Refugee women in South Sudan: ‘Stop the killing’

May 15, 2014
Originally published in: Women's E-News
Written by Masha Hamilton, Vice President for Communications, Concern Worldwide

Just a few months ago both these women led very different lives. But now they live side by side in a refugee camp and provide a glimpse of the human toll of the bloody conflict in the world’s youngest country.

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JUBA, South Sudan (WOMENSENEWS)–Just a few months ago, Angelina, a regal-looking mother of five, was living a comfortable life. Her husband was a member of parliament, the family owned three Toyota Prado cars and she didn’t want for anything.

That was before the calm of night was disrupted on Dec. 15 by the sound of her neighbor and the neighbor’s three children screaming, and shots being fired. At the end of a few minutes, she knew her neighbors were dead. “I started shaking so badly. Even now, I wake up in the middle of the night and cry, remembering those sounds,” said Angelina, 32, whose name  has been changed to protect her safety. “Then I get up, make the sign of the cross and pray, and I ask my children to pray with me that this country will return to normal.”

A bloody conflict has shaken the world’s youngest country since Dec. 15 of last year, forcing some 1,216,000 people to flee their homes. About 923,000 of those are displaced within their own country. Some are with host families and others live in camps scattered around South Sudan.

Women are often at the frontline of those camps because of their roles of caring for children and preparing food.

One of them is Angelina. Another is Nyajong, whose name is also not being used for her safety.

They reside only a few yards from one another now, though they were living in very different circumstances before the conflict began.

Here are their stories:

‘I Don’t Want to Hear He is Dead’

As Angelina’s family ran from their home into the bush, she got separated from her husband. After walking for two hours that night, she and her children ended up at one of the United Nation’s Mission military bases, which quickly became a camp for those who fled their homes. They became one of its first residents. What happened to her husband? She still doesn’t know.

“I honestly don’t know how to find him. I haven’t told any of the officials here who I am, who my husband is,” she said. When pressed as to why, she looks off in the distance and then directly at her questioner. “I don’t want to hear that he is dead. I don’t want to ask and get bad news. I just keep praying to God, and hoping that he will find us.”

The shelter she shares with her children has a better roof, thicker and more secured against rain and wind, than most around her. But she says she has two main worries about her children, who range in ages from 14 to 2½ years old. “It is not the food. It is not what my children are used to, but they will eat it,” she said. “It is that we have no mattresses for them for sleeping, and besides that, we have no mosquito nets, so I worry about malaria.”

Asked if she could give any message to the warring sides of the conflict that have disrupted her life and the life of her country, she thought a moment. “I would tell them if they must fight, fight among themselves,” she said. “But stop, stop killing the women and children.”

‘Burning Our Neighbors Alive’

Nyajong, who also gives her age as 32, is pregnant and due to deliver in July. She was carrying on her head wooden poles to try build a new shelter for her family when I meet her. Right now she, her husband and their four children, ranging in ages from 1 ½ to 10 years, share a shelter measuring about 6 feet by 10 feet with four other adults.

Like Angelina, Nyajong and her family fled their home on the night of Dec. 15. “They were burning our neighbors alive. I heard it and saw it,” she said. “I knew they were on their way to us.”

Her former circumstances were far different from Angelina’s. Her husband had been unemployed for a long time and the family survived through subsistence farming.

She has two main complaints. First, the camp is so congested that there is no detached place for cooking. To demonstrate, she lifts up her youngest child, a boy named Terit, who wears a makeshift bandage wrapped around his belly. “He got burned by hot water,” she said. The second issue is that there is no place to get milk for her children.

Though there is a medical clinic, she expects to give birth in the camp itself and that doesn’t worry her. What does concern her though, and why she wants a separate shelter for her family, is that she can’t imagine fitting an infant into the tiny space they share now. “Where is the baby even going to sleep in this crowded room?” she asked.

Asked when she expects to return home, she said it is beyond her control. “They talk, we wait,” she said of the peace negotiations. “I hope they talk faster.”

Fighting broke out in Juba last December between government troops led by President Salva Kiir and forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council this week that if the fighting continues, half of South Sudan’s 12 million people will be displaced, starving or dead by year’s end. Already, more than 1.3 million people have fled their homes because of the violence.


Masha Hamilton is currently vice president of communications for Concern Worldwide and traveled with them to South Sudan. She is the author of five acclaimed novels, the founder of two nonprofits and a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times.