When violence engulfed South Sudan in December, soldiers attacked Mary Mbek Anger’s home in Panang, Unity State. Having lost her sight 10 years ago, Mary relied on her young nieces (ages 18, 9 and 2) to guide her on a two-day journey to safety. They only travelled at night, terrified of being seen in daylight. Eight months on, when I met Mary, she and her young nieces were living on the floor of a stranger, relying on the edible plants that the children gather from the surrounding bush.
In the few months I was in South Sudan, I heard many horrific stories, but arguably none tougher than Mary’s.
(Mary's story was originally published by CARE in October 2014.)
In an emergency, the elderly are particularly vulnerable. With less mobility, or vision and hearing impairments, the elderly are often unable to flee quickly in times of attack, and are unable to collect food, firewood or water, relying on others to survive. Many often face the trauma of isolation and the loss of the ability to earn an income. On International Day of Older Persons (1 October), CARE Australia’s Tom Perry meets 70-something Mary Mbek Anger, for whom the past nine months have become a living nightmare.
In 2007, Mary’s sight began to quickly deteriorate. She sought medical treatment from an eye specialist in Kenya, but was told that nothing could be done. Within a few months, her vision was gone, and she has relied on the support of her family for food and shelter ever since. Despite this, Mary says life was kind to her then.
‘Before this war, we had our own belongings, our own life,’ said Mary. ‘I was happy. My husband and children were able to help me get around. He was tending to the animals, we were cultivating a lot of crops and food.’
Yet on Christmas Eve last year, Mary’s life forever changed. War broke out in the South Sudanese capital Juba on 15 December, and quickly spread across the country. Within a few short days, much of South Sudan’s Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile states were being torn apart. By Christmas Eve (24 December), the violence had arrived in Mary’s home town of Panyang, in South Sudan’s far north.
Mary and her family took refuge in their home, praying they would be safe. Yet within hours, soldiers arrived. They torched crops and homes and slaughtered animals by the hundreds. As Mary recalls: ‘It was all burned, burned to ash.'
Men were being rounded up and executed. Mary’s husband – despite his own age and frailty – tried to evacuate her and the family, gathering up the children and grandchildren and moving them, as best he could, to the nearby bush. Fatefully, he chose to return to the house to gather up some possessions such the all-important jerry can. On his return he was captured by soldiers, and was promptly shot dead, much to the horror of Mary and her family.
The family hid in the bushes until sunset, then began moving slowly through the bush, travelling only at night to avoid being spotted. Frail and unable to see, Mary relied on the voices of her distraught family to find her way.
‘I could just hear the sound of the little ones crying, and I was relying on them to guide me.’
After a two-day journey north moving slowly through the bush, Mary and her young nieces arrived in the refugee settlement of Yida, near the Sudanese border. After some weeks of sleeping in the open, they were given some space on the floor of a stranger who was kind enough to offer her and the children a place to stay.
Nine months on, and Mary is unable to move without help, and relies on her children and grandchildren, who spend much of their time begging, gathering firewood or hunting for edible plants to eat from the surrounding bush. She says life is near impossible, that without crops, livestock or even a home, they are depending on the kindness of others to survive.
‘I feel completely sad. This house is not mine. I’ve lost so many things, including my husband,’ explained Mary. ‘He was the one I relied on to help me now that I’m blind. He would help to bring me food, give me shelter.’
‘Now I have no source of income at all. Apart from the wild greens from the bush that I can eat. We’re just begging from people around here, from good samaritans, people who are helping us, day-to-day.’
CARE has provided Mary and her family with seeds, and the tools to cultivate them. They have begun to grow vegetables, including onions, tomatoes and eggplant in the hope of having enough to eat over the coming months, and potentially, some left over to sell at the nearby market. While Mary says that while she and her family hope peace can come back to South Sudan, their thoughts are purely focused on basic needs to get them through each day.
‘Our hope is simply to survive. Without a home, without food, we can’t do anything. I just want to survive, to have shelter, to have food.’