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Humanitarians at risk: South Sudanese youth leader rescues children from harm

Photo credit: Till Muellenmeister

This post is part of our 'Humanitarians at risk' series, dedicated to World Humanitarian Day which will take place on 19 of August. The series features testimonies of humanitarians around the world who risk their lives daily, while saving those of others. World Humanitarian Day is our opportunity to recognise the personal sacrifice made by humanitarian professionals and pay tribute to those who were injured or killed while doing their job.

Isaac James, a youth leader at the 'SOS Children’s Village' organisation suddenly found himself isolated with 33 SOS children and teenagers as gunfire raged in Malakal, South Sudan in December 2013. In search of safety he courageously led them on a perilous journey that covered almost 200 km.

Eager to protect

The city of Malakal changed hands between the government and rebel forces several times; and every so often the armed combatants forced their way into the SOS village, stealing money and mobile phones from village staff, and from neighbouring communities sheltering the facility.

Isaac James had worked as a youth leader at the 'SOS Children’s Village' in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state. When the fighting broke out over controlling the town in mid-December, the youth leader took it upon himself to protect the children and young people of the children’s village.

He took advantage of a lull in the fighting and evacuated 36 children and adolescents , five mothers and three ‘aunts’ from the SOS village to the base of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), under armed escort. He then returned to the SOS village.

The symbol of sanctuary, associated with the 'SOS Children’s Villages', repeatedly received a battering. At one point about 60 armed men stormed in, breaking into the girls’ hostel, the village director’s house and office, and the store - and looting everything, including laptops, clothes, mattresses, bed sheets and personal effects.

The insurgents said they had come for property but the next time they would be on a killing mission.” Isaac recalled. “This threat made us think it was no longer safe to remain in the village.”

Flee to safety

A commotion triggered by a third round of violence left Isaac with 33 children, yet, separated from other village staff. With no time to waste, the group congregated at the river bank of the Nile in order to cross to the other side. Amid rocket-propelled grenade fire, a number of youth jumped into the river and swam across the crocodile infested waters, while the children were quickly placed in boats. When Isaac realised there was no space for him, he jumped into the river with a bag full of clothes on his shoulders. He protectively held onto the edge of the dinghy ferrying the children. Once safely on the other side, some children and youth were taken by their relatives. Isaac was left with 27 children.

In his quest to safeguard the children of whom the youngest was a two-year-old infant, Isaac moved from one area to another. They walked for long days, crossing regions; walking from Wal Shilluk, where they spent 48 hours to finally arriving at Fashoda 24 hours later. Here the children received food and water, courtesy of an 'SOS Children Village' co-worker; two hours later the group was on their way again.

The youth were very helpful in carrying their small brothers and sisters and some of their personal belongings,” Isaac said. “I advised the youth not to stray far from every camp.”

It took them about 12 hours to reach Kodok where they took a boat to Melut, a relatively safe town in west Paloich in Upper Nile State. Before disembarking at Melut, they met some soldiers who ordered all the men to get out of the boat. The soldiers mocked and teased the youth asking questions like, "Why are you running away from Malakal?" They were later released.

During this perilous trip the group lost all contact. At one point there was great anxiety at the 'SOS Children’s Villages' as nobody knew where the children were and how they were faring. In Melut however, Isaac was able to charge his phone battery and with great relief spoke to Kiros Aregawi, Project Manager at the 'SOS Children’s Villages Malakal', who was in Juba at the time. Kiros made arrangements for Isaac and the children to be transported from Melut to Paloich – 2 000 km from the capital city of Juba.

Upon arrival the children, who were hungry and tired, acquired accommodation in a camp belonging to a petroleum company. Their desire for a peaceful night was however interrupted by a drunken soldier who ordered them to move out at gunpoint. Isaac explained the situation to some soldiers within the camp who were familiar with the work of the 'SOS Children’s Villages', and so they were allowed to stay.

As the guardian of the children I was frustrated,” said Isaac. “I couldn’t manage the children properly. I could not get nutritious food for them, especially the young kids. Lack of proper space to sleep and play irritated the children. During the night the small kids would cry bitterly calling for their mothers and there was nothing I could do.”

After a month of uncertainty and worry, Isaac received some welcome news: 'SOS Children’s Villages' had been able to organise evacuation of the group to Juba. Isaac said that at first he could not believe it since earlier attempts to airlift the group from Paloich had failed on numerous occasions. “The process took quite long and became cumbersome for reasons which I do not know,” he recalled. “We went to the airport at Paloich several times, thinking that we would get a chance for free airlifting using cargo planes. So, when I got information from the Project Manager that SOS was going to evacuate us using a chartered flight, I told the youth and they too couldn't believe me. It was not until I boarded the flight when I surely thought we were leaving indeed.”

Juba, at last

On 18 March, Isaac and the children were eventually evacuated from Paloich to Juba. They joined other SOS children and staff who had been airlifted out of Malakal a week earlier. There were mixed emotions of disbelief and elation as the children were reunited with their SOS families; the joy of leaving those horrible scenes in Malakal and a chance to return to a relatively ‘normal’ life was overwhelming.

By Kiros Aregawi and Anne Kahura,
SOS Children’s Villages

The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) funded SOS villages in South Sudan.

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