JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN — Tens of thousands of civilians who fled the South Sudanese city of Malakal during fighting that broke out in 2013 are slowly returning home.
The town still bears scars from South Sudan's five years of conflict. Bullet holes litter the walls of the buildings that remain standing. People are starting new businesses in the wrecked shells of shops.
Besides restoring the town, residents are trying to rebuild their families and locate people who disappeared during the war. The International Committee of the Red Cross is helping them out with its tracing program.
Relatives eager to find news about lost loved ones often stand in line at the ICRC snapshot centers to have their photos taken, or to identify relatives from the photos snapped at U.N. protection-of-civilian sites across the country.
Search for a brother
Last year, the ICRC, with help from the South Sudan Red Cross, reunited 68 people who had been separated from their families during the conflict.
Nyadel Udong Jak, 36, was separated from her brother in 2014 in Luakat village and returned to Malakal from Khartoum last month.
"Until now, I don't know his whereabouts, only to hear recently that he is in Akob and he is fishing at the riverbank. That is why I have come to look for him," Jak told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
Nyachangjwok Unak, 30, returned to Malakal about two months ago to find her two children, Sarah and Bullish. Unak said she lost track of them when the fighting erupted in 2013, when the kids were just 4 and 7 years old.
Unak said she could not contain her joy when she learned her children had made it out of Malakal alive.
"When the war started in Malakal at around 7 a.m., there was bombing and shelling and everybody was frightened. While I was collecting some belongings to flee with, I found that my children had fled with other people to the unknown location. I was sad and thought I would never find them, but I was praying to God to reunite me with them. And when I got them back, I was very happy and excited," Unak told VOA.
Snapshots help reunite families
The snapshot centers in Malakal give family members the option of either calling or sending messages to lost family members in hopes of tracking them down at other camps across the country.
Lisa Pattioon, the ICRC field coordinator in Malakal, said the snapshot program focuses on searching for relatives of minors separated from parents during the conflict.
"We see the snapshot as one of the complementary tools to these beneficiaries' individual actions. Many beneficiaries will have challenges in the search, such as economic factors. If they don't have the money to take transport to their former community, perhaps go to Ethiopia, to Sudan, to where they last heard their family member was living, the snapshot is another way of facilitating that search," Pattioon told South Sudan in Focus.
There are rewards
Despite witnessing all the agony and pain that the South Sudanese people have endured during the war, Pattioon said it was enormously rewarding to see some finding lost loved ones.
"They may have lost their home, may have lost their livelihood … but more often the primary concern is what happened to their family members. Are they well? Are they OK? And being able to have answers to those questions is an enormous relief to the beneficiaries, to know the fate of their loved ones," Pattioon told VOA.