I met 12-year-old Blessing in Bidibidi. She had piercing eyes. She spoke with seriousness well beyond her years.
She told me she fled to northern Uganda and left most of her family members in South Sudan.
“As soon as we heard the gunshots, we just ran. That was how I ended up with my aunt. I do not know what happened to the rest of my nine siblings and my parents,” she said.
Those eyes then flickered and became misty.
She stopped talking and said, “I miss my parents. I miss my brothers and sisters. I even miss our goats and garden. I miss everything I left in my country.”
As a mother of three and a grandmother of one, I find Blessing’s situation deplorable. No emergency, natural or man-made, should tear a child apart from the home that is providing them the protection and love to grow up and pursue a dream.
An African proverb reminds us “it takes a village to raise a child”.
Where is that village now for Blessing?
Blessing now lives in Bidibidi, a sprawling refugee settlement in northern Uganda - an area that is now home to a million South Sudanese refugees.
From the peace and quiet of her own village in South Sudan, the conflict drove her to a foreign land. Her mind was obviously reeling from the abrupt change. Her eyes said it all.
She told me that during her escape from the country she saw countless dead bodies on the road and a lot of blood. She hardly ate and most of the meagre food came from what was shared by other people running with them.
“We just kept walking. We hardly stopped to rest. We wanted to reach Uganda as fast as we can,” she added.
I know what it’s like
When I was Blessing’s age, I was in a similar state. Conflict in the Philippines took its toll on my family too.
Growing up in Mindanao, I got used to packing at night and leaving our small village to run away from war. My mother would rouse us from sleep and we would stay at relatives’ houses for weeks.
We would worry about my father who remained behind and protected our property from thieves. He also volunteered along with other men in my village to do night watch. I remember wondering, what if something happens to my father? Where will we go?
Many times I have asked myself why we need to run. Why us? I was both scared and very angry.
This series of events in my life brought so much anguish as I grew up. I tried and failed to understand why people fought at my expense in a war I knew nothing about. It took me decades, until I worked in World Vision’s Peace Building Program in Mindanao, to grasp what the conflict was about.
But I still cannot comprehend why people won’t sit down and talk instead of fight.
Worried about the children of South Sudan
In many ways, my experience was much easier than what Blessing and other children escaping South Sudan’s conflict are experiencing.
Still, I can understand what is on Blessing’s mind. I know the unasked questions in every South Sudanese child’s mind after they’ve been on the run. Why them? After living in abject poverty, was their pain is not enough? Why do they have to run away from their own village to find peace?
When I look at my one-year-old grandchild Madison, so innocent and fragile, I dare not imagine what her life would be like if she was born in a place brewing in conflict. Whatever privilege she has is no different from what other children should have. The future is for all of them - no one is more special than anybody else. Life should be fair for every child.
As I journeyed at work focused on humanitarian emergencies, I saw with my very own eyes that every con-flict is an emergency for millions of children. These man-made emergencies are putting the very future of this planet at risk. I have been there and survived.
Unanswered pleas for peace
What will happen to Blessing and the millions like her whose world were torn apart right before their very eyes?
How will the world’s future be with millions of children going through this unwarranted and underserved pain?
If we feel the urgency of what is happening with the earth’s climate and resources, what about the children being slowly but surely stripped away from their normal lives by violence and suffering?
Where will that lead the world?
Blessing concluded with an appeal, “There are no gunshots here in Uganda but it is far different from my life in South Sudan. I hope peace will come and we can go home soon.”
It’s a very simple wish.
What a shame the world cannot fulfil this wish for Blessing.
She did not even ask for anything material - all she needs is peace.
About the author: Cecil Laguardia was the Communication Manager for the Uganda's West Nile Refugee Response. She has previously worked in emergencies in Iraq, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines.