"It was all burned, burned to ash": Mary’s story

Portrait of Mary taken by CARE's Tom Perry

Mary Mbek Anger (name changed) doesn't know exactly how old she is. With no birth certificate, she can only guess. But she assumes she's around 70, give or take a few years.

In 2007, Mary's sight began to quickly deteriorate. She sought medical treatment from an eye specialist in Kenya, but was told that nothing could be done. Within a few months, her vision was gone, and she has relied on the support of her family for food and shelter ever since. Despite this, Mary says life was kind to her then.

"Before this war, we had our own belongings, our own life," said Mary. "I was happy. My husband and children were able to help me get around. He was tending to the animals, we were cultivating a lot of crops and food."

Our village was torn apart

Yet on Christmas Eve last year, Mary's life changed forever. War broke out in the South Sudanese capital Juba on 15 December and quickly spread across the country. Within a few short days, much of South Sudan's Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile states were being torn apart. By Christmas Eve, the violence had arrived in Mary's home town of Panyang, in South Sudan's far north.

Mary and her family took refuge in their home, praying they would be safe. Yet within hours, soldiers arrived. They torched crops and homes and slaughtered animals by the hundreds. As Mary recalls: "It was all burned, burned to ash."

Men were being rounded up and executed. Mary's husband – despite his own age and frailty – tried to evacuate her and the family, gathering up the children and grandchildren and moving them, as best he could, to the nearby bush. Fatefully, he chose to return to the house to gather up some possessions such as the all-important jerry can for water. On his return he was captured by soldiers, and killed instantly.

The little ones' cries were all I had to guide me

The family hid in the bushes until sunset, then began moving slowly through the bush, travelling only at night to avoid being spotted. Frail and unable to see, Mary relied on the voices of her distraught family to find her way.

I could just hear the sound of the little ones crying, and I was relying on them to guide me.

After a two-day journey north moving slowly through the bush, Mary and her young nieces arrived in the refugee settlement of Yida, near the Sudanese  border. After weeks of sleeping in the open, they were given some space on the floor of a stranger who was kind enough to offer her and the children a place to stay.

Now, one year on, Mary is unable to move without help. She relies on her children and grandchildren, who spend much of their time begging, gathering firewood or hunting for edible plants to eat from the surrounding bush. She says life is near impossible, that without crops, livestock or even a home, they are depending on the kindness of others to survive.

I've lost everything

"I feel completely sad. This house is not mine. I've lost so many things; including my husband," explained Mary. "He was the one I relied on to help me now that I'm blind. I was dependent on him for everything."

"Now I have no source of income at all. Apart from the wild greens from the bush that I can eat.

We're just begging from people around here, from good Samaritans, people who are helping us, day-to-day.

CARE has provided Mary and her family with seeds, and the tools to cultivate them. They have begun to grow vegetables, including onions, tomatoes and eggplant in the hope of having enough to eat over the coming months, and potentially, some left over to sell at the nearby market.

Mary and her family long for peace to return to South Sudan. But they have to keep their thoughts purely focused on how to get through each day.

Our hope is simply to survive. Without a home, without food, we can't do anything. I just want to survive, to have shelter, to have food.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.