'We ran without stopping the whole time. If you stopped, you died. But after running so long your heart is pounding and your legs are lead. Then we had to cross a river. If you couldn't swim, you drowned. Now we are here and look at us. We have nothing. Can you imagine?"
Simon, a young South Sudanese boy, recently shared his story of escape from ethnic violence that broke out five months ago. Since December 15, 500,000 children have been forced from their homes. Like Simon, many of them have taken refuge in camps that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has set up.
Experts say both South Sudan military and rebel soldiers have slain civilians and committed atrocities. They estimate 9,000 Sudanese children have been recruited to become child soldiers. Also, sexual violence against women has surged. Radio broadcasts were used to incite men to rape young girls at gunpoint. In another episode in Bor, armed rebels broke into an Episcopal (Anglican) church, raped and then killed five women pastors who had taken refuge inside the sanctuary.
In total, 10,000 people have died violently since the conflict began. About 1.2 million people have been displaced from their homes. The conflict began as a high-level political dispute, but quickly escalated into a power struggle between Dinka and Nuer, the nation's two largest ethnic groups. They have a history of conflict over grazing land and water rights.
About 10 days ago, South Sudan President Salva Kiir (Dinka) and political rival Riek Machar (Nuer and former vice president) signed a peace agreement as Prebyterian, Anglican, and Roman Catholic leaders looked on. Violence has declined since the ceasefire took effect. But deadly fighting persists in oil-producing areas.
South Sudan's problems, however, are far from over. Relief experts said famine and disease pose great risk. The rainy season has begun, making delivery of food more difficult in this France-sized nation with few paved roads. Families in some cases have survived by eating leaves. Malnourished children will die of starvation before the end of the year unless relief aid arrives now. Health officials say nine people have died from cholera so far in May.
"We are now in a race against time to prevent the deaths of 50,000 children under the age of five who are already suffering high levels of malnutrition," said Perry Mansfield, South Sudan National Director, World Vision.
"The numbers of very hungry is staggering. Almost 5 million people are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. People have fled their homes and so cannot plant their crops. Almost a quarter of a million children will be severely malnourished by the end of the year. But the costs of air dropping and flying in food is more expensive than trucking it in, but delivery options and time are running out."
This week, Mansfield is joining global relief experts in Oslo, Norway, to focus on raising in total about $1.8 billion to meet the relief needs. So far, 41 donor nations have pledged $600 million. The U.S. has pledged $300 million. Spurred on by American evangelicals, the U.S. government has been a staunch supporter of South Sudan and its quest to secure independence from the Muslim-majority Republic of Sudan. The Bush administration backed the referendum election that resulted in independence in 2011.
The Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan is one of the largest Christian groups in South Sudan. It is providing relief at the grassroots to more than 70,000 South Sudanese. In addition, Episcopal Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak traveled to Ethiopia as President Kiir and Machar negotiated a peace agreement.