“I have no idea if my mother’s dead or alive”

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Families are separated by civil war and communications crackdowns in South Sudan

KODOK, South Sudan — “I’m living in darkness,” says Abuk Aban. Rustling through her belongings lying in a pile of dirt under a tree, the 35-year-old retrieves a small, beat-up cell phone from her black knapsack.

“They’re blocking our communication,” she says, pointing to the “no service” message on the screen. “I have no idea if my mother’s dead or alive.”

Since South Sudan’s bitter civil war broke out in 2013 between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition troops faithful to former Vice-President Riek Machar, the country has descended into a mixture of constant chaos and tragedy. Both sides have been accused of committing war crimes and grave human rights violations, including systematic rape, looting, and the use of child soldiers.

Mass displacement and the forced separation of families has been one of the more consequential effects of the conflict. Since the war began, an estimated 1.8 million people have become refugees in neighboring countries, with another 1.9 million internally displaced.

Every time fighting breaks out, families are forced to scatter and separate in search of safety. Often they never see one another again as communication can be challenging, especially when phone lines are purposefully blocked by the warring parties.

After fleeing the fighting and walking for seven days, Abuk Aban settles into her new home, under a tree. Sam Mednick

Aban is worried. Since fleeing her hometown of Wau Shilluk, she hasn’t had any contact with her mother or sister —  who lives in another town — and has no idea if they’re OK.

“I used to speak to my sister every day,” says Aban. “Now I’m not allowed to.”

In January, when South Sudan’s government forces attacked Wau Shilluk, she and her seven children narrowly escaped with their lives. With bullets flying around them, the family grabbed what little they could carry and fled. They walked for seven days, through the bush, navigating potholed dirt roads in 140-degree heat, before arriving at the tiny village of Aburoc — a rebel-held, desolate, desert town, and the last frontier before crossing into Sudan.

More than three months later the single mother remains homeless, living under a tree with her children and the few belongings they were able to take with them. She’s among some 15,000 people who also escaped the recent clashes and went to Aburoc. On Tuesday, April 25, fighting broke out between government and opposition forces around Kodok. Thousands more are expected to flee to Aburoc in the coming days, exacerbating the village’s already dire humanitarian situation

Crouched in a sliver of shade, Aban surveys her neighbors — some have “tree houses” of their own, but others aren’t so lucky, forced to set up their belongings on the cracked earth with no respite from the sweltering sun.

Situated in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, Aburoc lies just 18 miles from the civil war’s front lines. As government soldiers encroach on the rebel-held territory, the opposition has turned to increasingly defensive measures. In a strategic move, they cut off the region’s phones lines at the end of January.

“We blocked the phones because of spies,” says Johnson Oman Yor, the opposition’s acting governor for Fashoda state. “People are often recruited to work for the government through the phones as spies.”

Due to South Sudan’s shoddy infrastructure, and the high price of fuel needed to run the generators that power the cell towers, it’s not uncommon for areas across the country to have little to no phone service. However, it usually comes and goes.

“This period it’s been off far longer than in the past,” says a source working in the area. “The opposition government has deliberately shut it off.”

This lack of access is preventing thousands of people from connecting with their families.

“I feel locked in,” says Barnaba Tipo, a resident of a nearby town. “I’d feel a lot calmer if I could speak to my wife and children and be informed,” he said.

For people like Aban, who have been recently estranged from their relatives, this second separation is making an already painful situation worse.

“I heard about it when I got here,” says Aban. “The situation is really bad and we need help.”

The opposition government says they have more pressing things to handle.

Families make the long, difficult journey, walking for days in the sweltering sun from Wau Shilluk to Aburoc in search of safety. They carry the little they were able to grab when the fighting broke out.
Sam Mednick

U.N. officials continue to warn that South Sudan is at risk of genocide. More than 50,000 people have been killed in the three-and-a half-year war. Renewed fighting this month in the town of Wau reported the deliberate killing of at least 16 civilians by government soldiers based on their ethnicity. But the government has denied such reports. As both sides squabble over who’s responsible, those suffering the most are the local populations caught in the crossfire.

”The phone network isn’t a priority for us,” says Yor, the acting governor of Aburoc. “The real issue is that there’s a genocide being committed by the government, and the world is silent.”

But access to a working cell phone has taken on new meaning when forced separation is so common and can be the difference between knowing if your family members are dead or alive.

As part of an initiative to help families communicate, the International Committee of the Red Cross offers “Thuraya phone days,” where individuals from surrounding areas can use the organization’s satellite phone to make three-minute calls to their relatives.

“There’s a huge demand,” says Katie Weir, an ICRC field delegate. “We go through hundreds of calls a day.”

ICRC holds a ‘Satellite Phone Day’ in the small town of Thonyor, in Unity State where the phone line is currently down.
Sam Mednick

But these events only take place every few weeks, with only a few phones servicing thousands of individuals desperate to connect. The lines are so long that people often tire of waiting and give up.

