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Sudan’s civil war continues to pay a heavy toll on the country’s children


The world's largest civilian displacement crisis is in Sudan, now well into a second year of civil war. The toll has been especially hard on Sudan's children. The U.N. estimates that more than half of Sudan's 24 million children need humanitarian assistance, and almost all school-age children are out of school. Hunger is rampant, and the risk of famine is rapidly growing. UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell just returned from Sudan and joins us now. Thank you so much for making the time to speak with us.

CATHERINE RUSSELL: Of course. Thanks so much.

CHANG: So tell us what you have been seeing firsthand from these children as they're paying the price in this crisis.

RUSSELL: Well, thank you. And what I saw is really what you described, but firsthand, which is a catastrophic situation for children and really one of the worst situations in the entire world. The scale of it is so horrifying - you know, so many children displaced. And really, for them, what that means is that they are displaced and facing a lot of violence. And I heard that directly from the children there. And it's really disturbing to hear that.

And then, of course, as you said, almost every child in Sudan is out of school, and they have been out of school for a year. So when you think about, you know, what that means, certainly for them and for the country, it's quite devastating. And then the malnutrition numbers are shocking. And, you know, what we see is, you know, 4 million children are severely malnourished. And then of that, 700,000 children are severely acutely malnourished, which means, really, they are close to dying from what's happening to them.

And so UNICEF is working hard to try to get to all these children. We're providing different sorts of services, nutrition services, education services and the rest and, you know, making a difference, I think, but still - the scale is so extraordinary that it's just quite overwhelming.

CHANG: Indeed. Well, of the several children that I know you talked to who have fled their homes, is there a story that has stayed with you that you want to share with us?

RUSSELL: You know, the amazing thing that I saw there was a - I met with a couple of adolescent girls who - I generally, you know, love adolescent girls anyway because they're kind of at that cusp in life where, you know, life can go one way or another. And they still had hope, and I was really struck by this because they were telling me about - you know, I met them first in this sort of displacement center that UNICEF supports. And it was so hot and so dusty. And these children - you know, they're telling me they'd been pushed from their homes. You know, they had to leave without any documentation and all the rest of it - and just really sort of dire situations for them - a few of them displayed several times.

The interesting thing was they were still talking to me about what their future could look like, and...


RUSSELL: Two of them told me they wanted to be doctors. One wanted to be a lawyer, and one wanted to be an architect. And I thought, you know, that hope and that belief that life can still turn out well for them...

CHANG: Yeah.

RUSSELL: ...Was so encouraging and heartbreaking to me at the same time, you know, because the truth is, that's just very unlikely, right? These girls - they were so bright, so animated, so excited. But, you know, they face just insurmountable challenges. And I think, unless the world starts to pay attention to that and really pushes for some sort of peace agreement there, it's just impossible to imagine what their futures look like.

CHANG: Heartbreaking. Well, in the immediate term, can you talk about how this unrelenting armed conflict has been restricting relief efforts?

RUSSELL: Yeah. The biggest challenge we have is access. And it was interesting - UNICEF has one full-time person whose job is to negotiate access with the parties. And that is a full-time job where you're trying to make sure that we can safely get to people, but it's hard. And, you know, the violence continues. It escalates. And we are trying to keep our staff safe but also get to the communities who need the help.

We work with local NGOs who are fantastic and brave. But, you know, it's a constant challenge for them. It's dangerous. And I just plead with world leaders to say this is a god-awful situation for children, and we've got to do everything we can. You know, these children - I felt a little bit like they were crying out to us to please make a difference, make it better for them, but the world doesn't seem to hear that.

CHANG: Can we talk more about that? I mean, because this is - what's happening in Sudan is the world's largest displacement for children. And yet so much of the global attention has been on other devastating crises, like in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Haiti. Why do you think what's happening in Sudan has not gotten as much attention?

RUSSELL: You know, it's hard to say. I think, though, the challenge for the world is that it is - and I'm sort of generalizing - but, you know, people can pay attention to almost one thing at a time, right? So it was Ukraine, which was shocking, particularly to Western countries because they felt some immediate threat from that. I don't think that the world doesn't care. I just think they have limited bandwidth to see the different challenges and get the world to say this is a very extraordinary problem, especially in the scale of it, and we need to try to do better here.

CHANG: Catherine Russell is the executive director of UNICEF. Thank you so much for joining us.

RUSSELL: Thanks, Ailsa. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Patrick Jarenwattananon
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Tara Neill
Tara Neill is the Deputy international Editor and also covers Africa and Latin America on the International desk.
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.