Eight years ago, South Sudan gained independence and became the world’s youngest nation. Since then, the country has tragically seen more war than peace.
Over 2.3 million South Sudanese are currently living as refugees in neighbouring countries and another 1.9 million are internally displaced. The crisis has seriously impacted children, who make up nearly two-thirds of the entire refugee population.
Refugees living in exile across the region and beyond share their fears, hopes and dreams for their home country and the world’s youngest nation.
Eusu and Jacob Francis, 21 years old, Kampala, Uganda
Twin brothers Eusu and Jacob Francis were born in Sudan, before the birth of South Sudan. They never imagined that Independence would signal the breakup of their happy family.
During the school holidays, they would travel from Khartoum, Sudan, where they lived with their mother, to spend time with their father in Juba, now South Sudan’s capital.
“It was a good time to meet our friends and play football,” they recall, adding that they also learnt how to manage their father’s businesses.
On the fateful day, they had gone to play football with their friends when Eusu’s phone rang. He froze when he heard the news: their father had been killed near their home.
The brothers rushed home amid sounds of gunshots. When tnhy met people past them looking for cover, they knew they had to run too.
“We ran for hours until we got to a place where people were boarding buses to Uganda. We knew these buses would take us to safety and so we got on board,” they say.
Six years later, the twins are in college, on scholarships; Eusu is studying International Relations and Development and Jacob is studying Clinical Medicine.
They both think of home and wish they could return.
“Home is where the heart is. But if there is no peace, then it stops being home.”
“I wish I could go back to my beautiful country,” says Eusu. “But it’s still insecure and my dad’s death hurts me so much.”
Jacob agrees and adds: “Home is where the heart is. But if there is no peace, then it stops being home.”
He wished to become a doctor as a child but the war shattered that dream. Now that he is furthering his studies, he wants to save lives.
“Dad’s death made me think of ways I could save lives because I think he would have made it if he had gotten medical attention,” he explains.
As a child, Eusu wanted to be a pilot but after years of being displaced and living in a community of many refugees from different countries, he wants to take a different path.
“I want to advocate for refugees and become their ambassador,” he says. “When I look at where I am and where I was, I have made significant progress. I would like to use my experience to advocate for lasting peace.”
The brothers imagine that if they were back home, they would be reunited with their mother, whom they haven’t seen or spoken with since they fled.
But they are also wary of the insecurity in the country and wonder if they would actually ever return.
“I want my children, in future, to have access to education and health care like any parent would,” says Eusu. “But I wouldn’t go back to South Sudan because there is no peace.”
Jacob nods in agreement.
“I lost everything I had. I would not live through those moments again but I wish South Sudan was peaceful,” he adds.
He appeals to all the warring parties to put away their differences and work towards peace.
“Many who have been affected by this war have hope of returning home one day but it’s not possible without peace,” he says.
Eusu adds that a peaceful resolution is necessary.
“All parties should lay a strong foundation of peace for the next generation,” he says.
Wenepaida Hellen Patience, 17 years old, Kampala Uganda.
In 2014, Patience and her two cousins arrived in Uganda, after fleeing South Sudan’s conflict.
“Mother dropped us here and went back. She was a leader back home,” explains Patience. “For two years, she sent us upkeep money and paid my primary school fees.”
The 17-year-old’s education has been challenging as her mother has struggled to pay her fees. She didn’t know her father until 2017 when she started looking for him. She found out that he lived in the United States and when she reached out, he offered to pay her school fees for her first year of secondary school.
Her second year of secondary school was paid for by a different sponsor.
“I am now in my third year and it’s the second term and I have no fees so I have not gone to school,” says Patience.
She would really love to go back home because she believes she would be in school but the war makes it difficult.
“Even after the war, it will take time to feel secure,” she says.
She hopes to help others one day.
“My appeal to all parties is that they should look for a way of putting their minds together to stop violence without using the gun.”
“I dream of becoming a lawyer so I can talk on behalf of women whose land has been taken from them,” she explains.
She also dreams of having a family one day.