Aban says she plans to try to speak with her sister the next time ICRC makes its satellite phones available. She wants her to check in on their ailing mother.

“No one is there to give her food,” says Aban. “She can’t take care of herself,” she pauses before continuing. “My mother’s most likely dead.”

©Alleastafrica and Vice (US)

1 COMMENT

  1. Subject: “I have no idea if my mother’s dead or alive” Apr 29, 2017

    Commentary, 30 Apr. 2017
    First and FOREMOST, THANKS goes to “Alleastafrica and Vice (US)” for the Article. They have done their job. Now, it is up to their READERS to react and express their deep feeling about their beloved AFRICA. Here is mine for what it is worth.

    The Title of the Article says it ALL. It is the story of Africa. South Sudan fought for more than thirty years to get what they memorized >>>independence, liberty, freedom. After countless sacrifice, they are now fighting among themselves just because two individuals hate each other, based on tribalism or racism or…. One is a Ph D Degree holder on exile; the other is a powerful, conniving and illiterate. In between, the good innocent people, without a name [except geographical coordinates], are once again sacrificing their lives for something they couldn’t understand.

    And the rest of Africa is not disturbed about the human suffering. WE ARE USED TO IT. Trying to list an example will only lead us to the entire Dark Continent. We are who we are, and what we are. Even if we have thirty-thousand individuals of the highest Degree-Studded Africans it will not make a difference – what so ever. Because as one African author put it >>>” The colonial powers carved up Africa, put the black man to work, and did not properly educate him……….. White people don’t talk to black people. We weren’t being taught to think, period. All we were taught [was to] Memorize [facts], write them down for the test, and forget them.” [1] It does not matter whether it is Doctor of Philosophy or Master of Arts or Science or Bachelor of Science or Arts or anything. The so-called “Modern” Education for Africa was NEVER introduced to liberate Africa in the deepest sense of the word. By the way, one angry African once explained what B.S, and M.S. stand for >>>’”Bull Shit and More Shit”. And another African deciphered (on the Internet) what “Ph D” meant: >>> ‘Phony Document’ !!! SMILE, Please.
    WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT OURSELVES? My prediction? >>> ‘NOTHING’ that emancipate us form self-destruction.

    About one hundred years have elapsed since the introduction of the so-called “Modern” education in Africa. What did we gain out of it? Did it liberate us? Did it make us conscious of ourselves? Was the African Child ever taught to have inquisitive mind? Was the African Child ever had the environment to develop his/her analytical mind? If nothing else, let us be honest to OURSELVES. In my opinion, in my feeling, the answers to all the questions is only one, and only one: “NO” — and it hurts. Hence, I DARE SAY, I believe the destiny of Africa will continue to be decided by outside forces, and after prolonged period of time — beyond the line of recovery — Africans may be lucky to get the infamous meaningless phraseology: “APOLOGY FOR THE CRIME COMMITTED UPON THE AFRICAN PEOPLE”. Don’t laugh, it happened. If in doubt, just THINK about the fate of the good courageous ABORIGINAL PEOPLE of North America. THE END

    If Africans of Ph D labels are offended and believe that they can liberate their Dear OLD Africa, the field is wide open to prove otherwise. Let ONE [just ONE] representative from EACH so-called LIBERATED, INDEPENDENT and FREE African countries come forward and form a GROUP OF FIFTY-FOUR (54) “intellectuals” and come up with a draft blueprint of where and how Africa should be heading to. THEY CANNOT! They simply, and hopelessly, CANNOT DO IT.

    I Repeat: I honestly believe that we are simply NOT capable of doing it!!! We cannot help it. It has to do with the wrong FOUNDATION of modern education system applied upon us. WE LOST OUR INNER SELVES – precisely, as colonialism was intended to achieve. It has been done with other indigenous people in another part of the Globe, where the population was decimated through so many cruel schemes. Africans should not delude themselves that there are rosy days ahead. Africa will be taken over by modern sleek colonialism, hungry for natural wealth and above all SPACE for their own fast growing pleasure seeking population. Unless we claim to be short sighted the scheme is already here. ——————————————-

    [1] “BORN A CRIME” by Trevor Noah

    Post Script I can’t help adding this note: A Modern Educated Dictator of an African country ordered that a Professor of an African University be taken to prison for, supposedly, insulting him and his wife in some sort of a media {using two words]. To give credit, the wife appeared on TV and declared: “I forgive her” i.e. the Professor. The Court of the country, however, was asked (ordered) to look into the professor’s manner. In the mean time, the Court also ordered that the prisoner be mentally examined. The prisoner refused, and still in prison complaining of bad treatment by the prison guards……….. Stay Tuned – only if you believe Our Dear Africa will change in its favour, in your Life Time!!!

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