Children in charge
War. Disease. Psychological trauma. Poor health care. There are many factors that can break apart families in South Sudan, yet the outcome is often the same: siblings left caring for each other because their parents died, or were separated from their children, or abandoned them.
The situation has grown worse since December 2013, as renewed fighting among supporters of rival politicians has morphed into ethnically driven violence, causing massive displacement inside South Sudan and across borders. UNHCR and its partners provide essentials for families who ran from their homes with nothing – including shelter, rain protection, and items like buckets to store drinking and washing water.
With photographer Andrew McConnell, I recently spoke with four teenagers who have fled their homes and are now in charge of their siblings. Their dreams and hopes are on hold while they take on responsibilities that should fall to adults.
Lina, 13, is the eldest of five siblings from Toor , a village in the country's far north. Now living in Pariang, she must look after her three brothers – Thonchol, 11; Juach, six; and Dongwei, three – and her sister, Sunday, eight.
"I wake up when it is still dark and start to prepare breakfast by pounding sorghum. Then I wake up my brothers and sisters and we wash our faces and brush our teeth. Soon I have to walk to the water point about 25 minutes away with a 20-litre jerrycan, which is very heavy, but none of my brothers and sisters is big enough to help me. My brother has a problem with his eyes and can't see well and he cannot help. I do this on my own.
"In a normal day I will go to the water point maybe three times. If there is some water left in the morning from the night before, then I don't have to go first thing. That is a nice morning. The next thing is I wash clothes. Then after some time I go to collect water again and begin preparing the sorghum for the evening meal.
"Two or three times a week I have to fetch firewood. It is far – you can't imagine. If I go in the morning I will not return until evening. I use only my bare hands, I have no machete, so I try to pull the wood from the trees or find it fallen on the ground. It's heavier even than the water and I have to stop a lot on the way back because it is so far. I go with other girls. We chatter about whether we will find wood easily, or whether there will be any men with guns along the way, or whether we need to fetch water when we get home.
"If had three wishes, first I would request that we all to go to school. Second, that we get enough food. Third, that my brother's eyes are fixed."
"Do I play? No, I do not have time. The smaller children play. My mother died for a lack of blood in her body as she was giving birth to my youngest brother three years ago, and there were no health facilities in our village. I don't know where my father is. That means I am in charge, so I have no time for playing.
"We came here because of the crisis. People came fighting to our village, so we ran away. It was a very hard journey, especially with these young children. I always had to hold onto my brother or he would have been lost. As I told you, he does not see well.
"We are alone here, really. My friends were scattered, and we cannot go home. I have not attended school since my mother died, because since then I have been in charge of these children. If had three wishes, first I would request that we all go to school. Second, that we get enough food. Third, that my brother's eyes are fixed. No, I don't make a wish for my own needs, but if you give me one more, maybe I would ask for some new clothes. That would be nice. But bring some for all of the children, not just for me."
At the age of 13, Dongwei is raising four younger siblings in Yida, South Sudan: Nyamei, 10; Abigok, seven; Simon, four; and Athei, two.
"I wake up first, around 6 a.m., and wash my face and then start waking everyone else up. Most of them are good, but the youngest one – she always wants to sleep more. We wash our faces then it's time for me to go to get water. It's about 15 minutes away. We use some for cooking, some for washing and some for irrigating the garden. I'm trying to grow maize and sorghum. If we can harvest, we can eat some and sell some. I managed to do that after the last rains and it was a good time for us then.
"In the evening it's the same, I fetch water and cook the supper for my brothers and sisters. We have to grind the sorghum, then cook it. It's the same thing we eat every day – there is nothing else. We cannot afford meat.
"We have not eaten meat since my mother died – that was two months ago. She had an illness. I don't know what it was. Maybe malaria, maybe typhoid, but there was no money to go to the clinic or to buy medicines, so she died. My father died earlier in the year in the fighting.
"Why should I go to school and work hard when the point to do that is to care for your parents when they are old? Who am I going to look after?"
"We had fled the fighting with my mother from where we lived some months ago, but then when she died we were alone and I just decided we should come to Yida. There are relatives here who try to help us with this house to live in, but they have little money, and they cannot really give us much. I have to say we are alone, and really it is me who is in charge.
