A family in hiding

South Sudan

August 28, 2014

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  • Elizabeth stands outside the abandoned school that she now lives in with four of her children. Photos: Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps

It’s difficult to visualize the scope and magnitude of the current crisis in South Sudan — created by brutal internal conflict that started in December of last year.

More than 1.7 million people have been displaced. 3.8 million people are running out of food, there are nearly 5,000 cases of cholera, and close to half a million people have fled to neighboring countries.

Beyond the facts and figures of this massive crisis are people like Elizabeth, a mother of eight, who have had their livelihoods destroyed and now worry about surviving each passing day. While she used to run a successful restaurant, Elizabeth is now sheltering with four of her children in the remote village of Ganyiel.

There are reports of inhumane living conditions in crowded displacement camps, but the vast majority of people who have fled the violence are living far beyond camp perimeters, where there are no United Nations peacekeeping forces to protect them.

When the war began to spill across the countryside, communities toppled one after another and people fled. They ran into the bush, carrying nothing with them but their children.

Elizabeth walks with some of her children towards the abandoned schoolhouse that is now their home in Ganyiel.

Some of those families are still in hiding. Others found refuge in the relative safety of isolated communities like Ganyiel in Unity State — one of the areas most affected by conflict.

During the summer rainy months, the village can only be accessed by riverboat or plane. Here, hidden away from soldiers and indiscriminate violence, 34 year-old mother Elizabeth DIand is beginning to rebuild some semblance of the personal security she's lost in the war.

“You know,” she said softly, while sitting beneath the shade of a large mango tree, holding her one-year-old baby on her lap. “Mercy Corps helped me expand my restaurant in Bentiu. It was doing very well.”

Mercy Corps supported Elizabeth with a small business grant to expand her restaurant and business was good. That is until fighting erupted in Bentiu in January and the restaurant was looted and burned to the ground.

Elizabeth escaped in the dead of night, traveling to Ganyiel by foot and boat with her children. During the ordeal, she was separated from her four eldest children, who she believes ran for the safety of the UN displacement camps outside of town.

“I came with nothing,” she said. “I lost everything and I lost my four children. I don’t even know if they are safe.”

Elizabeth with some of her children. During her escape from Bentiu, she was separated from her four oldest children.

Now, Elizabeth and her four youngest children live in an abandoned schoolroom in Ganyiel. They have no money, very little food and no belongings. The children barely have enough clothing to wear.

They’re sleeping on the earth floor of the classroom and eating only food rations. They don’t have light, running water, soap, or a stove. To get by each day, they rely on the generosity of the community and what little humanitarian aid is available in the village.

“We are not safe anywhere,” she said. “Maybe here too, in some years from now or some months, war will come again to my family.”

Mercy Corps is working in Ganyiel to rehabilitate living spaces for people like Elizabeth. We're also providing seeds and tools to help families grow food and implementing cash-for-work activities that give vulnerable households some money to purchase food.

While the humanitarian response to the crisis in South Sudan is on the rise, there are still many more villages like Ganyiel — filled with families who need help as they wait for an end to the fighting.

How you can help

Make a gift to support Mercy Corps' emergency response work in South Sudan and around the world. You'll help families survive the crisis here and the hardships they face in many of the world's toughest places. Donate today ▸