NYAL, South Sudan—Whether it comes up in conversation or not, Gabriel Mawiyai will be glad to inform you why you have a headache (the blood vessels in your brain are swelling). If he sees a friend smoking, he’ll volunteer what’s happening to his lungs (they’re losing the ability to expand). He reads the back of the aspirin bottle before taking a pill and comments on blood coagulation. He loves this stuff.
This is a 26-year-old who beat the odds: He made it through secondary school. As separatists fought a war of independence against the government of Sudan, Gabriel’s uncle helped him move to Kenya in 2001 so he could continue his studies. When violence broke out there during the 2007 election, he shifted to Uganda. Despite these disruptions to his classwork, there were “very few times someone beat me [on a test],” he says, grinning at the memory. He’s confident in his smarts.
After more than 20 years of fighting, South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011, and Gabriel was able to return home. He wanted to be a doctor. When he was 14, he had seen a woman die of postpartum hemorrhage, the kind of avoidable death that almost never happens in places with adequate medical care. “I was annoyed. People were saying she died because the doctors were not skilled,” he says. After that, Gabriel started reading any science or physics book he could get his hands on. “People who were doing many great things in science, I was following them.”
Gabriel enrolled in medical school at Maridi National Health Training Institute. In four semesters, only once was he bested for first in class. He can manage postpartum hemorrhage now. But when he went to Juba, the capital, for the winter holidays, war broke out again. School closed. It almost didn’t matter: Gabriel needed to work to support his family, whose livelihood was disrupted by the violence.
As it was for Gabriel, children’s education has been interrupted across South Sudan, forced to take a backseat to pressing concerns such as security, public health, and sanitation.
Half the children in South Sudan are not in school, the highest percentage in the world. Two million kids are out of class, and at least 800 schools have been destroyed since the start of the current civil war. Seventy percent of schools have closed in the states where most of the fighting has taken place. Those who have remained sit hungry and distracted in overcrowded classrooms without the most basic supplies, such as chairs or chalk.
“The reality is that the education system is in shambles,” explains Jok Madut Jok, the cofounder of the SUDD Institute, an independent policy research organization in Juba. Until a stable peace allows for civil society and NGOs to address immediate concerns, education will not be given priority in South Sudan, Jok says.
Disrupted studies do more than render younger generations unprepared to enter the workforce. Without school South Sudanese children are missing opportunities to gain socialization skills. They’re missing the structure and routine that provides developing minds with a feeling of security. These are things every child needs but they are especially important for those who have experienced trauma.
Crucially, South Sudan has a long and troubling history with child soldiers, and without school, kids are more vulnerable to recruitment. “Children need to have something to lose, if they are deciding [whether] to go to war,” says Jok.
Southern Sudan always had a tense relationship with Khartoum, the seat of the government of Sudan. British colonialists drew Sudan’s borders with little regard for regional differences of religion or history. In 1983, the tribes of the south united and went to war with the government in the north. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army demanded greater representation and investment from the government, which was keeping most of the proceeds of oil drilling in the south. A cease-fire was declared in 2005, and after an oil-sharing agreement was reached and a referendum on secession was held, in 2011 South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation. Salva Kiir, of the Dinka people, is its first president.
After less than three years, fighting began again. What started as a skirmish between Dinka and Nuer soldiers of the presidential guard in army barracks in the capital spiraled into a whirlwind of targeted killings of the Nuer people by the Dinka. The bloodshed quickly spread across the country.
Today, South Sudan is devastated. More than 2 million people have been displaced. The once-promising city of Malakal, in Upper Nile state, has changed hands between the government and the opposition more than 10 times, and is in ruins. Hunger and health problems are rife both inside and outside the U.N. Protection of Civilians camps: Every two minutes another child becomes severely malnourished. With few medical centers and poor sanitation, people are vulnerable to disease—making trained professionals like Gabriel all the more valuable.
The Malakal camp became so crowded that by last autumn, 7,000 displaced persons spilled out of the camp and into the area the U.N. peacekeeping force, UNMISS, occupies. UNMISS evicted them without warning in December, destroying their homes and moving them to another part of the camp. In the area where they were moved, a school was under construction. It managed to open in February but was closed after less than three weeks because of renewed fighting.
If you want to stop all this war, this fighting, people need to go to school to put their views together to try to build the country.
