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SOS mothers in South Sudan set aside ethnic differences

“It is my responsibility as a mother to raise all children regardless of their background or ethnicity,” says SOS mother Mary
“It is my responsibility as a mother to raise all children regardless of their background or ethnicity,” says SOS mother Mary

On Friday, South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, signed a ceasefire agreement with the leader of the rebel forces, Riek Machar. Two days later, fighting had broken out once again in the oil-rich town of Bentiu. With the conflict taking on an increasingly ethnic dimension, SOS mothers discuss the challenges of raising children in a country made up of more than 80 racial groups.

In just five months, South Sudan's conflict has devastated lives across the country. As too often is the case, children have suffered the most. Of the million people left homeless by the war, half are children. Unless more help is given urgently, tens of thousands of under-5s could die, and a quarter of a million suffer malnutrition. As many as 9,000 children are thought to have been recruited by militias.

Children settling down in Juba after Malakal evacuation

In March 2014, the oil boomtown of Malakal in the country's north became the regional headquarters of the opposition forces. Upon arriving in the city, the rebels brought death, seizing the hospital as their base and allegedly killing all those with no means of buying their lives. So great was the danger in Malakal that we were forced to evacuate our Children's Village.

The chaos in South Sudan meant that getting families and staff to safety was a prolonged and dramatic process. One of the team was kidnapped by the rebels and taken north; barely escaping with his life. Today, the families are safe in the South Sudanese capital, Juba. We are delighted to report that all 93 children have returned to school after a four-month interruption to their studies.

Racial tensions rise as conflict takes an ethnic turn

Sadly, a new and more insidious threat is emerging in the world's youngest country. Until independence in 2011, South Sudan's 80 ethnic groups lived together in relative harmony. However, the political struggle that began three years ago and culminated in last November's alleged coup attempt has heightened racial differences, particularly between the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka.

Nyanyul Luk Tab is the only SOS mother belonging to the Nuer tribe. Race has never been an issue for the SOS team in South Sudan, she says. Since the conflict began, however, she has sensed an unfamiliar ethnic undercurrent in conversations with other SOS mothers. “Sometimes it is hard to bear,” she says. “Occasionally, I've had to retreat into my room just so I do not respond. If I did, it would end up being a bitter confrontation.”

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“I like it here,” says Nyableng of her new home, Juba.

Setting differences aside

With conflict ongoing at the national level, it is inevitable that national divisions will filter down into ordinary society. That's why SOS mothers and other staff have set up a forum in which everybody can vent their feelings and anxieties about the conflict without letting race become a scapegoat for their fears.

SOS mother Mary Othol explains why she passionately believes that any ethnic tensions should be nipped in the bud. More than anything else, it is for the children's sake that race should not be allowed to interfere with the harmony. “It is my responsibility as a mother to raise all children regardless of their background or ethnicity,” she says. “We are encouraging them to live as they did before – as brothers and sisters. This is the moral value we will continue to instil in them.”

11-year-old Nyableng Shwai thinks that ethnicity is too complicated for someone as young as her to understand. She's more interested in exploring her new environment. “I like it here,” she says. And yet despite her fascination by the smooth tarmac roads and towering multi-storeys of the Juba, she misses the wide open spaces of home. “I miss the huge playground we had in Malakal,” she says. “Before the war, we could play in a large area but here the grounds are small.”

The war in South Sudan has had a dramatic impact on our work there. Nevertheless, we continue to provide care to the nation's most vulnerable children. Find out more about our work in this wartorn country.