By Wossen Mulatu
GAMBELLA, Ethiopia, 25 May 2016 – When the attack on the village came, 25-year-old Nyatayin Both held tightly to two of her children, but the raiders still managed to kidnap the two others amidst the panic and commotion.
“I wish I’d had four hands to hold them and save all of my four children,” she recalled, describing the horrific day in mid-April in Ethiopia’s Gambella region when she lost her 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.
In a raid of unprecedented scale, some 200 people were killed and 146 children were taken by raiders from neighboring South Sudan, widely described as Murle tribesmen. The Ethiopian military and the local Gambella Government have been negotiating for their slow release ever since.
For Nyatayin, it meant a miracle to see the return of her 9-year-old daughter Nyamuoch.
“At first it was just rumors that some of the children had returned, but later we were told by local officials to come and identify our children,” she said. “I was hoping to see mine, when I spotted my daughter among the many children standing in a circle, I was thrilled and praised the Lord and thanked the government for taking action.”
It was a joy tempered by the fact that her other son was still out there and of course the death of so many relatives that day, including her husband. So far 91 children have been recovered.
UNICEF is working closely with the Government of Ethiopia and partners on a response plan which includes reintegration, psychological support, basic health care and nutrition services as well as providing tents and clothing for each child.
Currently, the children are being cared for at a two-storey guest house of the Gambella Regional Government, where Sarah Nyauony Deng is supervising their care.
“When they arrive here, most of them were so silent and isolated themselves, but after some time, they start to socialize with others, play together and become cheerful,” she said. “Most of them also have injuries on their legs from the long walks.”
Flashbacks from the forest
Nyamuoch recalls that terrible day she was taken from her village that began at dawn with the sound of shots.
“I was still asleep and suddenly I heard gunfire and ran out of the house. I was filled with fear and anxiety,” she said. “I started running along with many other children and adults but they caught most of us and took us to a forest. Where I was, most of the abducted children were strangers except a boy I recognized from my village.”
Nyamuoch said they were constantly talking to them but none of the children understood a word. “I think they were trying to teach us their language,” she said. “I am so happy to be back to my family. My mother and I cried for a long time with happiness and now she is with me again, I am not scared anymore.”
Working with the president’s office and the Bureau of Women and Children Affairs, UNICEF has drawn upon a detailed action plan for child protection, including identification, documentation, psycho-social first aid and family assessments to facilitate appropriate rehabilitation services during reunification of the children.
“Currently, we are doing a needs assessment to mobilize resources for the abducted children and their families. Some of the children have lost one or both parents, some their cattle and some their huts as it was burned by the Murle,” said Ocher Ocher Obang of the Bureau of Women and Children’s Affairs in Gambella.
In addition, many in the affected communities are afraid to return to their remote villages for fear of renewed attacks by the Murle.
With the return of the rains, the displaced families need land to till, shelter to live in, as well as additional clothing and health care.
As the Ethiopian and South Sudanese governments strengthen their efforts to recover the remaining abducted children, UNICEF calls for the children’s swift and unconditional return to their families.
“I thought they would lock us in the forest forever,” said Nyamuoch. “When I grow up, I only want to do good things for humanity by becoming a teacher or a doctor – I will never forget this incident.”