When fighting broke out in Nyaturo Diew's hometown almost two years ago in South Sudan her elementary school was destroyed. The violence in Bentiu forced the 11-year-old, who would like to work in a hospital someday, out of classes for a year. Fighting in the town also disrupted 12-year-old Tabitha Nyapuop's education, forcing her out of school for nearly two years. Nyapuop now says she wants to get the education her mother never had, and she hopes to eventually teach a new generation of children in the world's youngest nation.
Diew and Nyapuop are two of around 1.8 million school age children who have been kept out of school in the East African country — which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 — due to conflict that has gripped South Sudan since 2013, when fighting broke out between the government and rebel forces in Juba.
Fresh fighting was seen this week when clashes erupted at an internal displacement camp in the city of Malakal, killing at least 18 people and causing up to 26,000 people — more than half the camp's population — to flee. In total, the conflict has left more than 50,000 people dead over the last three years, nearly 2 million displaced, and 50 percent of children out of school — a higher proportion than in any other country in the world.
"I want my home to return to the way it was before, when people used to go to school and when there was peace," Diew said earlier this month, according to testimonies gathered by the United Nations children's agency UNICEF.
The girls are now attending school as part of a joint UN and South Sudan government initiative in Bentiu that has seen new elementary schools open throughout the country since the start of 2015. Children in South Sudan have been out of school, in some cases, for more than three years. For thousands of younger children, the conflict has prevented them from even starting school in the first place.
"A child not in school is a child robbed of her rights and her future," said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's Representative in South Sudan. "Societies will not function if we fail to educate our children."
Around 360,000 children are now in school as a result of the program, with the aim to add another 500,000 this year, if UNICEF can raise the $75 million required.
Meanwhile the continued violence is contributing to an environment where more than a hundred schools were destroyed, closed, or occupied in 2015 alone. Since the beginning of the year, tens of thousands of people have already fled their homes or displacement sites due to fighting and hunger in the country, which consistently appears among the lowest ranked nations on human development indexes.
Conflict is keeping an estimated 20 million children around the world out of school, but because education is not seen as a core intervention tool in emergency response, programs addressing this situation in war-torn countries like South Sudan are typically underfunded. The lack of access to education is just one example of how life for the people of South Sudan has stalled since the fighting began. From losing loved ones to being forced into displacement camps indefinitely, families' lives have been put on hold.
"The entire population is stuck in limbo, but in the meantime children are growing up and missing out on fundamental education during their most formative years," said Juliette Delay, global communications officer for International Rescue Committee, during an interview with VICE News last month.
This week's fighting at a UN-managed displacement camp in Malakal was the latest incident showing the lack of security experienced by South Sudan's population, even those living in the so-called "protection of civilian" (PoC) sites run by the UN.
Clashes reportedly broke out on Wednesday between youths from the Dinka and Shilluk ethnic groups. The fighting lasted three hours and the UN said peacekeepers dispersed the crowd with tear gas. International medical charity Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, reported two of its staff members were among the 18 people killed, while their medical facility at the PoC site treated dozens of wounded people. Hundreds sought shelter in the building during the fighting. The national army entered the site the following day.
"This attack on civilians is outrageous and we demand that armed groups stop these actions", Marcus Bachmann, coordinator of MSF projects in South Sudan, said in a statement on Friday. "People came to the PoC looking for protection and this should be a sanctuary respected by all parties."
Around 48,000 people were living in the Malakal PoC before last week's clashes, while a total of 200,000 people live in similar sites around the country. Hundreds of thousand more are displaced and living in more informal conditions.
Condemning the Malakal attack, the UN Security Council said the attack could constitute war crimes and urged the government to promptly investigate the attack, to ensure justice and hold those responsible for the attack accountable.
According to Ryan D'Souza, an Advocacy Officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the latest violence is another example of the UN's inability to adequately protect civilians, including from abuses perpetrated by their own government. D'Souza stressed the importance of both keeping people safe and seeking proper accountability in order to end South Sudan's rampant impunity.
"People can't comprehend the horrendous situation," D'Souza said, adding that the humanitarian needs in South Sudan are unprecedented.
"The least they should be doing is protecting those inside the camps," he added, referring to the UN peacekeepers. "These people come to the bases because they think it's the only way they could be afforded protection."
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