ADJUMANI DISTRICT, UGANDA —
South Sudan's three-year-plus conflict has taken a heavy toll on children. An orphanage in Kajokeji in the former Central Equatoria State was forced to relocate recently to Uganda because of rampant insecurity. The orphanage manager said fleeing the town amid fighting between the South Sudan Army and forces loyal to rebel leader Riek Machar was a nightmare.
Mama Susan Tabia founded the Amazing Grace Children's Home in the early 1990s at a camp in northern Uganda, for refugees from what was then called Southern Sudan. The orphanage hosts more than 200 children.
Tabia started by adopting a child who had been abandoned in the bush near the Olijji refugee settlement camp in Adjumani. Within 10 days, people had left more than a dozen children at her doorstep, including babies.
She said the orphanage was already home to more than 100 children in 2005 after the signing of the peace agreement that ended Sudan's 21 years of civil war.
Tabia left the children in Uganda and moved to Kajokeji, where she established a bigger facility and operated until the conflict escalated in Kajokeji earlier this year.
Tabia said she was forced to abandon the orphanage in Kajokeji because soldiers with the armed opposition and the South Sudan Army were terrorizing residents. In one village, she said, government soldiers were shooting people and setting buildings afire, "so this act frightened everybody."
Tabia said criminal behavior among rogue elements of the warring parties also terrified Kajokeji residents, and many fled to Uganda. She said she evacuated more than 180 orphans amid heavy fighting.
"Most of our people, they crossed to Uganda [on foot], but it was not possible for us because children are small," she said. "Then we had a lorry, but the lorry kept breaking down. And then carrying the small children from there up to Adjumani by road was not easy, because we had small babies."
Eventually, Tabia and her staff decided that all children older than 12 should walk, while arrangements were made to hire vehicles from Uganda to transport the smaller children. She said it took the staff six days to get all the children safely across the border to Uganda.
The management of the orphanage settled the younger children on a piece of land just outside Adjumani town. The older children, who were separated upon their arrival in Uganda, were sent off to a refugee camp in Morobi in Moyo District.
Tabia said she worries about those children. "Since we came, no children have been registered because of lack of school fees; we don't have money for their schooling," she said, and most of those in Morobi have no shelter and have been sleeping under trees.
Having lost everything in Kajokeji, Tabia and her team of volunteers try, amid all the challenges, to help the children adjust to their new environment.
Jansuk Alex, a nurse at the orphanage, said it's a miracle none of children died on the way to Uganda, considering the harsh conditions they faced along the journey.
Alex said his top concern was figuring out how to minimize diseases among the children. He admitted malaria continued to pose a serious health threat to the orphans. Another issue, he said, is intestinal worms.
The orphanage relies almost entirely on donations from church organizations, particularly from the United States. But American donations have been intermittent in recent months.
Wudu Mogga, who manages the orphanage, said he would like to construct new facilities for the children.
"There is no support that comes to the children frequently, you know. You may get some support; sometimes you find that there is not any other support," said Mogga.
Morris Taban, 21, who was dropped off at the orphanage as a boy following his mother's death, praised the volunteers for the care he received at the facility.
"This place, it is really good and it's really making children also to be hardworking," he said. "I didn't expect that I would grow up to this moment."
Like others at the orphanage, Catherine Juan, 16, does not attend school, but she still hopes she will be able to achieve her dream.
"I want to become a nurse, because I like treating people who are sick," she said.
The Amazing Grace Children's Home was founded on Christian teachings and values, and Tabia said this was crucial in molding the character of the children.
"Most of the children are well-behaved. The first children that we started with, they have finished from university," she said. Four of the girls who have finished their university education are now married and have children, she said.
Tabia added that she would continue to try to build a new, larger home for the orphans who were forced to become refugees at such a young age.