“I hope my children can rebuild South Sudan when peace returns,” she says, adding that she would go back if there is peace because ‘home is best.’
“My appeal to all parties is that they should look for a way of putting their minds together to stop violence without using the gun,” she adds. “They should stop ignorance and corruption. This way, they will consider the people who are suffering as a result of war.”
Majua Enoka Kiri, 38 years old, Kampala Uganda
“My husband decided it was time to leave because the fighting started in our village. At the time, I was one month pregnant, expecting our sixth child.”
Kiri arrived in Uganda in 2014, leaving behind her husband who was taking care of their property.
For the first two years, Kiri’s husband supported the family until the second wave of fighting in 2016 when they lost contact. Kiri believes that it’s during this time that her husband was killed.
“It’s not easy to decide to go home,” she says. “I would only go back to South Sudan if there was peace.”
“If there was peace, my children would have a better future.”
Kiri dreams of a better life for her six children
“If there was peace, my children would have a better future. They have learnt from our suffering now and would build a strong and peaceful South Sudan,” she says, adding that she would look for a solution to the war if she was in South Sudan.
“I have children who need to go to school and enjoy life,” she adds. “My dream is to have them go to school and enjoy our country without being afraid of insecurity.”
She appeals to all parties to stop fighting.
“We have suffered enough. We need our children to enjoy our country,” she says.
Bigoa Chuol, 28 years old, Melbourne, Australia
Bigoa Chuol doesn’t know much about how her family fled war in 1991 but she has heard stories. The writer and poet was born along an arduous journey that took her family from a brutal war in the south of what was then Sudan, to safety in Ethiopia then Kenya.
“I was born in Addis Ababa and there are stories of us walking to Kenya when I was a very young girl,” says the 28-year-old. “I was being carried on people's shoulders, their backs and in a bucket.”
Bigoa’s family was resettled to Australia when she was 11 but something was missing – the feeling of being truly at home.
“I couldn't put my finger on it,” she says. “When you have had the experience of being uprooted and don’t really have a sense of being safe and settled, you're not quick to really put your roots in the ground. I don't think I've ever really felt it was home.”
Bigoa explains that through poetry, she is searching herself and interrogating the conflict between her roots and where she belongs. She wrote a poem, ‘Birth Water’ which ‘explores the experience of being South Sudanese.’
“Having come through as refugees and being quite young, when I think about it, it's almost like you enter a new chaos,” she explains. “You enter a new war that is quite subtle, and you don't really get time and space to inquire about where you've come from or why you are where you are.”
Yien Guir Deng, 45 years old, Jewi refugee camp, Ethiopia
Yien Guir Deng fled South Sudan’s conflict four years ago. The father of three now lives in Jewi refugee camp, home to nearly 63,000 refugees mainly from South Sudan.
“I like it here but sometimes, I like to go back and forth between here and South Sudan because I miss my home,” he says.
He hopes to return home for good.
“As soon as there is peace I’ll go back home,” he says. “I want to tell my people to have faith and not give up hope because we will all go back to our families.”
Yien misses the days when he would talk to the people in his village, bringing them news from other villages and advising them on life.
“I still want to do that and I dream of changing South Sudan - but not just South Sudan, but Africa,” he adds. “With peace and love, respect and dignity, we can all live together if we bring rights to the people.”
Yien’s biggest dream is to give his children who are six, three and two years old, the life he never had – a life without the difficulties he encountered.
“The dreams I have for them are beyond the stars and the moon,” he says. “I don’t want them to be refugees. I want them to have opportunities that I never had and will never have. I want them to have a chance to experience a good and safe life because of all the years the war stole from me.”
“I want [my children] to have a chance to experience a good and safe life because of all the years the war stole from me.”
Yien is grateful that he left South Sudan on time with Nyadole, his eldest.
“If I stayed, I don’t know if she would have survived,” he says.
Nyadole is now in school, in the first grade.
“By sending her to school, I am adding to her life. It’s the least I can do,” he adds.
Yien is holding on to the hope that peace will return to a country that he feels ‘has nothing.’
