Two Nations Caught in a Decade of Conflict: To Leave is to Return?


Two Nations Caught in a Decade of Conflict: To Leave is to Return?

As the saying goes, “it takes ten years to nurture a tree, but a hundred years to train a man”. For children and adolescents, the golden period for growth lasts only a decade or so. If this period is missed, many opportunities for discovery and development of potential may well be lost all along, leaving lifelong consequences. While ten years is perhaps too short for building a newly formed country, it is too long for destroying a nation with a rich history.

It has been ten years since South Sudan, located in East Africa, became a country, but today it is still in a state of chaos. On the other hand, the ancient nation of Syria, where two of the world’s oldest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, stand, has also become the battlefield of a decade-long civil war. Children in these two countries have been struggling to survive through conflict in the past ten years, with events that threaten their physical and psychosocial development and lives still occurring on a daily basis. As underlined by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in March this year, “Syria’s people have endured some of the greatest crimes the world has witnessed this century.” A recent UNICEF report shows that two-thirds of children in South Sudan are in desperate need of support, and that the country’s child mortality rate is the highest in the world, with one in every ten children not expected to reach their fifth birthday.

A Decade of Warfare: Syria

“The attacks were vicious ... When I lost my arm, I felt as if I were dead. Now, I carry bricks with my brother using one arm to help provide for my family.”
Fadi, 15
In March 2011, as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and led to the fall of various regimes, large-scale peaceful protests also began to take place in Syria. Sadly, it ended up in an armed conflict between the government and the opposing parties, which has now lasted over ten years. For the 4.8 million Syrian children born after the start of the war, this was how they spent their childhood: in displacement. It is estimated that, since the war began, nearly 6,000 children have been killed or maimed due to the conflict. Half of the Syria’s population fled their homes, with 6.2 million displaced inside the country, and another 5.6 million becoming refugees across neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. It hurts to know that, about 40% of the displaced population are children, and that the overall life expectancy of Syrian children who survive the conflict is reduced by 13 years.

The cost of 10 years of war in Syria

  • A cumulative loss of US$1.2 trillion
  • Over 2.4 million children are out of school
  • Nearly 6,000 children have been killed or maimed in the conflict
  • Over 4,000 children have been recruited and used by armed forces or groups

“Being uneducated scares me the most, as well as having an unknown future in an unknown destination.”
Lara, 17
Earlier this year, World Vision interviewed about 380 Syrian young people aged between 16 and 20 who are displaced across Northwest Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. We tried to find out more about their fears and dreams, and recorded the findings in our report - Too High a price to Pay: The Cost of Conflict for Syria's Children. Those who were interviewed have expressed their concerns about the day-to-day lives of their families and themselves, and that the conflict has brought them an unquantifiable loss of learning, safety and psychosocial well-being. Sadly, having grown up with war, they do not feel that they are equipped to contribute to the recovery of Syria, even if the war would end today. The 10-year mark of the war has also made them feel that it is impossible for them to achieve their dreams and support their communities.

Young people who are displaced internally in Northwest Syria told us that they wanted to return home in the next two years, but those who are in Jordan and Lebanon were much more reluctant, due to the lack of access to health and education. In fact, in 2019, a health facility was attacked in Syria every four days, and between 2014 and 2019, 614 health workers were killed or injured. Moreover, since 2014, the UN has documented over 700 attacks on education facilities in Syria. Over half of the young people displaced inside Syria reported that they were most afraid of violence in the community and armed clashes while attending school. More than 75 per cent of all children we spoke to were not currently attending school or any other educational institution. Lack of money was cited as the main cause of this by them, with insufficient funds even to cover transportation, pay for their uniforms or school fees. Close to 30 per cent of children had to drop out of school completely because of COVID-19, and close to 20 per cent had to start working.

“The unknown. Not knowing what will happen to you. Not knowing what will happen in two days, going back to Syria or leaving the camp. You don’t know.”
Amira, 19
When it comes to child protection, more than 70 per cent of the surveyed children confirmed having to flee due to spikes in violence and attacks. More than a quarter of the children and young people were displaced more than once. When dealing with difficulties and worries in life and learning, about 42 per cent of the children said they sought support from family members. However, this dropped sharply for adolescent girls. Only 29 per cent reported seeking family support about their worries. They looked for support from INGOs and NGOs and wanted more friendly spaces for women, girls and boys.

From this report, it is evident that this generation of Syrian children and adolescents have paid a huge and irretrievable price for this decade-long and ongoing civil war. No matter if they can go home, their best years of learning and healthy growth are already past them. “Children come to us on a daily basis in Syria, hungry, cold and deeply distressed by what they have witnessed and experienced,” says Johan Mooij, World Vision Syria's Response Director. “Boys and girls aged five or six can name every type of bomb by its sound, but sometimes can barely write their name having missed out on the chance of an education. We cannot let them remain trapped in this cycle of violence.”

A Decade of Warfare: South Sudan

Since its establishment in July 2011, South Sudan has been afflicted with conflict, natural disasters and hunger. The power struggle between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar led to a massive armed conflict in 2013. Though a peace agreement was signed in 2015, the conflict did not cease. The conflict, which lasted almost five years, claimed the lives of more than 50,000 and displaced millions from their homes. It was not until September 2018 that the different parties came together and signed another peace deal, which has not eased much of the tension, stalling the development of infrastructure and civil life. For their own safety, many South Sudanese have fled their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, not knowing when it will be safe enough to return.
A beam of hope finally appeared over the political stalemate in February last year. President Kiir agreed to return to a system of 10 states as it was prior to 2015, a gesture that convinced opposition leader Machar to return as Vice President. However, incessant violence, recurring floods, droughts and other extreme weather events caused by climate change, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have all further aggravated South Sudan’s economic and food crises, with over 5.8 million people experiencing food insecurity. As the dry season approaches, the situation is expected to further deteriorate and drive more people’s food insecurity classification from crisis to emergency.

South Sudan also has the world’s highest proportion of out-of-school children, with over 70 per cent of school-age children (about 2.8 million) not in school. It is also deeply concerning that school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have ended the education of an additional two million children. Risks that girls face, such as early marriage, early pregnancy and other forms of violence, are also on the rise since schools were closed.
While over 370,000 South Sudanese refugees have returned home since November 2017 as the result of the peace-making efforts, over 1.6 million people are still displaced inside South Sudan, while over 2.3 million live as refugees in neighbouring countries, including over 900,000 in Uganda, with food and clean water being two of the most urgent needs for them. Prior to the founding of South Sudan in 2011, World Vision has already been providing assistance for displaced families in the southern part of Sudan. Today, we are still actively helping affected South Sudanese children, women and communities inside South Sudan and Uganda through the following:

  • Food Assistance: Partner with World Food Programme to distribute food, cash/food voucher to the people in need
  • Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: Construct latrines and water supply system to improve the hygiene condition of affected people
  • Livelihoods: Provide seeds, agricultural tools, agricultural training and other vocational training to the affected refugees and host communities
  • Child Protection: Establish Child Friendly Spaces to provide a safe and play space for children

“Whether they return home or move to another country, I just want my children to grow up in a safe place.” This was the simple wish that a frowning Ahmad told us when we met him a few years ago in the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, where he had arrived with his family from Syria. After a decade of turmoil, there is nothing to make up for what the next generation of displaced Syrians and South Sudanese have lost, regardless of whether they can return home.

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