Unburdened: I am the four million, I am the 80 per cent

One woman's story points to the imperative of a nexus between urgent humanitarian and development interventions and strong political will to create peace and dignity for South Sudan's displaced millions.

Milly Lagu plays with ducks swimming by the shores of the River Rhone in Geneva, Switzerland.
© UNHCR/T.Ongaro

On a warm October evening in Geneva, Milly Lagu plays with ducks swimming by the shores of the River Rhone. She seems relaxed and unburdened, after a stressful ordeal during which she shared her story with an august gathering at the Palais des Nations.

The leaves on the trees have taken on autumn hues. In places, dead ones are scattered on the ground along with fallen chestnuts. The streets are quiet but for the sound of cars, buses and trams taking people to different parts of the city. Pedestrians, cyclists and the occasional jogger crisscross the roads and sidewalks. It is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Kiryandongo, the refugee settlement in Uganda that Milly calls home.  

It is 2 October 2017. We are on our way to the 2017 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award ceremony where the winner, Mr. Zannah Mustapha, a lawyer, school-founder and peace-maker from north east Nigeria, will be honoured for his dedication and commitment to ensuring children and orphans affected by the conflict in Borno State can attend school.

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Earlier in the day at the Palais des Nations, Milly sobbed uncontrollably, racked with emotion after reliving the harrowing experiences of the past four years. She had told a riveted audience, “We, the women of South Sudan, feel abandoned. We wonder, what does the world think of us? We have committed no crime. Why should we experience this kind of suffering?”

UNHCR had convened a gathering in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the needs of South Sudan’s displaced populations. Milly Lagu, was one of two refugees who participated, having travelled from her home in Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda, to tell her story.

On the podium were Mr. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Arnauld Akodjenou, Regional Refugee Coordinator and UNHCR Special Advisor for the South Sudan Situation, Ambassador (Eng.) Mahboub Maalim, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa (IGAD), Hon. Hussein Mar Nyuot, Minister of Human Affairs and Disaster Management of South Sudan, Mr. Juerg Eglin, Strategy Adviser, Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division, ICRC, Hon. Betty Achan Ogwaro, MP and Member of the Steering Committee of the National Dialogue, and Mr. Ger Duany, UNHCR Regional Goodwill Ambassador. Participants included delegates from different countries, including South Sudan and the countries hosting over two million South Sudanese refugees, like Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda as well as UN and NGO officials.

“We, the women of South Sudan, feel abandoned. We wonder what the world thinks of us. We have committed no crime. Why should we experience this kind of suffering?” 

Milly’s testimony revealed the dehumanizing realities that characterize the lives of most refugees. “I am the four million South Sudanese in the video you just saw,” she said, signaling that she was speaking for all the displaced people of her war torn country. “I am the 80 per cent,” she added, in reference to the disproportionately high ratio of South Sudanese women and children living as refugees in neighboring countries.

In the formal setting in the airy conference room, the former nursery school teacher and first-time refugee created an aura of personal intimacy as she described fleeing Juba in December 2013, with her three young sons and the three daughters of a neighbor who had been killed. Her two older sons had fled earlier.

“The neighboring village was in flames,” she said. “I felt helpless. I was afraid. But I had to be strong, for the sake of my children.”

A Good Samaritan — a truck driver returning to Uganda — carried 30 of them (four mothers, with two older girls and 24 young children) to the border town of Nimule. They saw bodies of women, children and men lying lifeless in pools of blood.

In Nimule Milly searched among the crowds for her missing sons. “I was desperate,” she said. “I wanted to go back to Juba to look for them. I wondered, should I leave the younger ones behind. What about my neighbor’s daughters whose parents had been killed? Would I find them when I came back?”

Milly’s testimony brought home the trauma that bedevils South Sudanese refugees. Imagine having to make choices that could result in never seeing loved ones again and never knowing what became of them. Imagine the agony of searching through milling crowds of anguished people, seeing dead bodies and praying, just praying that their lives were spared in the violence. 

“South Sudanese are slaughtering South Sudanese. South Sudanese are raping South Sudanese. South Sudanese are causing South Sudanese to scatter in neighboring countries as widows and orphans." 

Four agonizing days later, Milly found her sons alive and well in Nimule. They crossed the border together with other refugees in a truck carrying garbage from a nearby market. "It was filthy," she said. "But that did not matter. My children were safe, with me.”

The truck brought them to Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement in the dark of night. The reception centre was packed with people. Some slept on the bare ground. Children were crying. Somebody gave her a piece of soap so she and her children could wash. Then they, too, slept on the ground. Her youngest son, then eight, kept asking for his father.

Five months later, in May 2014, they learned through a family friend that the boy's father, Milly's husband, had been killed in the conflict.

