Thursday, January 16, 2014

From Abducted Child to Woman Peacekeeper: The Remarkable Story of Poni Cirilo

This piece has been cross-posted from the Non-Violent Peace Force, an organisation that fosters dialogue among parties in conflict and provides a protective presence for threatened civilians..

 Poni Cirilo sits attentively in her group while participating in a four-day long Child Protection seminar at Nonviolent Peaceforce’s office in Juba, South Sudan. Between the sessions she sneaks out of the conference room to care for the infant child she has recently adopted. The baby was orphaned when her mother, Poni’s cousin, died on a treacherous trip down the Nile on a barge while attempting to return to South Sudan after spending years as a refugee in Khartoum, Sudan.

When Poni was just seven years old, she and her two sisters were abducted from their village in South Sudan. The girls were taken to the town of Bor and her sisters were immediately distributed as wives. Poni was kept in the chief’s home to grow up until she was ready to bear children.

Two years later, she was given away as a wife and transferred to the man’s village where she lived an isolated and solitary life. Poni soon became pregnant but, because she was so young, she suffered serious complications. She was taken to the hospital where she wanted to ask for help, but was unable to explain her situation as she could not speak the local language.

Poni delivered by cesarean section and had a beautiful baby boy. But when her son was only three, her abductors took him away to work in a cattle camp. Poni would never see him again.

South Sudan has a long history of inter-tribal child abduction and trafficking, where children are sometimes used as slave labor or sold to other tribes in exchange for cattle. It is a common practice for young boys to be taken and put to work in the cattle camps to begin their training to become cattle keepers.

Poni bore two more sons. But when her husband threatened to take her second child, she decided to take the boys and flee. For five days she navigated through unpopulated forest and bush until she eventually made her way to Juba. She told her story to the police, who directed her to the State Ministry of Culture and Social Development (MoCSD). They were able to trace her family and Poni was finally reunited with her mother in Juba.

The MoCSD referred Poni’s case to NP due to her vulnerability as a single parent and returnee. But even after coming home Poni had not escaped violence. She and her children endured daily verbal and sometimes physical abuse from her alcoholic uncle who berated her for returning from abduction and becoming a burden on him. Poni reported that he threatened to kill her adopted baby and leave her by the riverbank.

Poni’s story is not uncommon and is an example of the cycle of victimization — how those affected by violent conflicts are often in need of protection even after returning home and in times of relative peace. 

NP is doing all they can to prevent violence by NP Unarmed Civilian Peacekeepers (UCPs) frequently do check- ups to ensure she and her children are receiving the services and supplies they need. NP has also connected Poni with social workers who provide regular counseling, monitor the situation, and deliver milk, clothing, soap, and other items collected from the MoCSD, UNICEF, and NP staff. After the support she received, Poni is convinced of the importance of peacekeepers like those at NP. She is currently undergoing training and says that she intends to one day become a peacekeeper. It is truly a remarkable story, going from abducted child and victim of violent conflict, to becoming an emowered woman and protector of future children.

As an unarmed, paid civilian peacekeeping force, Nonviolent Peaceforce fosters dialogue among parties in conflict and provides a protective presence for threatened civilians. With headquarters in Brussels, NP peacekeeping teams are presently deployed in the Philippines, in South Sudan, and the South Caucasus.