"When my parents were here with us, they encouraged me to go to school. I was good, getting good grades and praise from the teachers. Now I am unhappy without school, because it means that there is nothing that I can do in this world when I grow up. What can I do? I need my parents to encourage me, but my Mum is not here. Why should I go to school and work hard when the point to do that is to care for your parents when they are old? Who am I going to look after? Do you see? There is no point in trying at school without your parents there to see the benefits of your hard work. Only these brothers and sisters need me now, but soon they will go on their own to live their lives. Then I will be alone with no one who will rely on me."
Deborah, 14, is caring for her younger sister, Amol, 11, in Bor, South Sudan.
"We were living in a village with my mother in a nice place with a comfortable life. I do not know my father, but even so things were okay. They were normal. Then this crisis happened and the fighting came into the village. I saw the gunmen killing people and of course we had to run, with my mum and my older sister, who was pregnant then, and my younger sister. First we went to the swamps, but the rebels chased us there. Then we went to another town, but the rebels were coming there, too. That's why eventually we ended up here. By the time we reached here, we were too exhausted to move. If the rebels continued, they would have found us and finished us, because we could run no further.
"My mother found this place. These houses were abandoned and we decided to live here. That was in February. What happened was that I think that fighting and the running away affected my mother very badly. She started drinking alcohol and causing arguments all the time. She was not like that before. Eventually she left us three months ago and she has not returned. I don't know what happened to her, but I know we have to look after ourselves.
"No one told me to do this. I just decided to do it because I am the head of the family now and I have to think how to manage things."
"We get some food from WFP [World Food Programme], from the rations. It is sorghum and oil and salt and lentils. Every day we have the same routine: I wake up and wash and then walk to fetch water – luckily it's not far. Then I make breakfast, then wash clothes and sweep the compound and fetch more water and get ready for supper, then sleep. I also receive some money from an organisation that helps children like us, called CINA [Community In Need Aid]. From the little they give me, I buy a big bag of sugar then make many small bags and sell them one by one. That way I take the 150 South Sudan Pounds they give me and turn it into 200 SSP. No one told me to do this. I just decided to do it because I am the head of the family now and I have to think how to manage things.
"CINA is also training me to be a tailor. Really what I need is a sewing machine so I can go home and become a tailor in my village. There is no one there doing that, and I know I can make suits for men and women, wedding dresses, even school uniforms, and I would earn a nice income. The problem is the armies can come, and if I had a sewing machine they would definitely steal it."
Adut, 17, shoulders responsibility for raising four younger siblings in Bor, South Sudan: Akon, 13; Kachuol, 10; Magai, seven; and Agau, four.
"First I wake up and even before it is light I sweep the compound. Then I have to get water, which is a 15-minute walk and it is very heavy on the return journey, but there is nothing I can do. You have to have water to live. Then I prepare the food for everyone else. We eat only what we get from the food distributions. After some time it is not enough or the children get very sad and frustrated eating the same thing. But soon their anger is overtaken by hunger, because hunger is the stronger impulse.
"In the evening, I cook again for the children and take them to be bathed. Then it is bedtime. If they don't sleep, it is my responsibility to punish them. That should be for the parent, but there are no parents here, so it's me who does that. I don't like to do it, but you cannot have children doing bad things and then you get the blame for not looking after them properly.
"I had to stop school to care for these children. Yes, I will care for them as long as I need to… if my mother does not come back."
"We are here in these houses which have been lent to us – they are not our homes really. We left our home running because there was fighting, people were being killed. Already my father had died in an earlier war here, and now my mother got left behind as we ran away and I do not know to this day where she is. I think that she will be looking after the cows because all of her brothers and uncles are dead or gone, so now even women are caring for the cows in the villages, even though that is not normal at all. I last saw her in February. There is no information since then.
"I am no longer in school because I have to care for my brothers and sisters. Our mother is not here. There is no one helping me. If there was someone who can help that would mean a better future for these children. I am not sure of my career or what I will do in the future because I had to stop school to care for these children. Yes, I will care for them as long as I need to – which can be many years because the youngest one is four and she needs to be cared for until she finishes school – if my mother does not come back.
"But I think she will return one day. Then she can take over these responsibilities and my life can return to how it was."