Caring for South Sudan’s generation of traumatised children
Children in conflicts, Education Cannot Wait, Education in emergencies, Refugees and internally displaced people, Teachers and learning
900,000 children in the conflict-torn country need psychological aid - and safe spaces are helping them to heal.
For the past two weeks, Sandy has slept on the dirty floor of a small and stuffy tent, squeezed in tightly with 54 other women and girls and countless night-biting mosquitoes.
Things are looking up. For now at least, Sandy has company and a canvas cover.
“I feel much safer here in the tent,” she said of her new home in a United Nations-protected site.
Education in South Sudan
- 72% of children are out of school at primary level – the highest rate in the world
- 76% of school-age girls are not in education
- One in three schools have been attacked by armed forces
With her buzzed haircut and mature mien, 14-year-old Sandy is stern faced and slow to smile. She is recovering from war trauma.
- Civil war and lack of food wreck education in South Sudan
- Toxic stress spells disaster for conflict children
It all began in 2013 when she had to flee an attack on her village that left her father dead. Her mother died soon afterwards of disease, hunger and exhaustion.
Ever since, after making the 100-mile trek from Yei in the country’s west to the capital Juba – alone and afraid throughout – Sandy has been sleeping under market stalls, exposed to the elements and in danger of assault.
Many of the other girls who slept under makeshift stalls ended up in brothels. Sandy was lucky enough to make it to the relative safety of one of Juba’s protected civilian sites (PoCs).
The UN children’s arm UNICEF estimates that she is one of 900,000 children in South Sudan who need psychological help, with at least 150,000 of them living in camps.
These are children who have witnessed killings, abductions and sexual violence since South Sudan plunged into civil war in 2013 – but there are few experts to guide their recovery in what is the world’s youngest country.
“South Sudan has a generation of traumatised children but there aren’t enough therapists – neither in Juba, nor in remote local communities,” explained Duop Dak, one of the country’s few practising South Sudanese psychologists.
“Capacity here is low. There are no rehabilitation centres and people who develop mental disorders due to trauma can end up in prison,” he added.
It is just six years since South Sudan gained independence, though it has yet to win either peace or stability.
Many of Dak’s colleagues have left the world of counselling to work with non-profits or the government, both of which offer better salaries and more hope in the face of the country’s rampant hyperinflation, fuel shortages and harsh beginnings.
Instead, a growing number of international organisations have taken to working with the traumatised children, hoping to prevent further repercussions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or worse.
“During and after displacement, children go through extraordinary experiences that can traumatise them for the rest of their lives. Our work focuses on bringing their lives back to normalcy as quickly as possible,” said the UNHCR’s protections officer Keiko Odashiro, who works with girls like Sandy.
Sandy took her first, faltering step towards healing when she registered at a child-friendly space in the camp, where she can play with her peers and get adult support.
These children need to gain resilience to survive, build confidence and restore hope for their brighter futures. Keiko Odashiro, UNHCR protections officer
“Traumatised children need to participate in activities that keep them busy and engaged,” explained Dak. “Positive reinforcement and play are crucial and it’s often then that trauma patients open up about their past.”
Dak has seen children craft soldier dolls out of sticks and draw machine guns in the sand.
“It’s usually then that I ask about their past and what has triggered their drawings,” Dak told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He thinks safe spaces such as this – classrooms, a playground and a clutch of social workers and psychologists – are the best springboard to mental health for South Sudan’s youngest war victims.
“It’s here where we identify vulnerable children and provide direct support to them. We take them in, integrate them into the group and explore their fears and past lives,” says Alice Abdallah of UNICEF, who sets up the safe havens.
With the country’s peace agreement in limbo and violence continuing, children experience trauma on a daily basis.
Up to 100 unaccompanied minors – most don’t know if their parents are still alive – cross the border into Uganda daily.
“These children need to gain resilience to survive, build confidence and restore hope for their brighter futures,” Odashiro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Trauma is common in South Sudan and for a number of reasons.
Just an hour’s drive from Sandy, in another UN camp of mud huts, sits five-year-old Dekanmo, a refugee from Ethiopia whose family fled ethnic cleansing in the country’s Gambella region.
A month ago, her mother – and sole surviving relative – died in childbirth and Dekanmo has not spoken since.
Surrounded by playing children, she sits on the floor in her school uniform, her dark, hollow eyes fixed on the distance.
“We ensure that her basic needs – such as shelter, health and food – are met, and facilitate counselling for her growth and development,” explained Odashiro.
As to a future, Dekanmo’s road to recovery has yet to begin.