South Sudan at 5 years old: Young lives scarred by conflict

Chianyal and her sister Nyanen in South Sudan

Chianyal (above left) is 5 - the same age as her country.

Chianyal’s mother Angeline says they were happy when South Sudan got independence in July 2011, and they celebrated by singing and dancing. Two years later, in 2013, civil war erupted, killing tens of thousands and forcing millions from their homes. A peace settlement in 2015 brought hope, but as the world’s youngest country marked its 5th birthday, fighting has begun again.

If South Sudan is a five-year-old girl, what is life like for her now?

Chianyal stands in a muddy alley at the camp
Chianyal stands in a muddy alley at the UN's Protection of Civilians camp

Five-year-old Chianyal has been living in the UN Mission in South Sudan’s ‘Protection of Civilians’ (POC) site since November 2015. The family were forced to come to the POC when fighting reached their village and they ran out of food. Before coming to the POC they had fled from their home to the nearby forest on six different occasions. Each time they would spend a couple of months there and then return home.

Chianyal with her mother and sister
Chianyal with her mother Angeline and her sister Nyanen

With the last round of fighting in their village their home was burnt down and it was after this that they decided to come to the POC site. Chianyal’s mother Angeline says she has heard people talking about the 2015 peace agreement that was signed between the opposing parties, but she is still fearful as she doesn’t see the two sides properly integrating or living together. So she worries that fighting could break out again at any time.

Nyasunday, a young girl in South Sudan
Nyasunday, aged 5, in the POC camp in South Sudan

Nyasunday (above), also aged 5, has been living in the POC site for over two years. She came with her parents, siblings and other relatives after their home in Bentiu was burned down. Over 95,000 people – mostly of the Nuer tribe – are currenty living in the POC, afraid to return home. At the height of the crisis the number was over 120,000 living in makeshift shelters, in the mud. Two years on, the POC has become a defacto settlement, but conditions remain difficult.

Nyasunday and her family
Nyasunday (left) and her family

Despite the peace agreement, Nyasunday’s family don’t feel safe to return to Bentiu. Her mother Angelina says there’s reports that there are soldiers in the town and she is worried fresh fighting could break out.

Although Bentiu is only around 14 kilometres away, Angelina has only returned once since they were forced to run for their lives. She said that when she went she saw only ash. Families like Nyasunday’s say they are waiting for the UN to tell them it is safe to return home before they will leave.

Nyasunday sweeping inside the tent she lives in
Nyasunday sweeps the inside of the tent with straw broom

Life in the POC is difficult for the family – they can’t easily get charcoal or wood to cook and going outside the UN base to collect firewood can be very dangerous. They live mainly off food rations provided by the World Food Programme and can no longer make and eat much of their normal, traditional food.

Nyasunday being examined by a CARE medical officer
A CARE staff member measures Nyasunday's arm for signs of malnutrition

Last year, Nyasunday was identified by CARE nutrition staff as severely malnourished, during a routine door-to-door check on children’s malnutrition in the POC. She was admitted to CARE’s therapeutic feeding programme for a month and is now healthy and doing well, thanks to the food supplements she received and training on nutrition given to her mother by CARE.

Nyasunday and her little brother
Nyasunday helps her little brother Tabuom take a drink

Nyasunday often helps her mother around the house by looking after her younger brother Tabuom. Tabuom was born in the POC and has never seen life outside of the UN camp.

Chianyal and her sister Nyanen
Chianyal holds her little sister Nyanen

Chianyal also helps to look after her younger sibling, her sister Nyanen. Nyanen is currently on CARE’s feeding programme for severe malnutrition.

Malnutrition is a major problem in the POC with levels of malnourished children under 5 years over twice that of the emergency thresholds. Around 34% of children in the camp are suffering from malnutrition and a third of those are severely malnourished. The emergency threshhold is 15%.

Chianyal inside her home at the camp
Chianyal inside the temporary shelter that she and her family live in

Chianyal herself got sick in May and was taken to the health centre in the POC where she was diagnosed with malaria. Her mother says she still gets fevers at night.

Chianyal skipping with friends
Chianyal playing with a skipping rope

Despite this, like all children, Chianyal likes to play. One of her favourite games is skipping with the other children. She also makes figurines out of mud. She says she has made two good friends here in the POC that she likes to play with.

But what sort of life is this for a child? Chianyal says:

I don’t like the POC, I like Koch [where she comes from]. There is no milk to drink here and I want to go home.

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