David O’Hare from Trócaire recently returned from northern Uganda where he met people who have been forced to flee their homes because of the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have fled over the border to Uganda in the face of fierce fighting and the rampant targeting of civilians. Their stories are absolutely harrowing and most have arrived with just the clothes they are wearing.
The area of Palabek in northern Uganda is close to the border with South Sudan and has become one vast refugee camp. There are 33,000 refugees there currently and the number is increasing every day.
One young man that David spoke to has gone through hell. Richard Mwaka is just 17 years old but has become the sole provider and carer for his five younger brothers and sisters.
“We come from Puge in South Sudan – it’s near the border with Uganda,” Richard said. “Our father died of disease two years ago. In August last year when the war got too much our mother gathered us together and we headed for the border on foot. I remember people dying. Mother left us to go to try to find some food and ran into the rebels. They killed her. Other people on the road told us. We continued travelling to the border with our aunt but she wasn’t allowed to cross. I crossed alone with the smaller children.”
Richard’s younger siblings are aged between 5 and 14 years of age. He says it is difficult being the head of the household. “Our mother used to provide us with everything we needed – clothes, shoes, food. Now I have to try to do this but we have very little. We brought some seeds, two chickens and the clothes we were wearing – that’s all. We planted the seeds and are growing some okra. We cook for ourselves. Mother taught me how to cook.”
“We all have to work even the youngest – breaking soil, weeding, etc. It is very hard work. We depend on relief aid to survive. We have gone hungry because sometimes the food doesn’t last until the next aid shipment. We try to go to school but sometimes I leave very early to work and have to miss school. We usually have to alternate between work and school,” Richard said.
“I want to study hard and get a job to take care of my family but it is difficult to get to school. I want to be a mechanic or driver. We are afraid a lot of the time. I have to be the protector. We stay at home when we are not working or at school. We are afraid that we will be bullied or worse. A child was abducted recently and found murdered nearby,” Richard said.
Every one of these children has what is sometimes known as the ‘thousand yard stare’ – they have seen things that no child should have to witness. Their aunt paid for the construction of a rudimentary hut that the children now call home but it is extremely basic with no protection against mosquitoes. Richard says the children get sick a lot with malaria.
The story of this young family is unfortunately all too common in the region. In South Sudan, more than four million people have had to leave their homes. Seven million people are still in need of food aid.
Trócaire’s Christmas Appeal will support children like Richard and his brothers and sisters with the vital help they need to rebuild. This Christmas you can help these families living in conflict and facing starvation below: