In what is now South Sudan, families have been fleeing conflict for generations, repeating a tragic cycle that began nearly 60 years ago. The first Sudanese civil war dragged on from 1955 to 1972. The second raged even longer – from 1983 until the 2005 peace deal that led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
But the respite was short-lived. In the past year, fresh conflict between supporters of rival politicians in the world’s newest country has forced nearly one in every five of this nation’s 11 million people from their homes. Almost half a million of the displaced have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Many more – 1.4 million – have fled to other areas within South Sudan’s borders. Now, older people live in stick-and-tarpaulin huts with their children, and their children’s children, all three generations – sometimes four – far from home due to yet more war.
UNHCR leads key aspects of the international effort to help the displaced, providing shelter and distributing household items such as water-collection buckets, pots and pans, and sleeping mats to families who fled their homes with nothing.
The largest settlement for families displaced inside South Sudan is the town of Mingkaman, in Lakes State, close to the city of Bor. Located a few hours by boat down the White Nile from the capital, Juba, it currently hosts more than 100,000 internally displaced people. I spent time there recently with photographer Andrew McConnell, documenting the experiences of six families who have repeatedly fled their homes in search of safety.
Ayuel Deng is prone to occasional outbursts – the result, he says, of repeatedly fleeing from war. He first ran with his parents and brothers when he was 12, when bombs fell from airplanes that roared above his village on an otherwise normal day.
“We ran quickly, carrying nothing,” he recalls. “Maybe you don’t understand: we ran in what we wearing at that moment, I didn’t know that I would not return for 10 years.” Walking for weeks, surviving on wild melons and pumpkins, leaving starving friends behind on the path, he reached safety in Ethiopia, then Kenya, before slowly making his way home and finally reaching his village as a young man of 22. His mother was there, alive and well. His father had died in the fighting.
“I was so happy, then instantly so sad,” says Ayuel, now 43. At least the war had moved on. He worked to raise a dowry for a wife, something his father would have paid, but his father was gone. Eventually, in 2005, the year of the peace deal, he married Akuang. Together, they now have five children, aged two to nine.
“We never expected there to be war again after the peace deal, because if those old enemies were at peace, where would war come from?” he asks. “But then we had to run again. It was the same: armed men coming to the village, and us running to the remote areas. Now, as a grown man, I was running again with only the clothes on my back, and eating the same wild fruits I ate when I walked to Ethiopia as a child.”
Ayuel’s children witnessed the fighting, and saw neighbours being killed. “This has an impact,” he says. “It had an impact on me when I was young, because I have sudden aggression that is unreasonable, because of that war. The same thing will happen to my children.”
Athieng, Ayuel’s nine-year-old daughter, remembers the sound of the guns. “They were so loud, like they were right behind me and the bullets were going to hit me,” she says. The worst part of fleeing, she says, is being scattered from her friends. “I don’t know if I will see them again.”
This was the third time that Adau Mabior, Athieng’s grandmother, who estimates she is 80 years old, has had to flee fighting. “Tell the world, if they have some powerful means to stop this war, and guarantee the security in my village, then finally I can go there and rest,” she says. “Without that guarantee, I will not return. It is not safe. I know that.”
Ayak Lual, 33, comes from a large family. She has six children, with another due in December, and her father married twice, meaning she has more than a dozen siblings and step-siblings. Nonetheless, for much of her life, she has felt alone and on the run, as she is now after fighting erupted near her home a year ago.
“From when I was about six, we were away from our home because of that second Sudan war,” Ayak says. “Then my mother was captured by soldiers and it was 10 years before I saw her again. I was left running from town to town only with one brother and my father. Eventually, my brother fell sick and died, and my father and I were the only ones remaining. This is what happens when you are scattered by war.”
Her father, Lual Arok, remembers a similarly solitary existence as a young man, after fleeing home to escape the first Sudanese civil war – and an abusive uncle with whom he lived after his parents died. “I was moving all the time, from one place to the other, with no thoughts of home,” he says. “It’s only when you are older you think of the importance of being in your own place.”
But for now, neither he nor Ayak nor their extended family members are “in their own place.” Both live in stick-and-tarpaulin shelters in a temporary settlement for displaced people. For Lual it’s a struggle. He is getting older, and his second wife was shot and killed during the fighting earlier this year, leaving him to care for their five children, the eldest only 15. “I thought these times of war and suffering were past, but they are not,” he says.