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"I do not want to be a soldier, I want to be a doctor." A story from South Sudan

Posted by Grace Cahill Humanitarian Press Officer

9th Jul 2014

Fierce fighting in South Sudan has forced more than a million people from their homes. On the anniversary of the country's independence three years ago, Grace Cahill shares the story of one family displaced to a UN camp in Juba.

Kulang was days old when South Sudan became the world's newest country three years ago. For Kulang's parents, Elizabeth and Gatluack Choul, an independent South Sudan offered hope and prosperity for their baby boy. But three years on that dream lies shattered. The family live trapped in a camp while fighting continues to rage on across their homeland.

The family's life is now confined to a camp for displaced people in a UN compound. Up high on the southern side of South Sudan's capital, the camp is a couple of miles wide across rocky, dusty, ground and is guarded by armed UN peacekeeping troops. The 18,000 people living there together have to deal with with temperatures into the high thirties and frequent downpours of rain mean there is little relief.

The fortunes of the nation have turned quickly. South Sudan is now a nation in a deadly race against famine.

Three years ago Africa's longest running civil war had reached a conclusion, after decades of brutal fighting and bloodletting, peace had come. But then cracks started to appear within the ruling political party resulting in full-blown fallout between the president and his former deputy. By mid December last year, the argument quickly had escalated into violence which settled largely upon ethnic lines, tens of thousands of people have now been killed.

The events of the last seven months are in stark contrast to the family's experience of independence, marked this week. The country, and Kulang's parents, celebrated for weeks on end.

"Celebrations began from the referendum, then when it [independence] came, everyone was so excited. We were very happy because of that event. I remember me and my husband were very happy", said Kulang's mother Elizabeth.

They were living in the northern state of Unity at the time of independence and later moved 320 miles south to the capital with baby Kulang so Gatluack could find more work as a labourer in the construction industry. The couple left their other four children behind with relatives in their home state.

Having fled their Juba home Elizabeth, Gatluack and Kulang are living in a tarpaulin shelter, a small space with only enough room for one bed. Elizabeth cooks the family's meals outside on a miniature stove, using charcoal given to her by Oxfam and food by the World Food Programme. The family can never afford to supplement their rations with meat, usually just having plain starchy meals made using a grain called sorghum, which can give Kulang stomach problems.

"Nothing can take me back home, unless peace comes"

While his mother cooks and cleans, Kulang will scamper about joining older children in football games nearby and his father helps other families rebuild their shelters. There is a sense of calm in the camp now but the violence that erupted in the city in December last year is a scratch under the surface.

"We had a narrow escape," Elizabeth says "We were running and someone was chasing us shooting, bullets caught the fence as we entered the [UN] compound. It's hard to talk about now, I didn't think anyone was alive."

The family did not manage to take any belongings with them, only the clothes they were wearing at the time of the attack. They have since been given some small items, like a plastic table, by friends but say they need bedding and Kulang runs about in a pair of trousers with holes in.

The family will not return home for fear of being targeted because of their ethnicity.

"I went home once, armed men were in the house, they threatened me to sit down, tried to interrogate me. They said if you want to be alive, don't come back here," says Elizabeth.

"I'm frustrated I cannot go home where there's proper peace, without it I cannot go home. Home is just a structure now, it's looted and there are other people there. Nothing can take me back home, unless peace comes."

Kulang's parents wanted something different for their son.

"I was thinking Kulang would lead a better life when he was born in independence, I thought he would have better chances," says his father Gatluack. Kulang is bright and self-confident, known in the camp for bossing adults about and instructing them to play with him, especially his favourite game football.

The challenges for family life are clear.

"Being a father is always about being able to provide for your son, sending him to school or a good hospital if he needs it. But how can you say you're a father when you're just sitting here? I am just ashamed of being a father here."

"The most important thing for my Kulang will be if South Sudan can go back to normal, for Kulang to go to school and be educated. That was my hope for Kulang. Without it he will be in danger," says Gatluack.

The conflict, which is now in its seventh month, has caused more than 400,000 people to flee into neighbouring countries, as well as the 1.1 million people like Kulang who have sought shelter within the country. The land so recently celebrated as providing the South Sudanese with their freedom is no longer safe.

"It would be better if we didn't have to leave to be refugees. The world needs to support people in their lives so South Sudan can be developed and there can be peace in this world," Gatluack says when asked what he would say to people beyond South Sudan.

South Sudan will require substantial humanitarian and political support from the international community beyond its third birthday and likely well into its teens. At present the UN appeal for aid to South Sudan is less than half funded and the risk of famine could mean the disaster spirals out of control.

But while Kulang's future may be uncertain, he is sure of his own plans. "I do not want to be a soldier," he says "I want to be a doctor."

Names in this blog post have been changed to protect the participants.

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Header image
: Three year old Kulang Choul stands at the entrance of his family's rough tarpaulin shelter in Juba, South Sudan.  The same age as his nation, he is living in a camp in the city, kept alive by Oxfam and other aid agencies.  Kulang's parents say this life is not what they had hoped for when they celebrated independence just three years ago. Image Credit: Andreea Campeanu

Blog post written by Grace Cahill

Humanitarian Press Officer

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