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World Disability Day: South Sudanese woman overcomes blindness to reach safety


World Disability Day: South Sudanese woman overcomes blindness to reach safety

Nyantay survived gunfire and wild animals while fleeing an attack on her village. But the blind mother of four feels lost in the Ethiopian refugee camp that is now home.
3 December 2014
Nyantay with a friend in Tierkidi, which she reached after a terrifying journey from her home in South Sudan.

TIERKIDI, Ethiopia, December 3 (UNHCR) - The sound of gunfire filling her ears, Nyantay Gatkuoth, 40-something and blind, could only catch snippets of conversation from people running past her about what was happening.

As she felt her way around her village of Maywut, in South Sudan's Upper Nile state, she knew the fighting was bad, that relatives and neighbours were grabbing her hands and dragging her to the forest. But she can't remember when her hand slipped out of the last person's, leaving her alone with the bullets snapping at her heels. "I just kept running," she says. "I heard the people shooting and I felt very scared, as I could see nothing and was running by myself."

The obstacles Nyantay faced included holes that upended her, trees that she ran into and the heat and exhaustion of running. At one point she sat down in the forest, hoping for a quick, if grisly death. "I could hear the lions and the hyenas," she says. "I just wanted them to come and eat me as I was in such a bad place, hurting and lost."

She continues: "I just waited and thought: 'If the animals eat me, that's fine. If the soldiers kill me, that's fine.' I no longer felt fear. I couldn't think or care about anything but dying," she says.

The next day, some neighbours stumbled across Nyantay and took her to a safe place. She eventually crossed the border into Ethiopia and came to Tierkidi refugee camp, where she was reunited with the husband and four children she had presumed had died.

"When I heard their voices and knew it was them, I just passed out, then completely lost it. People had to pour water on me to calm me and then I couldn't stop being sick from the shock," Nyantay says. UN agencies provided her with basic assistance, but UNHCR regards her as particularly vulnerable and in need of specific help.

The sprawling Tierkidi camp houses almost 50,000 of the nearly 200,000 South Sudanese refugees who have fled to Ethiopia in the past year. Since fighting erupted last December between government and rebel forces, children, women, older people and those living with disability have frequently been made targets.

Nyantay has only been blind since January 2011, when South Sudan's people voted for independence in a referendum after years of civil war with Sudan. "After the vote, it all went dark," she recalls. "Now, I can separate the morning and night, but that's all." She does not know the cause, though many people in South Sudan face sight problems due to cataracts, lack of basic sanitation and disease.

Away from the smells and sounds of a village she knew so well, Nyantay feels lost in Tierkidi, where she relies on her stepmother to feed and dress her, take her to the latrine and lead her around.

"I can't find anything here good because of my eyes. Everything I need, others have to do for me, so I spend my time feeling bad," she says. "I miss seeing the floor, if there are things to trip on, and my food, to see if there are insects or bad things in it."

Blind and in exile, Nyantay fears there is no future for her. But she does have hope for her children, who are attending school in the camp, and this helps her.

But Nyantay misses her bed most as she says the only time she sees is when she dreams. But she has trouble sleeping: "My bed at home was so comfortable, not like here . . . And I miss seeing the sunrise. I used to get up early to watch this. Eyes are very important. You can see where you're going, you can see danger and distance, but now it's all gone."

Cradling a relative's baby, she adds, "I can't see a future for me. Here, I just sit in one place feeling sad." But Nyantay does have hope for her children, who are now attending a school in the camp that has more than 6,000 pupils.

"They can help my suffering, as the only people that can do well are those that have seen and known," she says, a smile spreading across her face as the baby whose tiny toes she has been stroking starts playing with her cheeks.

Nyantay's oldest son, Gatwech, 15, knows that he can never give his mother back her sight. But he is determined to finish school and one day be a leader who will create the country his mother wanted to see, who will turn the darkness into light.

"I want to work for the government one day to correct the people who are creating violence," he says. "I want to stop that. I could build the country, bring roads, electricity, hospitals - the things that people need."

By Hannah McNeish in Tierkidi, Ethiopia