07/03/2014 10:40 GMT | Updated 07/05/2014 06:59 BST

South Sudan: Give Peace (and Children) a Chance!

In a group of 100 children, singing, playing and some crying, two girls stand out. Their names are Madiha, 9, and Lina, 4. It is not their unusual silence that catches my attention, but the way they frequently hug each other, often involuntarily...

Two groups and one-minded soldiers and rebels may start a war, but it is ordinary people, often children, who fight it.

In a group of 100 children, singing, playing and some crying, two girls stand out. Their names are Madiha, 9, and Lina, 4. It is not their unusual silence that catches my attention, but the way they frequently hug each other, often involuntarily.

Lina tightly grips her blue bunny rabbit, her eyes never leaving sight of it. Madiha hugs her tiny sister, keeping an eye on everyone and anything with a sense of alertness.

I meet Madiha and Lina at a 'child-friendly space', run by Plan International, in Awerial in the Lakes state of South Sudan. A 'child-friendly space' is a lifeline for children in disasters and for those displaced and separated from friends and family, relief often comes in the form of a white canvas tent and a friendly blue logo of a child and sun- as long as the tent follows minimum standards.

Yet, the more I peer through the viewfinder of my camera, the more difficult the expression of affection between these two tiny children is to ignore.

To me, their silence is their story.

A "attempted" 'coup d'état' in December, 2013, and an armed conflict in South Sudan have resulted in human suffering in catastrophic proportions. Media has reported "thousands of deaths". The UN estimates the violence has forced over 900,000 people from their homes, with some 190,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries. Thousands of children and women are trapped in the crossfire; displaced and separated from family and friends, victims are living an unending nightmare.

With fear in her eyes, Madiha recounts her tale. She saw armed men attacking everything, killing everyone in sight. Their hometown in Bor, Jonglei state, was fast turning into a flashpoint in the battle between government soldiers and armed rebels. The violence that started in mid December was spiralling out of control. While the media reported "thousands dead", a mass exodus was under way.

On 28 December, armed men seized Madiha's mum and dad. Later that day, they were shot dead at close range. The young girl witnessed it all.

Madiha's first instinct was to protect Lina. She grabbed Lina's hands - her only possession left in life - and ran. As they made their escape, this nine-year-old child was transformed into a mother and father to her four-year-old sister, leaving her childhood behind.

The sisters joined the wave of people heading to the River Nile - many of them wounded and bleeding from the violence and gun battle. The same night, Madiha and Lina managed to find a place in a boat ferrying conflict-affected people across the Nile. The pair landed in Awerial the next day, as Madiha recalls, "There were lot of people in the boat."

Since then, they have been seeking refuge in Awerial.

As I look around the child-friendly space, there are over a hundred children here who perhaps have a similar story - real moments when logic and reasoning are abandoned and the only instinct is survival.

New country, not so new problems

On 9 July, 2011, the world witnessed the birth of South Sudan, as over 99 percent of South Sudanese voted for independence in a historic referendum. The North-South civil war in Sudan killed more than 2.5 million people and displaced more than five million people. One country was the collective hope of all of its citizens. I was in South Sudan shortly after the referendum to support Plan's humanitarian work. I remember listening to a group of youngsters in a makeshift football ground in Juba, capital of the then 'new-born' country. Their optimism was infectious.

Fast forward to December, 2013, a political struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar became a full-blown crisis resulting in widespread violence, death and displacement. Today, it is having a catastrophic impact on this 'new born' nation.

Act now, save lives

In mid February, the UN elevated the crisis in South Sudan to a Level 3 emergency, the highest in the UN system, and on par with the situation in Syria. Despite a peace agreement signed in late January, clashes and insecurity continue to constrain the humanitarian response. Limited funding, lack of media attention and a looming food crisis make the situation a race against time for the 3.7 million people are in need of the life-sustaining support aid agencies provide.

Half of the affected people have not received any assistance until now. In addition to the need for food, water and shelter, children like Madiha and Lina need emotional care and support. If left unattended, it can leave lasting marks on the mind, which are often irreversible.

Money matters? Crisis cries for attention

Aid agencies and the UN desperately need resources to provide life-supporting services. Funding gaps are limiting the ability of organisations to respond to humanitarian needs and thus forcing them to make difficult decisions about how to use limited aid money.

The UN estimates that US $1.27 billion is required to meet immediate needs for a period of six months. So far, donors have committed just 21%. Relief efforts cost money, while relief settings demand treating victims with dignity and ensuring standards, such as the Sphere Humanitarian Standards.

Lack of media attention is one factor limiting fund mobilisation. Perhaps celebrities such as Hollywood star George Clooney, a 'friend' of South Sudan, may be able to provide a helping hand to push the plight of the people such as Madiha on to prime time news. In disasters, better media attention is key to mobilising resources.

Give peace (and education) a chance

Refugees and humanitarian crises are not new for South Sudan and children such as Madiha and Lina are the ones who suffer the most. After all, children below the age of 18 account for over 53% of the people in South Sudan, so their need for education, protection and psychosocial care, must be central to relief and recovery efforts.

Yet, peace is a pre-condition for any relief and development work and education is a driver for peace. So what should happen first: peace or education? Both must happen simultaneously. I ask Madiha and Lina what they want to be when they grow up. Madiha says a doctor - is it a sign life will continue? Lina wants to be a teacher - perhaps a reminder education is a catalyst for lasting peace.

In conflict zones, time travels in just one direction. It takes humankind back, where lives and landscapes are altered forever, but nothing can diminish the hopes of these two children.

*Names have been changed

To find out more about Plan International's response in South Sudan, visit