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UNICEF on the Frontline: Under Fire in South Sudan

UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Masumi Yamashina with children at one of the camps for the internally displaced in Juba, South Sudan.

UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Masumi Yamashina with children at a camp for the internally displaced in South Sudan. © UNICEF/Doune Porter

Child Protection Specialist Masumi Yamashina and other UNICEF staff members were trapped for nearly a week in a U.N. compound in Malakal, South Sudan, amid fierce fighting for control of the town.

More than 20,000 people who had been displaced by the crisis in the world’s youngest country were also sheltering in the compound. Below are excerpts from Masumi’s account of the experience:

I had not imagined when I joined UNICEF as a child protection officer that burying the bodies of children would be something I would do. Sadly, in Malakal last week, I did help to bury the dead after devastating violence shook the town, penetrating even into the compound where civilians had taken shelter.

I had not imagined when I joined UNICEF … that burying the bodies of children would be something I would do.

I had arrived from the capital, Juba, on Friday, February 14, sharing the sense of optimism among UNICEF and other humanitarian workers about what we could achieve for the displaced children and families sheltering in the compound and nearby sites.

My mission was to help identify unaccompanied children so we could help to trace their families and arrange foster care. We were also preparing to create Child-Friendly Spaces for children to feel safe and play. We were feeling positive and we had a plan.

That was Monday. By Tuesday, everything had changed.

Debris is scattered outside the building that houses the UNICEF office in the city of Malakal, South Sudan. The building was ransacked during the violence that swept through the city.

Debris is scattered outside the building that houses the UNICEF office in the city of Malakal, South Sudan. The building was ransacked during the violence that swept through the city. © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0221/Knowles-Coursin

Shortly after I awoke in my tent, the morning quiet was shattered by gunfire. The rumors that had been circulating for days of an opposition attack on Government forces in Malakal turned out to be true.

We ran to the bunker in search of safety from stray bullets, but it was quickly filling with families. So we huddled outside and hoped for the best. The gunfire was intense and seemed to last for hours — if there was shelling nearby, we thought we would probably be killed.

Fighting soon broke out between displaced men from different ethnic groups, some using cement blocks and metal rods as weapons. By nightfall, there was still no safe place. Our tents afforded no protection against shells or bullets. We got what sleep we could and on Wednesday morning, awoke to renewed gunfire outside.

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A girl, one of 21,568 displaced people, at the United Nations compound in Malakal, South Sudan.

A girl, one of more than 20,000 displaced people at the United Nations compound in Malakal, South Sudan. © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0230/Knowles-Coursin

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