At 47 years of age, Cecilia Akon has seen the flow of life and death in her village south of Wau town, some 640 km northwest of the capital Juba in the restive Western Bahr el Ghazal State. But for her, like for so many others in South Sudan, 16 July 2017 is one day she will never forget.
Cecilia was working on her farm in Taban village, when fighting broke out and the distant sound of gunfire galvanized her into action.
“I didn’t know where I was running to, but I just wanted to flee so I would not be caught in a crossfire,” says Cecilia. “There was neither time to figure out what was going on nor the chance to think about where I was headed.”
It was not the first time she would confront danger head on and certainly not the last. She has had close encounters before, but on this day, something was different. The gunfire did not stop. With each passing minute, it seemed to draw closer.
She rushed home to fetch her four children who by now were in hiding. She found them safe but for how long? So they grabbed all they could and ran.
Violent clashes had erupted between pro-government forces and armed opposition groups in Wau town and its neighbouring villages. The result — hundreds were killed or injured and tens of thousands of people forced from their homes. Like Cecilia, many sought refuge in church compounds, where aid agencies provided free emergency assistance.
I met Cecilia and her children at the Roman Catholic Cathedral which she now calls home. They have sought spiritual sanctuary in these holy grounds before but now they come for shelter. The centre is bustling with people. It’s the largest in Wau and home to about 18,000 people. A year and half later since she left her home, Cecilia has not returned to her village.
Tears swell in her eyes as she recounts how she ended up here but are soon replaced with a smile when she explains how she was helped to meet her family’s daily needs.
Since July 2016, the World Food Programme (WFP) and its partners have distributed food and nutrition supplements to displaced people in need, made possible due to vital funding from donors like the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). WFP provides monthly rations of cereals, pulses, vegetable oil and salt. In addition, children under five years and pregnant and lactating women receive supplementary nutritious food to prevent malnutrition.
“My husband was killed in the conflict,” says Cecilia. “I hear armed men patrol the area and I don’t feel it’s safe to return.”
Single women often become victims of gender-based violence upon their return home.
“We are grateful to the support we have received from partners such as ECHO which has allowed us to provide vital support to those in desperate need,” said Adnan Khan, WFP Country Director in South Sudan. “Food insecurity has far-reaching consequences for the most vulnerable, particularly women and children.”
Growing humanitarian needs
Conflict in South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and driven 3.3 million people from their homes. While more than 1.4 million have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries in a desperate bid to reach safety, an estimated 1.9 million people remain displaced inside the country and are dependent on humanitarian assistance.
For Cecilia and some 200,000 others dotted across several protection centres in South Sudan, it is not clear when they will be able to return home but, for now, they are just happy to have food on their table and a place to call ‘home’.
“The camp is very crowded,” she says, “But at least I have food and I don’t hear gunfire here.”
Story by Getahun Amogne, additional reporting by Tomson Phiri.
Learn more about WFP’s work in South Sudan.