“I am just a refugee - I have no property, no country and no documents. I have nothing and so does my country, it has nothing,” he says. “If we don’t have peace, South Sudan has no future, no hope and no people.”
Yien poses a heartfelt question to the country’s leadership: “I’d like to ask my president, my government and anybody that is willing to listen - what are you fighting for?”
“If we don’t have peace, South Sudan has no future, no hope and no people.”
He believes that refugees want to return home but that can only happen if there’s lasting peace.
“There is no one in South Sudan. People are leaving for neighboring countries. But if there was peace, people would go back to their homes.”
Nyawal Chot, 17 yars old, Jewi refugee camp, Ethiopia
Seven years ago, there was endless rejoicing around Nyawal Chot as people celebrated South Sudan’s Independence Day. But Nyawal cannot recall much about the day.
“Honestly, I can’t remember much because nothing changed in my life,” she says. “All I know about South Sudan is that it’s unstable.”
Nyawal left South Sudan in 2012 with her uncle for Kenya and four years later, went to Ethiopia to live with her parents.
“That made me happy as I had missed them terribly. It was good to finally be stable,” she recalls. “You can’t live free of worry and I am too young to be always worried all the time.”
Nyawal is in Grade Eight and feels a sense of normalcy, being in school.
“I go to school and I think that what’s normal for people my age,” she says. “I like school because being at home all day is boring. I cook and I sweep then I sit all day. I can’t imagine living my life this way forever, but I think that’s life in a refugee camp.”
She believes that this life is better though, than running from conflict.
“It’s better than being always on the run and always worried. It’s boring but at least it’s safe,” she explains. “Sometimes I imagine what it’s like when you’re free, when you’re in your own country. I’d like to experience that - being just a regular person in your own country.”
For now, she’s focused on finishing her education and hopes for peace in South Sudan as she would like to have a future there.
“If there was peace in South Sudan, I would go back because it’s my country,” she says. “I want the same thing that I have here in South Sudan. Maybe it will be better, maybe not, but I want my children, in the future, to be born in a stable country and not in a camp.”
“I don’t know what the point of this Independence was but I hope that one day we will have peace and understanding.”
She hopes that one day her country will live up to the people’s expectations.
“All I know is that God gave us this country to stop the hate between us but instead of loving each other and loving our country, we are destroying it and killing each other,” she says. “I don’t know what the point of this Independence was but I hope that one day we will have peace and understanding.”
Deng Malual in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya
Deng Malual was 18 when his country, South Sudan, gained independence. He was not there to celebrate the momentous occasion as a citizen of the world’s newest country. He was a refugee in Kakuma camp in northern Kenya.
Deng is now 26 and has spent half of his life in exile.
“I left South Sudan when I was young, but home is always home,” he says.
He was still a child, at 13, playing outside with his friends when the war broke out. He was forced to flee with them, leaving his family behind.
Deng, who comes from a family of pastoralists, reminisces about home often.
“The safety in our country enabled us to move freely. I miss the interaction with other people,” he says.
Now a youth leader in Kakuma, he works as a peace building volunteer with UNHCR’s partner, Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and is currently pursuing a Diploma in Disaster Management
He was among refugee leaders who took part in recent meetings with the Independent Boundaries Commission (IBC) of South Sudan in the camp, to determine the number of states in the country. Grateful for the opportunity to have a voice in the process, Malual underlined the importance of refugee participation in the process.
“I believe that the peace process will work and that refugees want it to be successful so they can go home.”
“It’s important because they will be the ones who will live in those states,” he said.
His message to the leadership of South Sudan is that the youth are the ones who need peace the most because they have many years ahead of them.
“The youth need stability in South Sudan so they can go back and feel free,” he says. “The youth in exile have potential and talents.”
Deng wants to pursue a career in International Diplomacy and hopes that peace will be restored in his country.
“I believe that the peace process will work and that refugees want it to be successful so they can go home.”
Reporting done by Yonna Tukundane in Kampala, Linda Muriuki in Nairobi, Maria Dombaxi in Jewi and Modesta Ndubi in Kakuma.
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