When war finds you

Cecilia Kiden’s story, written by Stella Madete.

I was born in a country molded by war. In the 21 years it took South Sudan to gain independence, my family moved countless times to avoid the violence, to survive. Each time, we managed to escape. It did not catch up with us.

This time, war found us.

I was in Nairobi, watching my country fall apart on television on 16 December.

“This can’t be happening,” I thought. “It must be a mistake. We can’t be fighting again.”

My family, my whole life, was in South Sudan, and it was falling apart. I made a few calls asking after children and family. They were all fine and far from the violence. I was relieved but still not settled. My family might have been safe, but others were not. I had to find my way back home.

The first available flight to Juba was on 24 December and I jumped on it. The only other passenger on the flight looked at me, curious. “Why are you going to Juba? It’s not safe,” she asked, adding that she was taking the journey to salvage what was left of her business.

“That’s my home,” I told her. “If I don’t try save it, who will?”

I arrived in Juba just as people in other parts of the world were preparing to celebrate Christmas. Immediately I felt the difference. The once rowdy streets were eerily quiet, their silence only broken by the echoing sound of armored trucks patrolling the streets. Nothing felt familiar. Juba, once vibrant and vivacious, was a shell of itself.

“Where is everyone?” I wondered, looked at the abandoned streets.

It is impossible to know exactly what someone is going through, but important to try to understand and relate. Imagine if you were forced to abandon everything you knew, to go to a place you don’t know, for an uncertain time, in order to survive. Imagine if you were forced to do that now, with nothing but the clothes on your back, the food in your stomach and the money in your pocket, with no idea where your family is or how to reach them. Imagine your children lost, before their time, to something they don’t understand.

No parent should have to bury a child.

I reported for duty with Oxfam on Christmas day 2013. The office was a buzz of activity, everyone’s energy focused on helping as many people as possible. I joined the team and since then, have worked in Juba, Minkaman, Melut and Malakal, supporting those affected by the conflict.

I work in public health, but being a humanitarian requires of you so much more than your title. I meet children the same age as mine who should be in school, women like me with dreams and ambition, strong men that remind me of my brothers, and older people that carry with them the warmth of my parents, all weighed down by the burden of war. I work in public health but I am also a mother, a father, a psychiatrist, an activist, a comedian, a singer and most of all, a friend.

Cecilia, far right, with a team of public health promoters. Oxfam.

There are some moments when I cannot help but feel helpless. Women open up to me because as a woman, they know I will understand. They share the struggles they face feeding their families while wondering where their husbands are, if they are even alive. They tell me how scary it is to leave their children alone, to find water, food and firewood to sustain them for one more day. We talk about our lives before the war, a distant memory, and compare that time to the uncertainty we now face; threats of rape, abduction, harassment. The list is endless. I meet men who have lost everything, heavy with the weight of their frustration and loss, battling the voices in their heads pushing them to vengeance.

In these same moments, however, I am reminded time and time again that feeling helpless is not an option. For anyone. In recounting these hardships, I have seen women find strength and conviction to surmount them, individually or by joining forces to amplify their voices. I have seen men rise to the challenge of being both mother and father, and daring to hope for a time where their dreams are realised. I am inspired daily to raise my voice because I know that I am not speaking alone or for myself. I speak out because in the ways I cannot help, my voice can, and sometimes you have to be the loudest.

Cecilia using her voice to wand of the dangers of Cholera in Juba. Hakim/Oxfam.

I have worked in different locations in South Sudan, each unique in its own way; diverse people from different tribes and cultures, each affected deeply by the conflict. Because of the war, I have memories that I will never forget; images of death, destruction and despair play in my mind, sounds of violence, sorrow and loss, ring in my ears. That same same war has given me memories I hope never to lose; images of families re-uniting, communities rebuilding and bonds forming, sounds of laughter, passionate dialogue and songs of hope.

These memories keep me motivated and inspired to be better. It is in difficult times that we need to tell stories, to remember where we come from and remind ourselves where we want to be. We will not fight forever. We need to prepare ourselves for peace because that will require even more strength. A problem can seem like a mountain, impossible to move, until you realize that you can climb it.

Women outside an Oxfam food distribution point in Milkman, where Cecilia worked in 2014. Andrea Campeanu/Oxfam.

I was born in a country molded by war, but this does not have to be our future. That is why I am a humanitarian. To help people survive the hard times so that we can work together for the good ones.

Cecilia Kiden is a Public Health Team Leader at Oxfam in South Sudan. Her work and passion have taken her to many parts of South Sudan, where she goes above and beyond her post to support those affected by conflict.

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