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Born on the run: South Sudanese mothers name babies to reflect ordeal


Born on the run: South Sudanese mothers name babies to reflect ordeal

Thousands of South Sudanese refugee babies will forever be identified by the way they came into the world – as their mothers fled conflict in their homeland.
23 January 2014
Athieng in a pop-up tent at Dzaipi transit centre with her baby Nyarang, who was born under a tree during her flight from Bor to Uganda.

DZAIPI TRANSIT CENTRE, Uganda, January 23 (UNHCR) - Sophia and Olivia might be among the most popular girls' names in the West these days, but in Dzaipi transit centre in northern Uganda the clear winner for newborn girls is Nyaring. In the Dinka language it means "running," and sums up the way they came into the world.

Little Nyaring Panchol, just over four weeks old, was born under a tree as her mother fled the conflict in South Sudan. She's one of dozens of babies with that name here.

Mother Athieng Agok, only 19, was in the last stages of pregnancy when gunmen started shooting and burning homes in her town near Bor, in Jonglei state, on December 18, three days after the fledgling country descended into violence. She ran into the bush, and when her labour pains began, lay down in the shade of a tree.

Luckily she had her own mother, 35-year-old Angelina Ayun, to help. All day long, with gunfire echoing around them, they hid in the bush as Athieng's contractions grew more frequent. "There was a nurse with us, but she got scared and ran away, so it was just me," says Angelina.

Finally at midnight, tiny Nyaring came into the world. The delivery was so painful that Athieng fainted. But when she came to, she had to marshal all her strength to continue her journey away from the fighting - first in a UN truck to the capital, Juba, and then by car to the Ugandan border.

"I was not feeling well, I had a cough and diarrhoea, but there was no time for waiting," she recalls. "They were killing people."

In a twist of fate, Athieng was born under the same circumstances. Her pregnant mother was forced to flee in the early 1990s when South Sudan was fighting the 22-year-long civil war which led to its independence from Sudan. Angelina also gave birth in the bush, while running to Western Equatoria in South Sudan.

Last month, when the fighting scattered the family, Athieng's husband ran in a different direction from the rest of the family. Once safe in Uganda, she managed to call and tell him he had a daughter. But the connection did not last long enough for her to find out where he is.

Now the three generations of females live in a small pop-up tent given to them by Athieng's uncle. UNHCR is erecting more family tents daily and giving top priority to unaccompanied children, the elderly, sick, disabled and new mothers, but there is still not enough shelter for all.

While a number of women deliver each day in Dzaipi health centre, many more - unaware of the services - are giving birth in the transit centre itself, often out in the open. The UN refugee agency is using volunteers and posters to get the word out that free health services are available.

"We have big challenges with lack of local staffing because of all the extra refugees the health centre is now serving," says Khamis Khamis, UNHCR regional health officer. "The maternity ward is also small, with only 10 beds for the whole facility, while there are many pregnant women within the transit centre. We are working with our health partners to try to address these gaps."

Athieng and her baby have already been referred to the health centre for a post-natal check-up and received a UN Population Fund dignity kit which contains items such as soap, underwear and a cloth wrap for new mothers. UNHCR intends to move Athieng and her small family as quickly as possible to nearby Nyumanzi settlement, where they will receive land and tools to build a home.

For now, it is taking time for the family to realize their ordeal is over. "We are still dreaming that we are running. We feel like we are still in the bush," says Angelina.

"No one can leave their country without fearing," she adds, after fleeing a second time with absolutely nothing. But now she cannot imagine taking a chance on returning home a second time: "I will stay here - the war will go on forever."

By Lucy Beck in Dzaipi Transit Centre, Uganda