In July 2016, the capital airport in South Sudan was targeted during an outbreak of violence. An internally displaced persons camp was temporarily erected in an adjacent location. More than 3500 civilians took shelter at the camp between July and September. Nonviolent Peaceforce regularly patrolled the camp to prevent violence against civilians.
On September 15th, Nonviolent Peaceforce was patrolling the camp, when we were approached by a Nuer man, John.* John was towing a 10-year-old boy who he had found with a group of Nuer children. The children were trying to get him to play but he was unresponsive. Sensing something was wrong, John tried greeting the boy in his native language. Getting no reply, he tried greeting the boy in Dinka and the boy immediately responded.
John realized the boy was in danger as minority Dinka amongst a large Nuer population. Tensions between Dinka and Nuer were extremely high in the capital, after fighting in July killed hundreds of civilians within days. Being a child does not exclude one from being the victim of brutal targeted violence. During South Sudan's civil war, UNICEF has reported boys being castrated and left to bleed to death, girls as young as eight being raped and murdered and children being thrown into burning buildings.
Despite the animosity between tribes, John took a stand to keep the boy safe. Being familiar with Nonviolent Peaceforce's work, John brought the boy to us. Together, we found an empty tea shop to sit in, where *Wani would be safe from discerning eyes. Over the next hour, we spent time piecing together Wani's story with the little Dinka we knew. Wani explained to us he had followed some children back through the gates in hopes of finding some food. We were able to figure out he was from Juba. Wani could describe his neighborhood but he couldn't provide a phone number to contact his family.
As we were coordinating, a group of five Nuer men came to the teashop to eat. This made us nervous about Wani's safety. At the same time, a young man entered and stood directly across from us. He was very vocal about Dinka boys not belonging in the shop. No one paid him any attention, even though he was clearly attempting to agitate people. Rather than getting riled up, the men demonstrated compassion by sending Wani a plate of food and our Nuer staff member bought him a bottle of water.
Attracted by the new faces, a group of curious Nuer children formed around us. Wani and an NP staff member began to play a hand game. The game consisted of Wani placing his hands on top of the staff member’s outstretched hands and pulling them back before the staff could tap the top of his hands. Every time he succeeded, the children burst into laughter and every time he failed, they cheered us to do it again. After a few minutes, the NP staff member welcomed another child to play the game with Wani. For a brief and very enjoyable moment, they were all just children and the divide between the two ethnicities disappeared.
A little while later, a driver arrived to take Wani home and we drove to the neighborhood Wani had described. In his search for food, Wani had travelled more than five kilometers to the site. While this might not seem far, he had walked alone through treacherous terrain. Over that past few months, several unexploded mines had been found outside the protection site.
As we got closer to the house, it was very clear that Wani knew exactly where he was. He opened car door and jumped out before it even stopped. As we entered the compound, we found his teenage sister, his younger brother and his grandmother. His grandmother explained Wani had been missing for an entire night. After conducting a welfare assessment, we all discussed with Wani the importance of letting the adults know where he is. His family was shocked that Wani had wandered so far and were extremely grateful that he had been treated well. They thanked NP staff over and over for returning him home.
That day we witnessed something wonderful. A community devastated by war, came together to respond to a child's need and a group of Nuer people and a Dinka child found their shared humanity.
*Names have been changed to protect individual identities.
by Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan.