The scars of conflict on the youth of South Sudan

Published: 1 July 2014 13:37 CET

By: Merlijn Stoffels, Netherlands Red Cross Society

We are up early this morning to set off for Minkamen, the biggest settlement site in South Sudan for people forced from their homes due to the ongoing conflict. The place has expanded from a small village of 7,000 to a town of over 90,000, with new arrivals coming every day. Getting supplies to these people is difficult; the poor state of the road means it takes two days for a truck to get there, even though the distance is only 150 kilometres.

Fortunately, we get a ride on a Red Cross helicopter that is delivering aid supplies and personnel to the site. From the air you get a clear idea of how barren the country is and how few roads there are. Forty minutes later, the settlement area comes into view. It is on the River Nile. What strikes you most is the sheer, sprawling extent of it. A volunteer from the South Sudan Red Cross awaits us, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross. I notice he has scars on his forehead, four straight lines, which I assume must be tribal markings. I will come back to these later.

Upon arrival, it soon becomes clear how difficult life is for these families. There are puddles and mud everywhere. The hard, clay subsoil makes it hard for the water to drain away. Our ATV gets stuck. Trucks get stuck. And this is even before the rainy season has really begun. The Red Cross is busily preparing for the rainy season. About 300 toilets will be raised above large, dug-in containers. This is to prevent the toilets from overflowing, which would result in excrement running out among all the temporary huts, with all the hazards that would bring, such as outbreaks of diarrhoea. This can be deadly, especially for children.

I notice a naked child playing by a toilet that has already overflowed, flies crawling around his eyes. We explain to his parents that this is not a good idea. A mother of four tells me that many people are already sick. Her daughters have diarrhoea, but she has no money to buy medicine. They do have food, but it is a monotonous diet. As we arrive, a big supply tent is being erected so they can get essential aid to help them survive the rainy season. 

In the evening, I get talking with Diing, the South Sudan Red Cross volunteer who collected us from the airstrip, the man with the scars on his forehead. This 25-year-old aid worker comes from nearby Bor, on the other side of the river. He fled to a village further away, while over 50,000 others narrowly escaped with their lives by crossing the river in boats. Many of the people who stayed behind, most of them elderly, were killed.

The first days were hell, says Diing. For days on end, people had nothing to eat. There was no help for the wounded and nowhere to sleep. On top of all that, it was hot, well over 40 degrees Celsius. After four days, relief came from the Red Cross. With other Red Cross volunteers, Diing worked around the clock to help those in greatest need. It was not easy, because everyone needed help. People in surrounding villages are also in dire straits. In recent months, the Red Cross has provided not only food for over 10,000 people in Minkamen and the surrounding area, but also cooking equipment, clean water and tarpaulins to protect the huts against the rain. However, another Red Cross aid worker says the work is still not finished by a long shot.

I ask Diing if this is the first time he has had to flee the violence. Then, unexpectedly, comes the explanation of the scars on his forehead. It turns out to be a moving story. At the age of four, Diing was abducted by an armed band. With a knife, they cut marks deeply into his forehead. It was the symbol of another tribe. For four years, Diing did not see his parents, and was taken in by a family who regarded him as their son. Eventually, his parents were able to trace him. They demanded the return of their son and threatened vengeance.

Due to bad roads and the continuing conflict, it took another six years before Diing was to embrace his parents again. It was because of this experience that Diing decided to devote the rest of his life to helping other people. He became a volunteer with the Red Cross.

Every one of the South Sudan Red Cross volunteers has their own tale to tell. Nearly all of them have had to flee the violence. I am impressed by the strength and endurance of these hard-working aid workers, many of whom are young. Our conversation is suddenly interrupted. A colleague comes to say that the generator will soon be switched off as it is nine o’clock. A storm is on the way, so we are advised to stow our stuff in the vehicle. Time to crawl into my little tent, with a mosquito net over me.