The world's youngest country and its children are in the grip of a bloody civil war. Almost 900,000 South Sudanese refugees have fled to Uganda since December 2013; a country with some of the most progressive refugee policies in the world.
Uganda has committed to keeping its borders open, providing land grants to refugee families, allowing individuals the right to work and establish businesses, and access public services such as health care and education. However, they only have 15-16 per cent of the funds needed to respond to this crisis. As a consequence, food rations have been cut and children are increasingly vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
Bidibidi in the country’s north is now home to the world’s largest refugee settlement. Sixty-eight per cent of its population are children; many of them are scared and completely alone. All of them have witnessed or experienced extraordinary violence.
Apartial, an online community of artists, partnered with World Vision to help children in the camp tell their stories through the reproduction of works by internationally renowned contemporary artists such as Maser, Herakut, JR, Seth, Candy Chang and Sandra Chevrier.
Aesthetically, the project also brought colour and hope to a place that lacks both.
"There are a lot of bright colours, it is showing us how bright our futures can be" -Margaret, 16
16-year-old Lina produced a self-portrait in the style of Canadian artist Sandra Chevrier’s ‘Fragile Heroes’.
As the violence in South Sudan’s capital Juba began to escalate, Lina and her father decided to flee to Uganda. The following morning, she woke and began to pack a bag. Thinking her father had slept-in, Lina went to check on him. She found his bedroom ransacked and his body hanging from the rafters.
“I don’t know, what, who killed him. My idea was that it was thief because everything inside was busted. And then I decided to run. I didn’t even put my sandals on.”
A neighbor helped Lina onto a bus heading for Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda. She has lived there alone since August.
“The life is too difficult. Because I am the only person. If it could be two I could endure, but I am alone. I want to study but when I think of the past it confuses me.”
Lina was immediately drawn to Sandra Chevrier’s work and used the same technique to create a self-portrait.
To begin with, a close-up photograph was taken of Lina’s face and projected onto a wall where an outline was drawn. She then worked under the guidance of Apartial to paint female superheroes over the top.
Lina dreams of being reunited with her only living relative – her brother Judith who now lives somewhere in the United States.
“He was very clever in school. He got a scholarship in Kampala. He was passing well so an American woman sponsored him. I lost his phone number and email address when I was coming.”
Twelve-year-old John is determined to become his country’s president one day. He reproduced a painting of a boy seemingly looking toward a brighter future by French street artist Seth.
There are children that are wise beyond their years… and then there’s John. He smiles only when experiencing genuine joy or finds something truly funny. Only speaks when he has something meaningful to say.
John has been living all alone in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement since August. When fighting broke out in his village, his family tried to make a hurried escape. Amidst the chaos, he lost his parents and three siblings.
John jumped on-board a bus bound for Uganda. He has no idea if his family survived.
He tries to keep busing by focusing on school and football. “It’s only when I come back to my tent each night… when I’m alone, that I feel sad and wonder where they are.”
When asked about his hopes for the future, John replies with conviction that he will be South Sudan’s president and outlines his policies for peace and unity, gender equality, and increased school attendance.
Also among John’s priorities is better road infrastructure for rural areas to improve economic development.
At 16-years-old, Viola is a wife and mother. The conflict in South Sudan has forced her to grow up far too quickly.
Viola's parents were on their way into town when they were attacked with machetes and 'slaughtered'. A passerby picked-up her father's cell phone and used it to notify the family.
Viola is the eldest of four children. Her little brother was just 18-months-old at the time of their parents' death. Viola remembers him clinging to their mother's body as they tried to bury her. "He didn’t want his mother to be put alone, he was following our mother."
Viola felt it was her responsibility to care and provide for her brothers and sister. When a man in his 20s asked Viola to marry him, promising a dowry payable to her uncle to convince him take in her siblings; she felt she had no other choice.
When she was nearly nine months pregnant, Viola and her husband decided to flee the increasing violence in her hometown Yei, and seek refuge in Uganda. "I witnessed very many things, the people who were killing would not spare any category, they would kill the lame, the elderly, the children, even the pregnant women."
Baby Mary was born not long after the couple arrived in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in September last year. Viola gave birth with no assistance.
Her husband had trouble adjusting to life in Bidibidi. In February, he told Viola he was returning to South Sudan and would send money back to help support Mary. She hasn't received anything or heard from him since. As a consequence, Viola sells half her monthly food rations to buy baby care items for Mary. This means she goes hungry for approximately 15 days until the next distribution.
Viola recreated ’You Might Be Raising The World’s Next King’ by German artists Herakut.
Keeping children safe
World Vision estimates 100 unaccompanied children from South Sudan are crossing the border into Uganda each day. Just because they’ve managed to escape a war, doesn’t mean they’re safe.
Staff on the ground say child marriage is ‘rampant’ in Uganda’s refugee settlements with some vulnerable girls seeing it as a way to survive.
In order to protect unaccompanied children from this and other forms of violence, World Vision has arranged interim foster care. So far, more than 2,700 children have been placed with suitable refugee families willing to act as temporary guardians.
In addition, 26 Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) serving 52,000 children have been built and are running across three refugee settlements. CFS’ provide children with a safe place to play, receive an early childhood education, psychosocial support, report any instances of violence in the camp and identify vulnerable children to staff.
World Vision has also trained 13,500 South Sudanese children in conflict resolution and is piloting DigiSchool; a portable, solar-powered, projector that enables children to access learning modules, an offline Wikipedia and videos about keeping safe and peacebuilding.