April 10 2014

Courage Under Fire in South Sudan

SOS youth leader brings children through war zone to safety

10 April 2014 - As a battle raged in Malakal, South Sudan, Isaac James, a youth leader at the SOS Children´s Village, suddenly found himself amid gunfire and with 33 SOS children to protect. He and the children set out on a perilous journey, covering more than 200 km before they reached safety.

Photo: SOS Archives
Deep in conversation: Youth leader Isaac James talks with a youth from SOS Children´s Villages Malakal, before events of December 2013 forced them to flee for their lives. Photo: SOS Children´s Villages
I will protect you

Isaac James joined SOS Children’s Villages in 2010 and worked in Khartoum as a social worker. In 2013, he was transferred to the SOS Children’s Village in Malakal, capital of the oil-producing Upper Nile state. In peace time, he worked as a youth leader and occasionally assumed the role of village director. But when fighting broke out in mid December between anti-government forces and pro-government troops, he took the initiative to protect the children and young people of the SOS Children´s Village.

Children playing at the SOS Children´s Village in Malakal, South Sudan, in happier days, before the village was attacked by anti-government soldiers in December 2013.

Malakal changed hands between the government and rebel forces several times, and some 1,000 community members took shelter in the SOS Children´s Village compound. Every so often the rebels forced their way into the SOS village to steal money and mobile phones.

Isaac took advantage of one lull in the fighting to evacuate 36 children and eight women from the SOS village and bring them, under armed escort, to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base for their safety. Afterwards, he returned to the village to look after the children who remained.

The SOS Children’s Village was repeatedly harrassed by soldiers. At one point about 60 rebels stormed in, breaking into the youth girls’ hostel, the village director’s house and office, and the store. They looted everything, including laptops, clothes, mattresses and even the bed sheets.

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

Flight to safety

A third round of violence left Isaac and 33 children separated from other village staff. With no time to waste, the group hurried to the bank of the Nile, with the intention of crossing to the other side. Under rocket-propelled grenade fire, people were panicking and hiding in the grass. A number of youth jumped into the crocodile infested river and swam across. The small children were quickly loaded into boats.There was no space for Isaac in the last boat, so he held onto the back, holding a bag of clothes and supplies on his shoulders. The group made it safely to the other side of the river, where some of the children and youths were taken by their relatives.
Isaac and the remaining children -- the youngest just two years old -- then set off on the difficult overland trek towards a safe camp. Before their journey was over, they would travel over 200 kilometres, much of it on foot.

First they stopped at Wal Shilluk, where they spent 48 hours. Then they walked to Fashoda, arriving 24 hours later. Here the children were given food and water, but two hours later they had to start off again.

Area of the SOS children´s flight: They started out from Malakal, crossed the Nile and trekked on foot and by boat to the Nile town of Melut, some 200 km north of Malakal. From Melut they were airlifted to Paloich. One month later, they were reunited with their families in the capital city, Juba. Image: SOS Children´s Villages

“The youth were very helpful in carrying their small brothers and sisters and some of their personal belongings,” Isaac said. “I advised them not to wander far from camp. This was to keep track of them and protect them from possible harm by armed people.”

From Fashoda it took them 12 hours to reach Kodok, where they took a boat to Melut -- a relatively safe town that has remained under the control of the government. However, before they were allowed to disembark at Melut, some soldiers ordered all the men to get out of the boat. "Why are you running away from Malakal?" they teased the older boys. The boys were later released.
During this perilous trip the group lost all contact with SOS Children´s Villages, and at one point there was great anxiety about their whereabouts and condition. Nobody knew where Isaac and the children were, or if they were okay. In Melut, Isaac was finally able to charge his mobile phone and call Kiros Aregawi, Project Manager, SOS Children’s Villages Malakal, who was then in Juba, the capital city. Kiros arranged for Isaac and the children to be airlifted from Melut to Paloich.

Upon arriving in Paloich the children, who were hungry and tired, found a place to sleep in a camp belonging to the Dar Petroleum Operating Company (DPOC). However, their hope for a peaceful night was curtailed by a drunken soldier, who ordered them at gunpoint to leave. Isaac was fortunately able to explain their situation to some different soldiers who knew about SOS Children´s Villages. In the end, the group were allowed to stay in the camp.

The United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) transported the SOS Children´s Villages Malakal children, youth and adults from Malut to Paloich, and later to Juba. Photo: © Kalayu Fiseha

“As the children´s guardian, I was worried,” said Isaac. “I couldn't get nutritious food for them, especially the little kids. Not having a proper space to sleep or play frustrated the children. During the night the small ones cried bitterly, calling out for their mothers, and there was nothing I could do for them.”

After a month of uncertainty and constant worry, Isaac finally received some welcome news: SOS Children’s Villages had organised to transport the group to Juba. Isaac said that, at first, he did not believe it. Earlier attempts to airlift the group from Paloich had failed.
"I told the kids and they too didn’t believe it," Isaac said. "It wasn´t until we boarded the flight that I thought, 'now we we are indeed leaving'".
Safe arrival

Mother and child reunite in Juba after the perilous, month-long journey from Malakal. Photo: © Kiros Aregawi

On 18 March, Isaac and the children were finally evacuated from Paloich to Juba by a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) plane. They joined over 100 other SOS children and staff who had been airlifted out of Malakal a week earlier.

There were mixed emotions of elation and disbelief, as the children were reunited with their SOS families.The joy of leaving behind the terrifying scenes they witnessed in Malakal, and the chance to return to a relatively normal life, was overwhelming.
“I'm happy all the children are now under one roof," Isaac said with a sigh of relief.