Paulin Nkwosseu, UNICEF
Wau Shilluk is across the crisp waters of the Nile from Malakal. The local Shilluk battalion had been fighting on the side of the government army but switched to support the opposition in April 2015. As fighting raged, no aid agencies could get into the area for six months. There was no food. The four schools shuttered. A commander of the soldiers who led the change in allegiance was documented by Human Rights Watch to have facilitated a massive recruitment of child soldiers in early 2015. Finally, in late September, with Wau Shilluk firmly under opposition control, humanitarian agencies started to trickle back in. One school reopened. (The help may not stay for long: A Feb. 18 shooting in the Malakal PoC camp has raised tensions, and the organizations are on edge and ready to evacuate once again.)
“There is nothing in the classroom,” says Ngor Ayol, an English teacher at the single school that remains. School days have been halved to accommodate all the children; the younger students attend in the morning, the older ones in the afternoon. Even so, classes are still overflowing and noisy.
In Wau Shilluk and elsewhere, many children stop going to school when their parents are killed or when, like Gabriel, their desperate families need them to help put food on the table. More than 50 percent of boys interviewed in a World Vision report from Malakal PoC work outside the home (the report didn’t provide a figure for girls). Common jobs include breaking rocks to make gravel for roads, scrap collection, cattle herding, and service gigs like washing cars or pushing delivery carts. Once they start making money, it’s hard for them or their families to remember why school is important. Postponing education, Jok says, defers children’s readiness to enter the workforce, pushing back not only their progress but that of South Sudan.
UNICEF estimates that between 15,000 and 16,000 children have joined armies or associated militias on either side of the fight. Some were forcefully recruited. Others enlisted out of necessity. “If their parents are killed, how can they go to school?” asks Michael, an English teacher in Wau Shiluk. Boys under 15 will follow the army, working as porters carrying supplies and cooking and cleaning in return for food and protection. Older ones fight. Girls are also used as cooks and water porters. They are also often taken as wives or sex slaves. A report from Human Rights Watch says that thousands of children remain at risk of recruitment. Poor conditions in PoC camps have led many to join up.
“Children should love each other,” says Nyimach, a 12-year-old girl in the POC camp in Malakal. [Parental permission to publish the full names of minors in this story could not be obtained—Ed.] But Michael says that in June, air strikes in Lelo angered the boys and many joined the army. He chastises his students when they show him the tanks and guns they have made from mud. “They see everything,” he says angrily. “They still have the army in their mind.”
Pressing two fingers against his eyebrows, 14-year-old Lieb struggles to hold back tears. His face, which a moment ago had the veneer of the smooth soccer player he is, collapsed completely at the mention of his father, who was killed at the beginning of the war. His elder siblings—two brothers and a sister—planned to go to university, but now they are unable to leave the camp in Malakal. They all stay with their mother. Only Lieb is in school. If nothing else, it might give him a few hours a day of reprieve from his grief. “School is a protective environment,” says Paulin Nkwosseu, the chief of the Malakal Field Office for UNICEF.
Jok says that children in school would feel more allegiance to the state than to a tribe. In a country with a history of divisions, school is a place where children might have a chance to mingle with others from different clans and share differing perspectives. They will “think about themselves as South Sudanese, not Dinka or Nuer,” he says. When he was in high school, in the late 1980s, he was with people from 15 other tribes.
Without opportunities like that, the fractures and misunderstandings will only deepen. “If you want to stop all this war, this fighting, people need to go to school to put their views together to try to build the country,” says Nkwosseu.
Gabriel started as a nurse with a major international NGO in the maternity ward. He liked it: “I was the first man [there] to see children being born.” But he yearns to return to school, to become a doctor and to complete the dream he’s been chasing for more than 10 years. Today he’s working as a protection officer with another organization in Nyal, where he lives in southern Unity state. Last spring, more than 50,000 people fled to the opposition-held territory, canoeing through swamps or walking for days after fighting forced them from their homes. Analysts and organizations including Human Rights Watch have accused the government of leading this scorched earth campaign against its own citizens. By February in Nyal, the population was desperate. They had been waiting for weeks to register for food aid. In the meantime, they were living off tree sap and palm fronds. No one was in school.
Gabriel supports about 25 extended family members on his salary of about $800 a month. In the meantime, he refuses to drink alcohol or smoke shisha, flavored tobacco, with his friends. He doesn’t want to be distracted. He believes his nation needs support, and he wants to help. “You see what our country looks like,” he says, gesturing to the withered people and dry, desolate earth that makes up Nyal.
He’s lucky, compared with the vast majority in South Sudan, but it’s not what he’d been working toward for all those years. He’s not being challenged. He wants more. “My brain is not supposed to be in this situation,” he says.