As fighting continues in South Sudan, the debris of people in flight litters the ground: suitcases, a television…a child's red leather shoes.
When families flee, children can become separated, putting them at risk of exploitation and abuse.
Read this startling testimony about what's happening and how World Vision is working to help.
I only catch a glimpse of them as we hurtle along the dusty road. Armed men are everywhere. Stopping for a better look is too dangerous.
They are red leather shoes with little straps and tiny silver buckles, slightly scuffed at the toes. Judging by the size, they belonged to a child no older than 4 or 5. Surreally, they sit neatly side by side, almost as if put away on an imaginary shelf.
A little further along, a single adult trainer lies sideways in a ditch.
Just past that, I spot two gray plastic suitcases. They are open but empty, the contents stolen.
As we drive further along the road, there are more and more similar items along the roadside. Each one is evidence of what happened here. Each one represents an innocent life snuffed out.
They were all running, fleeing for their lives as fighting raged around them.
They ran one day last December when the city of Malakal came under attack in the brutal conflict that is currently tearing apart South Sudan. The worst attack took place on Boxing Day, December 26, and took the city by surprise at 7 a.m.
Heavy artillery slammed into buildings, bursts of gunfire scattered across the city, and armed men ran through the streets with guns and knives. Most people were still asleep. Parents screamed at their children to run, throwing whatever they could into a suitcase or bag before tearing out of their front doors.
Phillip is a father of two. He says: “My wife was at the market when it started. She had to drop the bags of rice and sugar she had just bought in order to run home. We went onto the street and she and the kids managed to get a truck heading to the northern border with Sudan but there was no room for me. I gave them some blankets and kissed them goodbye. I cried because I didn’t know when I would see them again.”
Ten-year-old Maria recounts her terror: “When the fighting first started we ran to the other end of town. But there was shelling so we had to run back. One of my relatives was hit. She fell down but thank God she wasn't killed. When we got back to our home we saw that many people were dead. They had been shot as they ran. There was no safety on any side of the city.”
In the ensuing panic, many children lost their parents. The lucky ones were scooped up into a neighbor’s arms; the unlucky ones left to fend for themselves.
Around 300 people took refuge in a compound of the Catholic church, but as 9-year-old Simon recounts, that wasn’t safe either: “The soldiers picked all the young men and took them away in order to kill them. They took all our property. They even took my mother’s mattress and bed sheet.”
Once outside the city, people had to keep running. Twenty thousand people made it to a United Nations base a few kilometers away. Others ran in different directions, trying to reach the safety of relatives in outlying villages. Some ran for two or three days without stopping, no water and no food.
Maybe the toddler who owned the red shoes survived but lost them in the panic. But it’s more likely that the little boy or girl didn’t make it — if not shot dead, then one of the many who was unable to keep going. Was it a grieving parent who placed the shoes so neatly by the roadside?
All along this roadside are these little vignettes of lives destroyed. This has happened to thousands of children and adults. And that is just in Malakal. Across South Sudan, a million people have been made homeless by the fighting, with over 10,000 feared killed since December.
And the conflict is getting worse. Fresh fighting has engulfed the cities of Bentiu and Renk, where huge battles between government and anti-government forces are raging. There are fears that increasing numbers of children are becoming separated from family members, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including being conscripted as child soldiers.
Rich Mosenko, a World Vision humanitarian operations specialist, describes the need as “immense and overwhelming.”
He explains: “Within the UN base, 20,000 people are living in dangerously overcrowded conditions, and there are risks of disease like cholera and typhoid. World Vision and other agencies have organized clean water and tents, but we can’t do anything about the lack of space and large numbers of people. And outside the base in nearby villages, the situation is truly dire. There are so many very vulnerable innocents caught up in this, mostly women and children. It is imperative we reach them now to provide what aid we can before the weather worsens. The heavy rain will cut off many roads, making access very difficult.”
Three months since Malakal was first attacked, many of the children I met still wear the nightclothes they fled in that morning. Take 13-year-old Theresa. Shivering in a thin cotton nightdress, she says matter of factly, “The situation for the children here inside the UN base is horrible. We have no food and we have no school. If we have no books we can’t go to school. If we can’t go to school we can’t learn. But if we leave the base we will die. So we have no choice but to stay here.”
Nadene Robertson, a freelance writer for World Vision, traveled to South Sudan to report on the crisis.
Help World Vision reach the vulnerable people of South Sudan with critical, life-saving aid. Give to our South Sudan Disaster Relief Fund today.