/UNI203951/Everett

Aber Beatrice and her mother, Ida, photographed in the restaurant that Ida runs in Magri, South Sudan

“I want to be a doctor,” Aber offers, and then adds: “To help the people here in Magri. We have a doctor in Magri. His name is David. He’s a nice man.”

Aber’s father is one of many South Sudanese who spent an extended period living as a refugee in Uganda during the long civil war for independence, and it is there that he met his Ugandan-born wife Ida. The family chose to move back to South Sudan just before independence, where Aber was born.

“I can write my own name, and my mother’s,” Aber continued, and then proceeded to write them down to prove it.

Ida spoke with the same confidence shown by her daughter, and most enthusiastically when she spoke of Ida’s future.

From the income of the small family restaurant, Ida sends Aber to school. She hopes Aber will finish high school, and perhaps go to university.

“Possibly even in another country, like Uganda or Ethiopia,” Ida added with a broad smile.

Image: © UNICEF/UNI203956/Everett
Susan Andua, photographed outside her mother Florence’s house in Nimule, South Sudan

“I asked her that too!” Susan’s mother Florence said with a laugh when she heard her daughter say she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up.

Florence continued to press the family’s laundry with a small charcoal-heated iron as she told the story of when she had asked Susan why she wanted to be a pilot. “One day she asked her teacher what makes those planes in the sky go.” Her teacher replied that “it was humans, people who go to school a lot”, and at that point the little girl decided to become a pilot.

However, Susan was not in class this week as she has an eye problem that stops her attending. “It hurts,” she says with a dip of her chin, “but my mother took me to see the clinic.”

She writes confidently for a girl of her age; on her own chalkboard using a small piece of chalk she borrowed from a neighbour.

Only about 10% of the girls in South Sudan complete primary school, and the typical age of marriage in rural areas is rarely over 15. As a result, a higher percentage of teenage girls in South Sudan die in childbirth than finish high school. But there is evidence things are changing, and nearby schools have almost the same number of girls enrolled as they do boys.

After writing her age, Sarah continued writing up to 10. “When I don’t go to school I help my mother with the maize, and in the house. Most of all I like my chalkboard and doing my homework. Oh, and football.”

When Florence was asked at what age she thought Susan should get married she responded immediately. “Twenty-five or 26. That would let her finish school and university and get a better job.”

Image: © UNICEF/UNI203958/Everett

Election Lowata, from Lomolo Village, seen here in the UNHCR Transit Centre, Adjumani, Uganda.

“Never! I have never been on a slide before. But I like it,” she said before darting away to join the end of the queue to take another turn.

Born in the year her country gained its independence, her parents proudly named her Election. Now, in the year in which she and her country turn five, Election and her family have been forced to cross into neighbouring Uganda.

After two years of failed crops, and persistent cattle raiding by rival tribes, the family ran out of options.

For over a year they were forced to live off food foraged from the forest. While the children were gradually growing weaker, their father tried to remain until it was too late: Election’s oldest sister died from a combination of malnutrition and something poisonous she ate in the forest.

The family ended their week-long journey in a UNHCR Transit Centre in the Ugandan border town of Adjumani, where they would wait until being resettled in Uganda.

On the first morning after her arrival, Election and her family were given breakfast, and she walked to child-friendly space that had been set up by UNICEF and Save the Children.

In a morning of firsts, she tried the slide, attempted the swing and attended a classroom, even putting up her hand to answer a question. While she didn’t really understand it meant you needed to know the answer, she still went to the front of the class and used the teacher’s pointer to try to identify a picture.

As her proud father Kompeo looked on, he was asked if she will be back. “I think every day,” he replied, with the first smile he had managed all week.

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Geographies in DepthResilience, Peace and Security
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