January 21 2014

South Sudan: Emergency aid with a difference

21/01/14 – Children are used to fight in the month-long conflict that has displaced half a million people across South Sudan. SOS Children’s Villages is there, doing everything possible to assist affected families and children who are in desperate need of food, water and shelter. What will help protect some of them is something unique; something, that can even be delivered by phone.

The bullet holes in the walls of the newly built SOS Children’s Village in Malakal are a stark reminder of a terrifying ordeal in 2011 when soldiers opened fire within the compound. Home to 100 children and 50 youths, the village – located in the northeast of the country – has been spared from the recent clashes. Mass killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers across the country has been condemned by the UN. In the town of Malacal the acute shortage of food, water and shelter now threatens the lives over 12,000 people. SOS Children’s Villages has mounted and emergency relief operation to airlift essential supplies into the area.
Much more than food aid
Leading the response is trauma counsellor Paul Boyle. His extensive experience across East Africa has taught him that emergency response in conflict zones must go further than immediate food aid. “This is not about feeding, clothing or even housing a child. It is not even about education. Traumatised people are shocked. They become socially, and emotionally numb –
 often in denial. Research shows that half of all boys traumatised in conflict zones end up with various addictions including drugs or alcohol. The same proportion of girls become depressive and lose self-esteem, often ending up as prostitutes. We need to expect that this is how children are going to behave here in South Sudan and in places like the Central African Republic. It happened in Rwanda and Burundi.
“In the past we simply linked low levels of academic achievement to indiscipline and aggressive behaviour. Our current work across East Africa is about helping the child develop to its full potential – to understand who he/she is and who they want to become. This is where psychological support comes in. In Burundi SOS Children’s Villages employ therapists to provide training to SOS Mothers and others. In the past they thought children were badly behaved; now they can identify cases where they can provide some level of psychological support or raise a flag in cases where more professional counselling is needed,” he said. Untreated trauma stifles academic performance. Paul predicts that over the coming 20 years a six-fold increase in the rates of university admission among such children is achievable.
As mobile phones are in widespread use across East Africa, Paul is in daily contact with youths in South Sudan and elsewhere. Very often their opening words are, “Mr Paul I am in crisis, please call back”. When a traumatised girl who strayed into a life of promiscuity called and said “this is not how I should be,” - he knew that she was on the road to a better future.
As Paul Boyle and the SOS Children’s Village team arrange the transportation of food, water and hygiene kits to Malakal this week, they also bring a unique form of aid – something that will bring out the potential in South Sudan’s children.