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In South Sudan a Mother Fights for Her Family, and for Survival

Seven weeks after conflict erupted, a look at life in one of thousands of displaced households
Mother and child
Yar Arbithou holds her youngest son, John Amodo. Photo: ACF-South Sudan, N. Gangadharan

The first time I noticed her she was cooking something, stooped over a small soot-covered aluminum pot that was sitting on a makeshift stove. After a bit of hesitation, she agreed to tell me her story.

Her name is Yar Abithou, and she’s from Mayom County in Unity State. She has been in Aweng for the last ten days, with thousands of other displaced citizens. She couldn’t remember how many days it had actually taken her to get here.

“I am married and have six children,” she told me, pointing to the children sitting on a mat under a tree. With her eyes tearing up, she recalled how she got separated from her husband when the chaos started and how she isn’t sure if he is dead or alive.

Her meager belongings were piled up in a small heap and covered with a blanket and bed sheets to protect them from the elements. The cooking pot was given to her by some kind strangers she met on the way, while she was fleeing.

She said she didn’t know what the future held for her or when she could return home. “If there is anything left to return to that is,” she said with her eyes tearing up again. 

* * *

On the morning of January 29th, with the sun blazing in its full glory, my team and I reached Aweng, a small market town in Twic County in the northern part of South Sudan.

When we got there we saw a huge gathering of people, mostly women and children, huddled under the precious shade provided by just a few trees. I learned that there are almost 7,000 people seeking help here. I was being shown around by William Deng, our Nutrition Deputy Program Manager. He and his team of community nutrition volunteers have been serving an estimated 12,000 – 17,000 displaced people, who are spread among six locations along the road. We’ve provided nutritional assistance, including therapeutic food and treatment, to more than 3,100 children.

Our teams are working hard to improve the water, sanitation and hygiene situation in the camps too, by setting up bladder tanks and distribution points to improve water availability and access,  and distributing buckets with lids and taps, Jerry cans, soaps, plastic sheeting and other related items. We are helping people to understand and practice basic hygiene, like using latrines and washing hands with soap or ash so that they don’t get sick.

“It is always hard to get these kinds of messages across to people when they are struggling for survival, but we keep trying as there is no other way.”

William Deng, Nutrition Deputy Program Manager, South Sudan

* * *

Yar Abithou’s son John Amodo was sitting quietly with his siblings on the mat. A healthy-looking child, John seemed blissfully unaware about what had happened to him and his family. After all, he is just over a year old.

His mother picked him up and held him, but he seemed intent on going back to play with his sister, who was seated on the mat. I thanked Yar Abithou profusely for taking the time to talk to me in the middle of her struggle to feed her hungry children. It was emotionally hard on me putting faces and names to a few among the thousands there who were suffering, because as a Head of Program I am always trying to stay focused on the bigger picture. But seeing those faces, learning those names—it’s important. This work is about helping real people get back on their feet.

There are thousands of Yar Abithous and Johns in these camps, displaced, separated from their land and their family members, thinking about their lives a day at a time and focused on survival more than anything else.

Before leaving, as I thanked our staff and volunteers for their dedicated work, William Deng said with his characteristic broad smile on his face, “This is what we are here to do – help people. It is OK.”

ACF's humanitarian response operations in South Sudan are supported by European Union Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF), UNICEF, Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), World Food Program (WFP) and Inter-ministerial Food Aid Committee – French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (CIAA).

 UN agencies and their humanitarian partners in South Sudan launched an appeal on 4th February for $1.27 billion to assist over 3.2 million people, who have been affected by the recent conflict, through June 2014. 

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