IMVEPI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – As she sat beneath a tree drinking from a bottle of water, Awut Chol told of how she had been searching for her two sons since they were separated during a night attack in South Sudan a month earlier.
“I miss my sons,” the 30-year-old said, with tears streaming down her dusty cheeks. “I’m looking for them everywhere in the camps, but I am not sure if they are still alive. When we were attacked by soldiers, we escaped in different directions, leaving them behind.”
Chol is among thousands of South Sudanese parents desperately searching for their children in the refugee camps of northern Uganda. A four-year civil war in South Sudan has led to more than 1 million children fleeing the country, many on their own, according to the United Nations.
“These children lost touch with their families once fighting broke out,” said Gilbert Kamanga, the Uganda director of international charity World Vision. “Others saw their parents being killed, and they have walked for more than a week to get to Uganda, with nothing to eat.”
In recent months, as South Sudan government forces stepped up attacks in the towns of Pajok and Magwi in the Eastern Equatoria state near the border with Uganda, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has skyrocketed.
“The horrifying fact that nearly one in five children in South Sudan has been forced to flee their home illustrates how devastating this conflict has been for the country’s most vulnerable,” said Leila Pakkala, UNICEF’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.
The people of South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, celebrated when the country gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a decades-long battle for autonomy. But in 2013, the new country descended into political and ethnic conflict after President Salva Kiir, a member of the majority Dinkas, blamed his then vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of conspiring to seize the government.
In 2015, Kiir and Machar signed a peace accord before world leaders. But months later, renewed clashes erupted between forces loyal to Kiir and rebels backing Machar. Tens of thousands of people have died during the conflict, more than 3 million have been displaced, and famine is threatening millions more.
Many of the displaced are children. At the Imvepi camp in the Arua district of northern Uganda, most of the 120,000 refugees are minors, and more of them continue to stream into the camp with horrifying stories.
“The soldiers shot my father claiming he was supporting the rebel soldiers. My mother escaped and I was left alone,” said 12-year-old Julias Okech, who still hopes to find his mother someday. “I don’t know where she is. I have trekked alone for three days to this place without eating anything. I want to see my mother.”
Some parents have been fortunate. Pauline Deng, 40, found her daughter at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp after visiting three other camps with the help of World Vision.
“I was happy to see my daughter again,” said Deng, who said her husband and two other children were killed by government fighters in Pajok in May. “I can now smile again after the stress I went through after the attack. I’m happy because we are together again.”
World Vision has so far recorded more than 6,000 unaccompanied children in Bidi Bidi settlement and 3,100 at Imvepi refugee camp. Their names are distributed to the 14 camps in northern Uganda, along with names of parents looking for their children. When someone spots a relative’s name, the charity helps them reunite in person and settle in a camp together.
But Kamanga notes that it can be difficult reuniting many of the children because most of them do not know the full names of their parents.
To date, the organization has helped more than 1,000 children reunite with their parents and relatives, in cooperation with camp officials.
“The best gift you can give to a separated child or parent is reunification, because they feel happy when they meet their family members,” said Robert Baryamwesiga, the Bidi Bidi settlement commander. “We are working hard to ensure these unaccompanied children get reunited with their families.”
Chol, however, is still searching.
“I will be happy to get them alive,” she said. “They are my remaining hope.”