From the moment I boarded the flight to Bentiu in northern South Sudan, I knew it was going to be an emotional journey. I was part of a team travelling to meet five children who had been separated from their mother for nearly half a decade. I knew it would be special, but I didn’t realise how much it would affect me.
The children represented Save the Children and its partner’s 6000th reunification since violent conflict rocked South Sudan in 2013 and tore thousands of families apart. After a painstaking process, Save the Children case workers were finally able to trace down mother Emmanuela*’s children and verify their identities. Now all that was left to be done was bring the family back together.
Upon arrival at the UN Protection of Civilian (PoC) camp where the children were staying, I was shocked to see the conditions. Many children living in the camp lacked proper clothing, and all lived in crowded tents surrounded by ditches filled with dirty water.
Amidst the squalor, we went to a compound where the five children awaited us. They had their bags packed and looked well fed and excited. We spoke to the eldest, Nyandor*, 17, about how she came to be in the camp.
“In 2014, our village was attacked. My four siblings and I ran away in different directions. We eventually found each other, but not our mother. We didn’t know what to do next. I was the eldest at 12 years old, my twin siblings John* and Sarah* were eight, Asha* was five, and our last born, Hope*, was one. I had no choice but to become like their mother, to care for them, to find their meals, and find them shelter,” she said.
You could see in the children’s eyes that our visit had sparked hope. John, now 13, could not hold back his excitement and started loudly bidding goodbye to his friends. More than 20 children gathered around to escort him and the others away from the camp.
Nyandor, wearing a pair of jeans, white blouse and rubber shoes, led her younger siblings into our vehicle. As the car started moving, you could hear chants of children saying goodbye, clapping and waving, as their friends drove away.
The Journey to Bentiu
We drove along dusty roads until we reached the airport. Once there, we helped the children carry their bags onto the chartered plane. You could tell it was their first time, and the younger ones were afraid of the noisy helicopters taking off around us.
After they sat in the plane, children’s case worker helped fasten their seat belts, and comforted them that all would be well and they should not panic if the plane started to dip or shake uncontrollably. With a final look back, we took off into the skies.
The golden moment of reunification.
Upon landing, we jumped in another car, for the final leg of the journey. Our vehicle stopped in a small village, where a group of men, women and children walked towards us, singing and calling. The moment we had been waiting for was finally unfolding before us. I could feel my heart pound faster than usual - I had never witnessed such an event in my life.
The children rushed out of the car and ran as fast as they could towards their mother, who was approaching from the other side. The scene unfolded so fast, it was like a movie with a happy ending, a journey of a worried mother waiting to reunite with her five separated children.
Emmanuela cried as she hugged her children, lifting them into her arms. You could tell she couldn’t believe her eyes. She repeatedly touched their hair, and whispered something in their ears. It looked like magic. What a reunion.
The family started walking towards the house, while Emmanuela friends carried the children’s bags. The youngest child, Hope, entered the house first, followed by Nyandor and her siblings, and lastly Emmanuela entered pulling the brown bulging suitcase
In their own words
Later, we sat down with Emmanuela and Nyandor, who talked to us about the difficult moments they had had while apart.
“I felt lonely and couldn’t enjoy life since we separated,” said Nyandor.
“I found it difficult to relate to other girls of my age or play freely with them, because I had such a huge responsibility at home to look after my siblings. It was so hard. Every time I thought about my mother, I got worried and felt more helpless.
“I couldn’t enjoy my childhood like other children. I missed my mother so much.”
Emmanuela talked about how worried she had been for her children, and how overjoyed she was when she was told they had been found. She thanked our team over and over for bringing the family together.
“I’m so happy and I don’t have enough words to express my feelings right now. I thank you so much for the good work you have done. I pray to the Almighty God to help you continue doing similar work to other separated families. Sukran… sukran! (Thank you…thank you!).”
As we were leaving, the scene was like a music festival. Older women came out and sang folk songs, rejoicing and celebrating the reunification. It was honestly one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I felt and continue to feel so proud to be part of a team that is tangibly, honestly, changing children’s lives for the better.
* Names have been changed to protect identities