South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal


Michael Morrah's trip to South Sudan was made possible with support from World Vision. You can donate to the South Sudan crisis appeal here.

A group of soldiers seek respite from the heat under the shade of a Neem tree. One of them is slumped on a rusty old chair. An AK47 is slung across his chest.

Buildings are burnt and broken. The shells of burnt out vehicles line the roadside.

We've arrived in Malakal in South Sudan's Upper Nile region. Once one of the country's major trading centres, it's now a heavily militarised zone controlled by government forces.

Schools have become shelters for the homeless. Food and water is in short supply.

This is a city torn apart by inequality, corruption, lawlessness and tribalism. There was a massacre in February in which 25 were shot dead, and the environment is extremely volatile.

I've come here with a team from World Vision and we're passing through the town in a clearly marked white Toyota Landcruiser. We are warned not to film or take photos.

Malakal has changed hands numerous times as opposition and government fighters struggle for dominance.

The government soldiers are mainly from the Dinka tribal group. The opposition is mainly made up of the Nuer people.

Tens of thousands have died in vicious intertribal attacks -- most of them innocent civilians murdered in their own homes.

There are tales of mass burials and rape. It's hard to comprehend.

The fighting has produced an ever-deepening crisis for this already poverty-stricken nation. Famine, disease and displacement have become part of life.

It becomes immediately apparent how difficult it is even for aid workers to operate in such a hostile environment. There are constant negotiations. A trip into Malakal town with a foreign TV crew requires a meeting with the town chief.

After getting permission to film, we drive to one of the town's schools. There are no classes being held here anymore in this broken community -- it's become a shelter. Several families are now living in the classrooms, all of them having fled their homes during the February uprising.

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

A woman eats leaves she's prepared for herself and her family in the town of Malakal

It's stifling hot. I wipe the dust and sweat off my face as I get out of the truck and introduce myself to a man who's crouched down next to a smoldering fire.

His name is Kun Chol. He's a fisherman now living here with his four children. He's tall and skeletal. His eyes harden when I ask him how he's coping.

"There are many people here and there isn't enough food."

A woman standing behind him approaches me with a bowl full of leaves. They've been cooked in oil. It's what she's been eating. She says the leaves are not enough to sustain her or her family, but she had to prepare them as the small stash of grain she has is running out. She's worried about her children.

The children

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

Newshub Pacific Affairs Correspondent Michael Morrah with children at a World Vision Child Friendly Space

Hundreds of thousands forced from their homes during this war have fled to neighboring countries. Around 1.6 million have been internally displaced by the conflict, around 750,000 of them are children. That's a staggering figure.

As a father of two, it's the suffering of young people that affected me most during my week in this war-ravaged nation. Many thousands are growing up in UN-protected camps (POC). Life behind the razor wire is the only life they know. Children I spoke with still had big dreams and so they should. But they have so little, and their lives are blighted by violence, exploitation and hunger.

The UN camp we visited in Malakal is home to 38,000 people who have sought shelter from the conflict. But being in a protected area is no guarantee of immunity from attacks. During the fighting in February, gunmen somehow managed to penetrate the secure perimeter of this camp, and go about burning and killing with relative ease. 

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

A tank outside a checkpoint at the Malakal camp

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

185,000 displaced by violence have sought shelter in UN-protected camps

Taban Nyot is 11 years old and has lived inside the Malakal camp for three years now. I ask him if his family is okay. He tells me his uncle was shot during the February attack.

"Let us go to school so we can have a better future for tomorrow. I want to be a doctor."

He loves going to school. There's one set up here by World Vision. But even that got set alight during the recent fighting. 

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

11-year-old Taban Nyot, who's uncle was killed during an attack on the Malakal camp in February

What I found deeply disturbing is the fact that thousands of children end up on the frontline of this war. There are an estimated 16,000 child soldiers. Despite work to stop the practice, both sides are guilty of recruiting young men.

After decades of fighting, weapons are readily available and young minds are easy to manipulate. Many boy soldiers are forced to take up arms. Others join armed groups willingly so they can feel part of something and have a sense of belonging.

While travelling to a remote village in the Upper Nile to film at a hospital, we drove past a young boy. He couldn't have been much older than 10. The gun he was carrying was almost as big as he was. Grown men taking up arms to fight is sad enough. A child with an AK47 just horrifies me. But it also makes me angry.

Unicef's Abraham Kur Achiek is a former child soldier-turned-aid-worker. He says children are energetic and easily brainwashed. He knows this because in 1987 he was taken from his home at gunpoint as a 12-year-old. His father was killed. He spent seven years fighting for a group, which at the time was locked in a battle with Sudan's government forces.

"It was traumatic. It took me more than 20 years to overcome that period."

I ask him if was instructed to kill people. I can see in his eyes it's a difficult subject for him to recollect. He tells me he'd rather not talk about it. He doesn't want to go back to those dark days. But then he adds: "You follow orders; you don't think. You follow what you are told to do."

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

Michael Morrah and Unicef aid worker and former child soldier Abraham Kur Achiek

A report released by Human Rights Watch last year based on interviews with 101 child soldiers said children were thrown into terrifying gun battles in which they were injured and saw friends killed. Abraham says it's a practice which must stop.