Ethiopia. South Sudanese refugees register at new camp

After three days on the road, South Sudanese refugees arrive at the newly constructed Gure Shembola Camp in Ethiopia.  © UNHCR/Diana Diaz

“Husbands were killed, and women raped along with their daughters in the presence of their children. They carry the burden of shame, as if somehow they were responsible. Many think about suicide.”

Milly went on to describe a community in shreds, struggling with the trauma of war, death, destruction and flight. “In the past four years, our lives have been all but destroyed,” she said. “Most of the refugee children have lost everyone. Many are orphans living with foster families; others have only a mother or grandparent to depend on. They saw their fathers killed. Their mothers and sisters were raped in their presence.

“Sometimes your child brings another child home from school. They are alone. They have no one. As a mother, you share what you have. You cannot abandon such a child. They have nowhere to go. That is the suffering of South Sudanese children.”

Milly lamented the situation of young refugees, especially males between the ages of 13 and 20. "They drink alcohol and take drugs to forget traumatic experiences. It is painful to see them drunk. They have lost all hope in the future,” she said. Her two older boys are no longer in school.  She cannot afford the fees. They try to earn income doing odd jobs, like slashing grass or digging farms.

The room was silent except for the sound of Milly's trembling voice coming through the speakers. “I cannot tell you how many women have been raped time and again," she said slowly. "Their husbands were killed. They were raped along with their daughters in the presence of their children. Now they carry the burden of shame, as if somehow they were responsible. Many think about suicide.”

“We are tired. Enough is enough! We want peace!”

She stopped to compose herself, then continued with unmistakable difficulty. “We comfort each other," she said. “We try to take away the shame, to remind each other that our children still need us. If we die, who will take care of them? We pray that God will take us home.”

Milly was choking back tears. “I ask myself what kind of society we will have in ten years? South Sudanese are slaughtering South Sudanese. South Sudanese are raping South Sudanese. South Sudanese are causing South Sudanese to scatter in neighboring countries as widows and orphans." She paused. "Unless it stops, we will be a society of the uneducated. A society that knows only the culture of violence.”

Milly’s voice broke. “We are tired,” she said. “Enough is enough! We want peace!”

Her final words of appreciation were almost unintelligible. "We are grateful for the kindness of countries that received us openly," she said. "We are grateful to the communities that have shared their resources with us. We are grateful to UNHCR, the international community and all those who support the people of South Sudan."

Milly had spoken for the four million displaced South Sudanese and for the 80 per cent of women and children now living in exile in neighbouring countries. Her testimony coincidentally brought to the fore the imperative of a nexus between urgent humanitarian and development engagement and strong political will to end the conflict and bring sustainable peace and dignity to South Sudan’s displaced millions.

It was the panelists’ turn to speak. The High Commissioner was visibly troubled. Milly’s narrative had struck a cord. Filippo Grandi said  that her story told of extraordinary failure, like the staggering figures of displaced people within and outside South Sudan, the extreme violence of the conflict and the overwhelming burden on civilians. He characterized as grim the absence of hope in the protection-of-civilian sites he visited in South Sudan. He commended refugee-hosting countries, and cautioned that their support cannot be taken for granted. He noted that the numbers of South Sudanese refugees had almost doubled during the past year while the 2017 inter-agency appeal was funded only at 25 per cent of requirements. He appealed for the Government of South Sudan to pursue peace and called on regional states to work with both the Government and the Opposition for an inclusive peace process. "I dread that if peace initiatives are not pursued, in one year's time the refugee numbers could double, and that would be catastrophic," he said.

On behalf of the Government of South Sudan, Hon. Hussein Mar Nyuot said, "Peace is vital in addressing the challenges in our country." He stated that the Government is committed to the revitalization of the 2015 Peace Agreement, is working with IGAD, and welcomes the Regional Protection Force in the interest of peace. He pledged that the Government would provide unhindered humanitarian access and protect  humanitarian workers. He cited the proliferation of weapons as a major cause of insecurity, and described grassroots peace initiatives targeting various fighting groups. The Minister noted that the economy is not doing well.

Ambassador (Eng.) Mahboub Maalim took his turn shaking his head, thrown "off-balance after hearing Ms. Lagu speak" (his words). For emphasis, he repeated the words — her words — that had shaken him to the core. “If we die, who will take care of our children?” He said her account reminded him of the "worst situation" he had ever witnessed in South Sudan, when the stench of rotting flesh and the velocity of vultures swooping down for carrion and returning to the skies with equal force made an indelible impression on him. Ambassador Mahboub addressed Milly directly, seeking to assure her that accountability was a priority for IGAD, that the deployment of a regional protection force would create buffers between warring factions, and that his organization would spare no effort in bringing hope to the people of South Sudan through the operationalization of the peace agreement. "Inclusivity must be taken into account," he said. "The Opposition has to be included for peace to be realized."

