Impact of South Sudan Conflict on Education (‘Peace Time Children’):
It was back in 2009 when in a small family home in the South of the Sudan I reconnected with a dear friend called Biar. It had been years since I’d last seen him, and he proudly introduced me to his youngest children, Chol and Deng, telling me they were looking forward to starting school soon.
Biar had never been to school himself – his education was cruelly robbed by years of wide-spread conflict in his country. But his youngest children were set to follow a different path. That’s because they represent the Peace Time Children – born after the 2005 peace agreement between the government of Sudan and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), they were the first in decades to not know civil war in their country.
Before 2005, war had raged throughout the nation for 22 years. During an eight-year period when a peace agreement was in place – although peppered with nasty localized conflict, and thousands of lives lost – children like Chol and Deng grew up with a glimmer of hope of a decent education and a dignified future.
Now that eight year period has ended, and they are experiencing wide-spread conflict across their country for the first time. Nearly 900,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled the fighting since December 15 when conflict broke out between forces loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel army units.
While a cease-fire was signed by the two warring sides on January 23, the fighting has continued, and the crisis was raised to a level three emergency by the UN last week. Now the futures of the Peace Time Children in Africa’s newest nation remains uncertain.
My work has taken me to Sudan on a number of occasions, and I’ve spent a few years living there. My first visit was in 1999, when I went to work for an agency providing aid during the conflict.
The war was between the northern government in Khartoum and the SPLM which was the rebel group at that time, and I was based in Khartoum. That’s where I met and became friends with Biar, a young office cleaner who had fled there from the south.
Biar was born into the war, and I remember his elderly mother Ayen once told me they were forced to flee the conflict just hours after she gave birth. Resting by a fire one night, alone and unprotected in the bush, a snake – or Biar in the Dinka language – slithered past, and with that Biar was named.
The conflict later denied him an education but he worked wherever he could to provide for his young wife Liz and their daughter Rose.
Biar and his family suffered terrible discrimination and lived in poverty in an urban area in Khartoum. They had no water, toilets or electricity in their tiny shack, and lived with the daily fear their home would be dismantled by authorities.
I left Sudan a few years later to continue with my life and career, and to enjoy all the benefits my education and British passport could afford me. But in 2006 I returned, working for another aid agency, and found a recent peace agreement had finally brought an end to the years of conflict.
Biar and I had lived very different lives, but we had stayed in contact and I was delighted to meet him again at his home in the south, where he’d returned – that’s when he introduced me to Chol and Deng and he told me of their hopes of an education.
Biar seemed taller. He had built a small house, owned several cows and remarkably, even Ayen, now in her late 80s, had made the journey back after a lifetime of displacement. The desperation I had seen years previously was replaced by hope and possibility.
But now, in 2014, South Sudan is once again marred by widespread conflict, so what does that mean for Biar and his family?
I have not been able to get in contact with him yet, but for them – and the millions of others that have lived through the trauma and humiliation of the last war – the devastation of wide-spread conflict will be all too familiar.
The hard won gains will be thrown into uncertainty and the prospect of having to flee their homes, with no idea of when or if they will ever return, is an awful possibility once again.
Memories of Late Dr. John Garang on his remarkable speech:
I began to remember the speech of Late Hero Dr. John Garang De-Mabior during the signing of Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Nairobi 2005, here he says – “The agreement will change Sudan forever! Sudan cannot and will never be the same again as this peace agreement will engulf the country in democratic and fundamental transformation instead of being engulfed in war as it has always been up to the present”, my tears begins to flow when I recalled of this statements! God forbids, the people of South Sudan particularly the leaders President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riak to understand the bloodshed on innocent people.
I believe one of the most tragic aspects of conflict is that people are prevented from progressing with their lives, and generations of children are denied an education.
Children like Chol and Deng will always be ‘Peace Time Children’, born after 2005 with hopes for fulfilling their human rights. But now their futures are in the hands of South Sudan’s leaders – and the decisions they make in the coming months.