I had not imagined when I joined UNICEF as a child protection officer that burying the bodies of children would be something I would do. Sadly, in Malakal last week, I did help to bury the dead after devastating violence shook the town, penetrating even into the compound where civilians had taken shelter.
I had arrived from the capital, Juba, on Friday, February 14, sharing the sense of optimism among UNICEF and other humanitarian workers about what we could achieve for the displaced children and families sheltering in the compound and nearby sites. My mission was to help identify unaccompanied children so we could help to trace their families and arrange foster care. We were also preparing to create Child-Friendly Spaces for children to feel safe and play. We were feeling positive and we had a plan. That was Monday. By Tuesday, everything had changed.
Shortly after I awoke in my tent, the morning quiet was shattered by gunfire. The rumors that had been circulating for days of an opposition attack on Government forces in Malakal turned out to be true. We ran to the bunker in search of safety from stray bullets, but it was quickly filling with families. So we huddled outside and hoped for the best. The gunfire was intense and seemed to last for hours — if there was shelling nearby, we thought we would probably be killed. Fighting soon broke out between displaced men from different ethnic groups, some using cement blocks and metal rods as weapons. By nightfall, there was still no safe place. Our tents afforded no protection against shells or bullets. We got what sleep we could and on Wednesday morning, awoke to renewed gunfire outside.