Nearly 15,000 lost children seek parents in chaos of South Sudan's war

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Lost children seek parents after being separated by war
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Lost children seek parents after being separated by war
A child swims in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
An unexploded rocket propelled grenade lies inside a cement water catchment in the village of Nialdhiu, northern South Sudan, February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Graffiti is seen in a administrative building in the village of Nialdhiu, northern South Sudan, February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Children play a board game in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Internally displaced people wash and collect water in a reservoir in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
A woman walks in a market in the town of Pibor, in Boma state, east South Sudan, February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) peacekeepers meet women and children on their path during a patrol near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
A blind man gestures in his home in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
A woman comforts her son, who is suffering from malaria, as they wait for treatment at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) run clinic in the village of Likuangole, in Boma state, east South Sudan, February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Nyagonga Machul, 38, touches the feet of her younger daughter, Nyawan Mario, 4, in their home at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP) in Juba, South Sudan, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Nyagonga Machul, 38, sews a table cloth as Ruai Mario, 10, touches the head of his sister Nyawan Mario, 4, in their home at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP) in Juba, South Sudan, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Ruai Mario, 10 (L) and his brother Machiey Mario, 8, rest on a bed in their home at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP) in Juba, South Sudan, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Machiey Mario, 8, Nyameer Mario, 6, Nyawan Mario, 4 and Ruai Mario, 10 (L-R), leave their home on the day they will travel to Juba to be reunited with their mother, in the South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), near Bentiu, South Sudan, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
An internally displaced boy plays with a bit of plastic sheet in a United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), outside the capital Juba, South Sudan, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Nyagonga Machul, 38, embraces her children (L-R) Nyameer Mario, 6, Nyawan Mario, 4, Ruai Mario, 10, and Machiey Mario, 8, after being reunited with them at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP) in Juba, South Sudan, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Internally displaced people walk on a road close to the outer perimeter of a United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), outside the capital Juba, South Sudan, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Machiey Mario, 8 (L), and Nyawan Mario, 4, fly on a United Nations plane to Juba where they will be reunited with their mother, near Bentiu, South Sudan, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
People walk on a road in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Machiey Mario, 8, Ruai Mario, 10, Nyameer Mario, 6 and Nyawan Mario, 4 (L-R), wait to board a United Nations flight to Juba where they will be reunited with their mother, near Bentiu, South Sudan, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
A sick man is treated by a United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) peacekeeper during a foot patrol near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Nyagonga Machul, 38, embraces her children (L-R) Nyameer Mario, 6, Nyawan Mario, 4, Ruai Mario, 10, and Machiey Mario, 8, after being reunited with them at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP) in Juba, South Sudan, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
Nyagonga Machul, 38 converses with her daughters Nyameer Mario, 6 (L) and Nyawan Mario, 4, in their home at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP) in Juba, South Sudan, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
People watch a football match in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilian site (CoP), near Bentiu, northern South Sudan, February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola 
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BENTIU, Feb 16 (Reuters) - In the chaos of South Sudan's civil war, it took three years for Nyagonga Machul to find her lost children.

Machul had traveled from her village to the capital when President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, in 2013. The dismissal triggered a civil war in the world's newest nation that has increasingly been fought along ethnic lines.

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Machul found herself cut off from her son Nhial, now aged 14 and the protector of the family; 10-year-old Ruai and 8-year-old Machiey, brothers who love board games and swimming; 6-year-old Nyameer with her shy smile; and Nyawan, now four but then the much-loved baby.

For years, Machul prayed for news. In December, she heard her children were alive - but far away in Bentiu, the northern gateway to the nation's oil fields. More than a thousand 1,000 km (620 miles) of battlefield stretched between them.

Machul had left the children with their grandmother, but one night gunmen had attacked their village.

"I was in bed sleeping. All of a sudden I heard the sound of gunshots, then people shouting, screaming," said Nhial.

The panicked children scattered and hid near the river Nile. Wandering back, they found each other, but not their grandmother. They decided to flee.

They walked through swamps, in chest-deep water infested with snakes and crocodiles. They begged food from families with little to spare.

Then a former neighbor, Nyabika Temdor, took them in, camping with them on a tiny island in the Nile. But gunmen struck again and they ran.

"I had to pay someone to carry the little ones, as they couldn't walk," Temdor said.

After four days, they reached a camp for displaced families in Bentiu. The sprawling settlement of 120,000 people is bordered by barbed wire and watchtowers.

That is where CINA found them. A local organization supported by UNICEF, case workers painstakingly trace separated families. They enter the names of lost children into a UNICEF supported database that holds nearly 15,000 names.

Having a parent vastly improves the long-term chances of a child's survival, said Marianna Zaichykova, a spokeswoman for UNICEF. But the program is chronically underfunded.

Last year, reunifications dropped by 50 percent because there was not enough money to trace families, Zaichykova said.

Machul was lucky. UNICEF arranged for the children to fly to Juba this week. Their mother waited for them, in a tent made of sticks and plastic that looked just like the one they left in Bentiu.

She dappled drops of water on her children's faces in a traditional blessing. Her friends began to sing. And then she opened her arms for her children.

"God has answered my prayers," she said. "I am so happy."

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