Exclusive: The orphans of South Sudan's civil war


Nearly 40,000 unaccompanied or separated children from South Sudan are living in refugee camps in southern Ethiopia. SBS News travelled to meet some of them.

Omar Dabbagh reports from Ethiopia. 

In Gambela region, an impoverished area of southern Ethiopia, there are scores of children living in overcrowded and under-resourced refugee camps.

Of the 400,000 people who live across the seven camps, two-thirds are South Sudanese children.

More than one in ten of those are unaccompanied or separated minors, impacted by their country's brutal civil war that began in December 2014 and has left four million people displaced. 

The child refugees of South Sudan
There are seven camps in Gambela, Ethiopia, sheltering more than 400,000 South Sudanese refugees.
SBS/Ben Patrick

At the camps that shelter them, tragedy has drawn the children closer together.

Fourteen-year-old friends Nyaduel Geil and Nyamuoch Pal have been at the Jewi camp, which houses 63,000 refugees, for nearly five years.

Both were separated from their parents as the conflict escalated across the border in their home country.

"My parents are not alive," Nyaduel tells SBS News in her native Neur. 

"I don’t think that they’re alive, and I don’t want to think about them again because it reminds me of terrible things."

Nyaduel, 14, has been in the camp for nearly five years.
Nyaduel, 14, has been in the camp for nearly five years.

Nyamouch claims her carers, who are also refugees, often exacerbate the trauma.

"When we are in an argument, they will insult me," Nyamouch says through tears.

"They tell me 'you’re good for nothing, we only take care of you, when will you find your parents, all of your parents are dead', and I feel like I don’t want to live anymore. But I usually keep quiet."

Not enough aid

The camps are under-resourced in every capacity.

There aren’t enough doctors, there aren’t enough teachers, only half the refugees have adequate shelter, the food rations are below the required daily intake, water is in diminishing supply. The biggest complaint from people there is that there aren't enough clothes.

EXCLUSIVE: the child refugees of south sudan
In the face of unfathomable adversity, these children have shown unbelievable courage.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

Yet, despite the mountain of problems, Maria Dombaxi from aid agency the UNHCR, says unaccompanied child refugees continue to arrive at the camps from South Sudan.

“One of the biggest issues, I would say is, because these kids cross the border by themselves, so they do find themselves alone here," she says. 

"One of the things we need, as the UNHCR, is staffing to help, for social workers, and to help these kids to cope with what they saw in South Sudan.”

Crucial support 

Some separated children are coping better than others.

During a barefoot football game at a designated child-friendly space - a safe space for children to play and study - it is clear 11-year-old Tut Pal Hoth has made plenty of friends in the Kule camp.

And, he says the strong support system he has is due to his foster family.

"I am happy to be with my foster mother because we always play with her children, and she treats me like her child," he says. 

"Even though I fight with her children she will not always blame me. Even though it’s my fault."

Daring to dream

Tut wants to be a pilot one day because "pilots are rich".

It's a career dream shared by 14-year-old Tuach Reth, but for a different reason.

"I want to help people when I'm older. I want to help people," he says.

Tut, 11, says he knows he's an orphan
Tut, 11, says he knows he's an orphan

Mal was also taken in by a foster mother - also a refugee at the camps - and says he is safe and happy.

"Life is good because I am going to school and I have my food," Mal says shyly.

Nyduel also wants to help others - people like her.

"One day in the future, I would like to go and bring all the orphans, and those who lost their parents, because I know they are always thinking about their parents, and I would like to give them counselling," she says.

Nyamuoch adds: "If I finish my school I would like to help the people who have different problems in the camps". 

"Because I know I have a helping heart."

Omar Dabbagh and cameraman Ben Patrick travelled to Ethiopia with the assistance of UNHCR. You can donate to the South Sudan emergency via the UNHCR website or by calling 1300 361 288.

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