"These young people children need to be protected. They need to be supported to develop and go to school."

Incredibly, after he escaped the grip of the military, he went to university and studied sociology and international development. He now helps child soldiers leave the fight. He recently helped rescue 1755 young boys and five girls who had been recruited as fighters. It took nine months of negotiations with military commanders. 

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

Children at the Malakal camp holding guns they've made out of mud

At the camp in Malakal we came across a group of children making pretend guns out of mud. They have no toys. They're lucky if they have one set of clothes.

One of the boys I see salutes me as we walk past. What appears to be a rocket-propelled grenade rests on his shoulder.

They don't smile; they stand tall. They're acting tough. Their innocence has been taken by the war.

It's confronting, but maybe I shouldn't be surprised. It's what they've grown up around -- violence and guns. 

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

The heroes

It seems there's so much hopelessness, but then there are the heroes -- those amazing individuals who doggedly carry on. World Vision has rebuilt the school that was torched in Malakal. Students like young Taban are starting to return. Even in places as grim as the Malakal camp, World Vision and other aid agencies make the situation bearable.

When we arrive at the World Vision school, children are smiling, laughing and dancing, behaving how children should. It's a jubilant scene -- part of what World Vision calls a Child Friendly Space. And that's exactly what it is -- a place of distraction, a place of safety, a place where children can for a moment forget about the everyday struggles.

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

Michael Morrah with some of the South Sudan World Vision team

World Vision works in a number of areas to make life more tolerable for the vulnerable in South Sudan. We were with their staff when they helped distribute food rations at two huge UN-protected camps.

This is a massive logistical exercise done in conjunction with the UN's World Food Programme. It requires patience and perseverance.

Some of the most remote communities get assistance from the agency's water and sanitation experts. Massive collapsible tanks filter filthy water from the Nile and turn it into safe drinking water. 

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

Hundreds queue for food rations provided by the World Visions and the World Food Programme

The risks -- shots fired

But then that's just in the areas aid workers can access. Some areas are still too dangerous.

Everywhere we went required a travel plan. A detailed security assessment and filming had to be done before the evening curfew.

A trip up the Nile to a village called Wau Shilluk was no exception and it quickly became apparent why such care had to be taken. After arriving at our destination up the river, we are told another boat travelling just 10 minutes behind us was fired at from the riverbank. It was a boat carrying another team of aid workers. 

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

World Vision's Dwain Hindriksen, Michael Morrah and cameraman Nick Zieltjes travelling up the Nile

There's confusion about who exactly fired the shots and why, but the incident is radioed into base.

Dwain Hindriksen, an NZDF Army reserve and security specialist for World Vision, encountered a similar incident during his last deployment to South Sudan. He reassures our team, describing the firing as probably just "warning shots".

Nonetheless, the return trip was eerily quiet. Everyone is on edge. We scan the water's edge for signs of soldiers.

It's incredible to me the risks involved even if you're a humanitarian. Groups like World Vision navigate a fine political line. They show respect to both sides in this conflict, which enables them to continue to work effectively. They're a neutral force. But as Dwain reminds us, "things can change in an instant".

Three World Food Programme officers from the UN disappeared while working in the Upper Nile state last year. They were driving in convoy from Malakal to Melut to help with the distribution of food. They haven't been seen since. 

The road ahead

South Sudan: The vulnerable people of Malakal

Elizabeth Jashoa Jol used to live in a large house with fruit trees; she's now living in a tiny shack inside a UN-protected camp

So much fear is instilled in the people here. Those staying in camps want to leave.

I met Elizabeth Jashoa Jol who also lives in the camp in Malakal. Her small corrugated iron hut was one of more than 1000 burned in the February violence. Inside her shack, one of her family members is cooking thinly sliced bits of onion on a small open-fire stovetop. Another woman is finely chopping up a plate of herbs. This is all they have for the day.

As we sit down, I notice the walls of her hut are charred from the arson attack. The corrugated iron is loosely held together with sticks and rope. She's sitting on a rusty stretcher bed, which is in the corner of the room, her bare feet resting on the dusty red earth.

She looks into the distance as she recalls what her life used to be like. She once lived in relative comfort.

"I had a big house and a lemon tree."

The country's two leaders are both former rebel commanders with a deep distrust for each other. The President, Salva Kiir, is an ethnic Dinka while his deputy, Riek Machar, is from the Nuer tribe. It was a power struggle between the pair in 2013 that plunged the country into chaos, and divided it along ethnic lines.

After two years of war, a peace deal has been signed. Then in April this year, after plenty of maneuvering, Mr Machar returned from exile to form a unity government as outlined in the peace deal. Both leaders claim they want lasting peace. But given this fragile political pairing and the engrained culture of fighting here, real peace seems like a distant prospect.

Equality, inclusiveness and the establishment of law and order is what is needed to bring these communities together. Steps forward will have to start with real accountability for the atrocities committed, and that means both sides acknowledging that they have blood on their hands. 


Michael Morrah's trip to South Sudan was made possible with support from World Vision.

If you would like to contribute to life-saving aid for the people of South Sudan, you can donate to World Vision's crisis appeal today.