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South Sudan update: “One of the happiest moments of my life”

SOS families arrive exhausted in Juba after a long ordeal in Malakal
SOS families arrive exhausted in Juba after a long ordeal in Malakal

After months of terror, SOS families from our Children’s Village in the rebel-held city of Malakal have been airlifted to safety in the capital Juba. Here, we tell their extraordinary story.

With our SOS Children’s Village in Malakal in rebel hands, children and staff have been sheltering in the city’s UN Mission base (UNMISS) for nearly a month. Conditions at UNMISS have been deteriorating rapidly. Water shortages have made bathing impossible and cooking difficult, while increasingly aggressive tribal divisions have left 10 people dead. Despite the dangers within the base, the dire security situation means people have no option but to remain inside. Leaving the compound means the possibility of kidnap or even death.

“A crucial moment”

Last week, all SOS families and staff were airlifted from UNMISS to South Sudan's capital, Juba, where the situation is much calmer. The families are now living in a secure house in the capital, complete with new mattresses, sheets, blankets and towels so that everyone can enjoy some luxury after weeks of hardship and uncertainty.

It is hard to overstate the relief and joy felt by adults and children alike on reaching the capital. “This is one of the happiest moments of my life,” said Kiros Aregawi, SOS Children's Project Manager in South Sudan. “This is a crucial moment for us.” The children couldn’t believe they had escaped Malakal. Many thought their ordeal would never end.

A city in ruins

Malakal has changed beyond recognition since the beginning of the year. Life was good until the rebels came. Today, its people have nothing. The market has been razed to the ground. Homes and shops have been looted and destroyed. Young girls have been raped and boys conscripted into the rebel army. Many people have lost their lives. 15-year-old Omojok, from our Village, calls the city “Malakal Kap”. Kap means “region of death.”

In Juba after Malakal evacuation
“A very emotional moment for all of us”

The Children’s Village has not escaped the violence. “All the rooms have been broken [into] and everything taken,” says Angelica, an 18-year-old who has lived in the Village since it opened in 2002. “All the family homes and the property have been looted. All the offices, including the store, are destroyed.”

“I was taken by rebels”

Isaac James, SOS youth leader and acting Village Director, was held at gunpoint and ordered to hand over everything he owned, including his identity documents. Olyek Odhong, a youth leader from the Village, was kidnapped by the rebels and taken with a group of others to the border town of Nasir. Many were killed, but against all the odds Olyek was rescued and escorted back to the UNMISS base in Malakal. “I was taken for eight days by rebels,” Olyek recalls. “I am very happy to be in Juba right now. I am happy to see the mothers and children are safe. I was very lucky. I am very grateful and very happy.”

Not over for everyone

In last month's mayhem, Isaac fled the Village with a group of children. The group has reached the town of Paloich, about 105 miles northeast of Malakal. Paloich contains an airport, and we are doing all we can to get everyone to safety as soon as we can.

In Juba, the children are resting after their ordeal. In the meantime, we are making plans for their future. One option is to offer them a long-term home at our Children’s Village in Gulu, Uganda. Today, we are just pleased they are safe. Our regional director for East Africa puts it best: “It has been a very emotional moment for all of us, seeing our children and their mothers brought into a much safer and [better] protected environment.”

The ongoing violence has had a big impact on our work in South Sudan. However, we have been there for the country's most vulnerable children since 2002, and we will continue to help long after the fighting is over. Find out more.