UNHCR) – For four days, 16-year-old Hiba Ishmail Al Haji and her sister walked through the bush to escape the aerial bombings in Sudan’s South Kordofan state that had already separated the girls from their parents. Along the way they begged for food and water from sympathetic locals, navigated military checkpoints and struggled with illness.
When they entered South Sudan they headed to the Yida refugee settlement, which had been established in 2011 by people fleeing the violence in Sudan. There they found shelter in a compound full of other unaccompanied children.
That was a year ago. Last month Hiba and the other girls again found themselves running for their lives when an exchange of gunfire in Yida left a policeman dead. The cause of the gunfight is still not clear and though normal life has resumed in the settlement, the incident sent the 60 girls that remained in the compound on a frantic search for safety.
“During the shooting, a man, I think he was a policeman, came to us and told us to lie down and to take cover,” recounted Hiba. “As soon as the shooting stopped, all the girls ran off in different directions to try and find a family who could help them.”
Hiba found herself in a family compound whose residents had also fled. She spent the night alone in their shelter. The following day the family returned and offered to take her in. “According to our culture, if a tribe member needs help we have to provide it,” said Um Juma Hamid, who is caring for five children of her own as well as one other child that is not related to her.
UNHCR, which had been assisting the girls in their compound by hiring a female carer, providing relief items, organizing food rations and improving security around the premises, is now working to trace all the girls who fled and to either reunite them with family members or place them with foster families.
Carolyn Akello, a protection officer with the UN refugee agency, said that most host families, and even the girls’ relatives, lack the means to care for additional children. “We are working to identify the needs of the girls and the host families and to lighten the burden on those families,” she said.
In a soft voice that verges on a whisper, Hiba said she was still adjusting to her new home. There are more chores and the family’s shelter is not big enough to accommodate everyone so Hiba sleeps on a bench outside. “I want to stay, but the family I am with needs help,” she said.
It is that additional assistance, in the form of shelter materials and other relief items, that UNHCR is in the process of providing, said Akello. “We want to keep the girls in the community and out of the compounds,” she said. “Many of the girls do have relatives here and with some additional assistance the families should be able to look after these children.”
Of the more than 70,000 refugees living in the Yida settlement, an estimated 1,750 arrived as unaccompanied minors. UNHCR seeks to protect all unaccompanied children by reuniting them with immediate or extended families or by placing them with foster families.
The UN refugee agency has long expressed concerns over the presence of armed elements in the Yida settlement and over its proximity to a militarized and contested border. In addition to severely compromising the civilian character of the settlement, the presence of armed elements greatly hinders UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to refugees.
On March 30, the UN refugee agency opened a new refugee camp in the vicinity with the capacity to accommodate up to 20,000 refugees. The Ajoung Thok camp provides those living there with access to education, health care and livelihood opportunities.
Though her foster family has no immediate plans to move to Ajoung Thok, education remains at the forefront of Hiba’s concerns about the future. “There were no schools in my village,” she said. “Until there is peace and until I can continue my education, I don’t want to return home.”
By Tim Irwin in Yida, South Sudan