The evidence is on the ground. Dark patches of burnt ash and half burnt wooden stumps is all that is left in this village.

Apart from the people – there are thousands, many of them women and children, anxiously waiting in the hot sun for the relief food.

Violent conflicts between different ethnic communities in Likuangole and other villages in the Jonglei state of South Sudan, has left an unconfirmed number of people dead and about 120,000 internally displaced people in desperate need of life saving assistance. These numbers have been increasing rapidly with fresh reports of violence.

While the UN is still estimating the number of people dead, a wire agency quoted local authorities as saying the conflict has killed ‘as many as 2,000 people’.

This history of cattle raids and revenge attacks in the region goes back decades, and is now one of the greatest challenges to stability in the newly independent state. A legacy of mistrust with Khartoum and deepening disputes between two nations over oil revenues are adding to the current increased state of insecurity.

In Jonglei, what started as an inter-ethnic violence over cattle ownership – a source of livelihood and honour for locals – has now reached a flashpoint.

I met several survivors at a food distribution centre set up by Plan International in Likuangole. Mothers expressed fears about the escalation of violence and what might happen to them and their children.

“We lost everything”, said a mother. She looked exhausted and frightened. She had been hiding in the bushes with no food and water. When the mobs came marching to Likuangole on December 30, they spared nothing. All standing structures were reduced to ashes including the local primary school.

The UN estimates that over 33,000 people are displaced in just Likuangole alone. This number has been growing rapidly and local authorities say it is as high as 48,997.

Plan is currently distributing relief food to the conflict affected communities in Pibor – the only life-line for over 54,500 people. Joining hands with the World Food Programme, UN’s food assistance organisation, Plan is expected to reach out to over 70,000 in the coming months.This is a neglected disaster. It is not really in the news. Friends in US and Europe express surprise that they have not seen anything in the news. Want to look up Pibor on the map of South Sudan? Not easy! If you were to walk into a book store in London or New York, there is every chance that you won’t find a map of South Sudan.

Gaining access to the worst affected areas in Pibor is a big challenge. From Juba, the capital,  we took two helicopters and several hours (spread over two days) to reach Pibor. There are other challenges for delivering aid here. The average day temperature is soaring to 40 degrees Celsius. There is no running water, electricity is rationed – three hours a day using a generator, no internet and very poor mobile connectivity.

Safety first

In Gumuruk, I met 11-year-old Paul wearing a half-torn T shirt with Chelsea footballer Drogba’s photo on it. Paul and his friend Gabriel are both Drogba fans and want to become football players like him when they grow up. Their eyes light up when they speak about football and Drogba. 

But Gabriel told me he has stopped playing football – perhaps the only entertainment he and his friends had. They used to play football on the unlevelled, muddy air strip which is just 200 metres away from the village. These days, rumours are rife about retaliation and revenge. Gabriel and his friends do not want get caught up in clashes if the mob returns. Safety first, football can wait.
Violent conflicts take a heavy toll on children.

They get separated from their families, lose their education and childhood. Violence has a lasting traumatising effect on children as they suffer both as victims and as witnesses. In many violent conflicts, many children are recruited to militias and often become perpetuators of violence in future. Last week, Juba Monitor, a weekly newspaper in capital Juba carried photographs of children aged around 12 years, heavily armed.

Dealing with conflicts is time-consuming and involves money and people. While some agencies take up consequences of conflicts in their strategies and programmes, many shy away from working to address the causes and dynamics of the conflict.

But children are also a good place to start addressing conflicts and their fallout.
Here in Jonglei, they are desperately in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance like food, water and shelter. Secondly they need protection, support to continue education. Thirdly they need support to heal the emotional impacts of this violence. Most importantly, they need assurance that the violence will be stopped and peace returned.

The Republic of South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world. We have a collective responsibility to help ensure that its children grow up in peace and good health and education.

Putting children and peace at the centre is key to making that happen.

Edited version of this post also appeared on Plan International and Thomson Reuters Foundation News- Trust- https://news.trust.org/item/20120206175000-fse9d/?source=quickview

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