Mr. Juerg Eglin called for attention to be directed towards internally displaced populations, whose plight is also dramatic, as well as host communities. He cited historical factors like decades of civil strife, displacement and weak government structures that contributed to the current state of affairs. "Solutions cannot come from humanitarians, but from the political leadership," he said, and expressed the hope that humanitarian agencies will be given the space to work.

Hon. Betty Ogwaro described the vision and aspirations of the National Dialogue, which is being conducted in three stages: grassroot consultations including in refugee camps, preparations and a regional conference involving all states of South Sudan. She said significant strides had been made including outreach to the Opposition. She added that the National Dialogue is not competing with the 2015 Peace Agreement, and rather is complementary, while hoping that the Peace Agreement will lead to a cessation of hostilities. She appealed for support for the National Dialogue as a homegrown process which cannot succeed without the international community.

Ger Duany, a South Sudanese-US national, was visibly perturbed. Having been a war child and refugee, and with family members currently living in refugee camps and internally displacement sites, he could relate precisely to Milly's pain. "I hope there's a shred of humanity left in South Sudan," he said. He recalled his own suffering as a war child and refugee. He thanked the community of East African nations for hosting South Sudanese refugees, and appealed to them to help the world's youngest nation find peace. "With so many of us displaced, what have we left?" he asked. "We won't get it done through firearms. Let us negotiate inclusive peace, and leave no one behind."

"The suffering of South Sudanese civilians should shame us all into saying 'Enough is Enough.'

Delegations representing countries hosting South Sudanese refugees spoke in turn, highlighting critical concerns like the surging numbers of refugees and the strain on existing resources, environmental degradation, reductions in food rations, the negative impact of chronic underfunding of refugee programmes as well as their own efforts to promote refugee self-reliance.

Arnauld Akodjenou, the moderator, closed the meeting with an unequivocal plea. “War can no longer continue to be 'normal' for South Sudan’s people. They have suffered long enough." He said the shattered trust between communities and households can be rebuilt provided that in their heart of hearts the men, women and children of Africa's newest country act in good faith to restore peace with the support of the international community.

"The suffering of South Sudanese civilians should shame us all into saying 'Enough is Enough' and compel us to recover this country from the brink of total destruction," he said. "At stake is no less than the very existence of a country that must supported to bring itself back together if it is to survive.”

Milly Lagu at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

Milly travelled over 6,000 kilometres from Uganda to address a panel that was gathered in Geneva to discuss the needs of South Sudan's displaced populations.   © UNHCR/T.Ongaro

“This experience has given me hope that something positive will happen for us, as mothers and women whose children are suffering, if not now then later."

The following day, Milly was upbeat as she reflected on her experience in Geneva. “At last, our prayers have been heard by the people who care” she said. “I was nervous as I walked through the corridors of the Palais des Nations, and when I saw the place tags on the high table in conference room.

“These were big people, like the High Commissioner. Poor, simple woman that I am, in this important meeting with high delegations! I had expected to speak standing, to show my respect for them. Then I saw that I was going to sit like everybody else. I felt valued.

“I noticed that the moderator of the meeting, was paying special attention to us. I saw that the panel was listening attentively. Sometimes I wanted to burst into tears. I had flashbacks. I was also moved by the respect, the platform to share our story, the human heart and the kindness that was showed to me.

“When we came back to the UNHCR office, people greeted me. At the reception after the Nansen Award Ceremony, people hugged me. They remembered me.

“All of this has given me hope that something positive will happen for us, as mothers and women whose children are suffering, if not now then later. I know our children will be helped, because the message has reached. Our children will be safe. They will get freedom from being refugees.”

Milly Lagu broke into a smile as she contemplated returning to Uganda, the country she currently calls home, to be reunited with her children once again.

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Shortly after playing with the ducks in Geneva, Milly entered a realm where the tribulations of forced displacement took on a universal aura. In a packed auditorium she sat spellbound listening to Nujeen Mustafa, the girl who escaped from a Syrian war zone in a wheelchair, tell her story. Nujeen was born with cerebral palsy and had spent most of her life in an Aleppo apartment until she made the 3,500 mile journey to Germany as a refugee.

Milly also witnessed the High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, honor Nigerian Zannah Mustapha with the 2017 Nansen Refugee Award for founding a school in Maiduguri, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency. That evening, her struggles and her courage as a woman, mother and refugee leader, and her quest to restore refugees’ dignity took on a deeper meaning as she saw the situation of  her country, South Sudan, juxtaposed with those of Burundi, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Nigeria, Syria, Yemen and many other countries.