Don’t tell South Sudan’s children ‘sorry, we should have’

by Elizabeth Harrop

13 October 2014

Children in South Sudan are dying every day. But in just a matter of weeks, famine and genocide could compound a tragedy which should never have got this far.

In May 2014, aid agencies warned of a tipping point in the South Sudan crisis. Famine was deemed inevitable and the UN Security Council identified “risk factors of genocide” and promised to protect civilians from “another Rwanda”.

Five months later, and the conflict is as entrenched as ever, with thousands dead and 750,000 children internally displaced since December.

Nearly quarter of a million children are suffering from severe malnutrition. If they survive into the new year (an estimated 50,000 will not), they will face even harsher conditions as the perilous interplay between conflict, flooding, malnutrition and disease reaches its climax in early 2015.

Even before the current crisis the lives of women and children were barely tolerable, with South Sudan near or at the bottom in all global social indicators including education, literacy, maternal mortality and child nutrition.

Now those same women and children must bear yet another burden – this time the abuses and neglect ravaged upon them by a man-made catastrophe and its languid response.

For individuals, this burden carries complex layers of desperation and vulnerability – some teeter further toward humanity’s edge than others. Terrible stories have emerged to prick the numbing consciences of the West. Of mothers in UN camps with nowhere to lie down, standing in filthy water holding their sleeping children; of families braving bandits to walk for days eating only foraged leaves; of an increase in child marriages as families sacrifice a daughter’s future to secure their present via a cattle dowry.

The lucky ones might reach a protection of civilians (PoC) site, offering some kind of sanctuary from violence and starvation. Eighteen month old Nyataba made it to a UN camp where she is being treated for malnutrition. Her younger brother died before he could be helped. Yet Nyataba, born into a life in which her basic needs have barely ever been met, has at least her mother to hold and comfort her.

Many have no caregiver at all, and thousands of unaccompanied children have found themselves separated from their families and support systems. The fortunate ones among those – around 7,000 children – have been registered by UNICEF and other agencies since December. However thousands more are unaccounted for, and many of these will by now have lost any semblance of a childhood having been conscripted as child soldiers or trafficked for exploitation.

In areas without any form of physical protection or law enforcement, women and children have been killed, gang raped, and subject to sexual slavery. Suddenly the long hungry walk to the PoC camp does not seem so bad.

Yet the protection of the camps is beginning to falter, the numbers too great, the delivery of assistance in a conflict zone an incredible yet precarious feat. Seventy five per cent of women and 83 per cent of men living in PoC sites report feeling unsafe. Choices have to be made, to go outside of the camp to get firewood to cook food, risking rape and assault in doing so; to sell one’s body for food or medicines within the camp.

And so the edge is a different place for different South Sudanese. To us it is all an abyss, but to those living there, there are degrees of hell. Women and children make daily choices about what kind of pain there are willing to endure: hunger or sexual assault for example. But they must choose some kind of pain, and there is of course no choice in that at all.

In contrast, the warring South Sudanese factions have choices – to cease or persist. And so do the international community and its public. Choices about which crises to prioritise; when and how much to donate; what suffering to disconnect from when it all gets too much. After all, the only obligation on States to prevent genocide outside of their borders is a moral not a legal one.

The world admonished itself about Bosnia in the early 1990s (we should have acted sooner) and then Rwanda (we should have learned from Bosnia) and now we have lesson number three. And while we are still not quite getting it, we at least have a few critical weeks in which to do so.

Or, perhaps like South Sudan’s women and children we actually don’t have meaningful choices at all. Offering the required interventions in the required timeframe is actually the only option, when the alternative is watching thousands more suffer and die, while we establish an International Criminal Tribunal in amongst the “sorry we should haves”.

Photos: © UNICEF/ESARO 2015/Elizabeth Harrop

Liberty & Humanity

A mother is reunited with her son after he was released from an armed group. Read more about their story and about South Sudan: