When you are as young as your country

Without crops or cattle, Nyahok’s family are reduced to eating what they refer to as ‘water food’ which is grains mixed with water and wild leaves collected from the surrounding forest

Nyahok was born in the winter of 2011, just after South Sudan gained independence. Aged 3, she and her family fled from their home when fighting hit their village. Now every day is a struggle to survive. Is that what life should be like for a 5-year-old?

Unity State where Nyahok lives was one of the states worst affected by the conflict that broke out in 2013. Her village of Mankien in northern Unity State was captured twice and everything was burned down, with many people killed and others forced to flee. Now, with a fragile peace in place, people are slowly returning and trying to rebuild, but much infrastructure is destroyed and livelihoods lost.

Nyahok outside her one-room home

The home that Nyahok stands in front of was only rebuilt last year after their house was burnt down in the conflict. She sleeps here with her mother and five siblings.

Nyahok inside her one-room home

Nyahok shares the compound where she lives with two other families (all relatives) who live in two separate houses. Each house consists of only one room so the families eat and sleep in the same place.

Nyahok’s aunts tell of the day they had to flee their home in 2014: “with the fighting we first lay down in the house and when the crossfire went down a bit we ran to the forest.”

The children were all crying - they also saw the bodies and the blood.

“We saw a lot of dead bodies; the government had to come and remove their bones.”

There was no food in the forest and no law so there was also fighting; whoever was powerful took control.

When asked about her time living under trees in the forest, Nyahok says:

I remember we went to the forest with my aunt; it wasn’t good there. Animals eat people there.

Nyahok outside the compound where her family lives

Nursery school in South Sudan can start as young as 3-4 years old – but Nyahok has never been to school. First because of the fighting, and now because they have no money for uniform, registration or books after all their crops were destroyed, cattle stolen and possessions lost.

“She doesn’t go to school because there was too much war,” says her aunt Nyakuoth.

If it was a normal situation, she would be in school today. With the war, everything is gone.

Nyahok filling a jerry can with water

Instead of going to school Nyahok has a number of chores, including fetching water for cooking and cleaning from a nearby water pump. Access to water in the village is a problem, with few water pumps that often run dry. Long queues are often found by the village’s water pumps, and when the pumps run dry it can often lead to arguments, with women fighting to collect water, that can quickly escalate.

Nyahok with a group of children

When the water pumps run dry, people often resort to collecting water from the river or shallow wells which are easily contaminated. Diarrhoea is one of the most common causes of illness, while typhoid is also prevalent.

Nyahok herself was recently sick (in March 2016) for two weeks and when her family took her to the nearby CARE-supported health centre she was diagnosed with malaria and anaemia and given treatment. Malaria is prevalent across the state and a main cause of illness among the population.

Nyahok eating with a spoon

Without any traditional toys to play with, children like Nyahok have to be creative in entertaining themselves. As she doesn’t go to school, she has a lot of spare time to fill. This metal wheel attached to a wire which she rolls around is her favourite thing to play with. All the toys she used to have were lost when they fled their home because of the fighting.

Nyahok playing at cooking

One of Nyahok’s favourite games is to play house, recreating the traditional cooking method of three hot stones. She mixes water and dirt – all that is left as she pretends to cook the family’s meal. This is one way young girls learn the duties of womanhood.

Nyahok eating a meal

After more than two years of fighting, one of the biggest challenges now facing South Sudan is lack of food, with one in three people not having enough to eat.

For Nyahok and her family this means that instead of eating three times a day, they now only eat once or twice a day depending on whether or not her mum can find food. Before the war her family had cattle which provided milk and they grew maize and other crops. When the war came their cattle and food supplies were taken and their crops were burnt.

Nyahok and her grandmother

Nyahok sits with her grandmother Nyariaka. Both her mum and dad spend their days out in search of money and food for the family or trying to replant and cultivate their crops that were destroyed by fighting.

When asked if the family will be celebrating the 5-year anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, they say:

We will remember it is Independence Day, but no one is happy. A celebration is when you have something, but we have nothing, so how and what can we celebrate?

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.