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11 July 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:17am

South Sudan, the youngest country, reaches its fifth birthday – but its children continue to struggle

John was 11-years-old when his village was attacked. He is now one of thousands of refugees from the world’s youngest country living in Uganda.

By Stefanie Glinski

Heavy fighting in South Sudan’s capital Juba has killed hundreds of people over the weekend. Thousands have already fled the fighting and almost 1,000 new refugees have been registered in Uganda since Thursday.

Shots and heavy shellfire heard across the capital in the past days have spread fear and panic throughout the population. As always, it is children who suffer the most  something that 14-year-old John, who now lives in Uganda, has already experienced.

A few years ago, he was a young boy in purple shorts and a washed out t-shirt, sitting under a tree in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, watching bats as they swept in and out of his mud hut.

What the then 11-year-old didn’t know was that he was spending his last evening in peace. The sun had already set when he headed to bed, and the night covered his village in a dark shadow. John didn’t have electricity, but he loved his country’s clear sky full of stars, and that was his last thought before falling asleep that night.

It was a different reality when he woke up and one that would alter his life forever: The air filled with gunshots and screams; bright flashlights pierced through the pitch black dark of the night, and rebels were everywhere. When John started running, some huts had already been set on fire and black smoke filled his lungs. Although he didn’t know where he was going, he had never sprinted that fast. There was no time to even grab a jacket or some food. In the chaos, John wasn’t able to see his parents or younger siblings.

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“I ran several miles until I arrived at the river and I spent the rest of the night there alone. In the morning I found my siblings, but a neighbor told me that my parents had been brutally murdered. My life fell apart when I heard these news.”

John is 14 years old today and lives in a refugee community in Northern Uganda. Like thousands of others, he made the long journey across his country by foot with his three siblings, only occasionally catching a ride in a truck. “It was treacherous,” he says. “I didn’t have shoes and we barely had any food or water. I had suddenly become responsible to bring my three younger siblings to safely.”

“I loved my home village and my parents. Life was good. Today, I am raising my two brothers and sister. I am their mother and their father and take care of them every day. Life is very hard.”

Three years after John’s village was attacked, South Sudan still hasn’t found peace and stability. An almost forgotten war has taken the lives of over 10,000 people since 2013, has displaced over 1.6 million and made more than 720,000 flee to neighboring countries, according to the UN. The latest bout of fresh fighting has put Sudan back on the radar.

Up to 200 South Sudanese refugees still arrive daily in Uganda, but numbers have gone up since the weekend.

Refugees arriving in Uganda. Photos: World Vision UK

John is having a slightly easier life here than he would have in his home country, where more than 4.8 million people live on the brink of starvation and the government’s reconciliation efforts are moving along slowly.

He and his siblings now live in a square-shaped hut and have kind neighbors who help them with their daily chores. Life is Northern Uganda is safer and all four children – including John – have the chance to attend school here. The trauma of the rebel attack sits deep, however. “I remember the shooting and the fire. One of the bullets hit my mother, another one hit my father. I think of my dad a lot, because I am now in his position. I’m 14, but I’m the head of the household.”

John and thousands of other refugees in the settlement continue to depend on help. Living in Ugandan host communities, they receive food rations, clean water, as well as psychological support. John’s siblings attend a child-friendly space every afternoon where they can forget about their past, learning native dances and chasing each other up and down the slides.

Watching the children play, their strong spirit stands out and continues to trump their daily struggles. World Vision, a humanitarian organisation which resumed operations in Sudan after the 2004 Darfur crisis, works with children like John both in Uganda and South Sudan and sees their resilience on a daily basis. “The South Sudanese are a strong nation that will rise up and build up their country if they receive the necessary help and a long-term peace deal can be secured,” says Policy Advisor Jeremiah Young, who is based in Juba. “For the sake of the children, we urge all stakeholders to intensify the reconciliation efforts and to hasten the peace process,” he adds.

Thinking of his home village, there is one thing that John felt like he was able to bring: the star-filled sky. “It’s the same here as it is in my village and when I look up, I wonder what it is going on over there right now,” he says, while playing with his necklace. John almost looks like a grown-up now in his peach-coloured button down shirt. He seems old for his age, but he’s lived a long life already.

“One day, I hope there will be peace,” he says quietly as the sun sets and the last light of the day fades away.

Stefanie Glinski is a field content manager at World Vision UK.

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