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JIECH, South Sudan (AP) — It's been four years since the shy 12-year-old last saw his family.
"Fighting came to my town and everyone scattered," Dak Juong said. He remembers a grueling 10-day walk to safety among thousands of panicked strangers. "I don't know if my parents are dead or alive."
Since South Sudan descended into civil war four years ago this month, upheaval in the world's youngest nation has had a "staggering impact on children," according to a new report by the U.N. children's agency. More than 16,000 are missing, separated from their families or unaccompanied.
Some children in the largely Christian nation are finding solace through song, especially during the holidays.
Juong considers himself one of the lucky ones after being taken in by a foster father and introduced to church.
"Singing helps cut out the worry of my parents," the boy said, draped in an oversized, ripped football jersey. "You forget what's wrong."
Landlocked and barren, this one-road, rebel-held village has become a refuge for children fleeing the war. One organization, Africa Development Aid, counted more than 380 orphans in Jiech earlier this year.
During a visit this month, The Associated Press saw hundreds of idle children. Teenagers played football with tin cans or balls of yarn, while young children crafted makeshift military trucks and guns in the mud
The AP spoke with several children who had been separated from their families. While authorities try to pair them with local families, the head of the opposition government in the village, Martin Kueth, worries about their mental health.
The church has had a calming effect, he said.
"I do nothing all day. I just go to football and prayer," said 17-year-old Albino Geng, who hasn't attended classes in three years because fighting shut down many schools. More than 2 million children, or 65 percent of people aged 6 to 17, are out of school, according to the government.
"Singing builds them up and makes them forget their problems and they feel like they're not neglected," said Kizito Kuku, an aid worker with Confident Children out of Conflict, a local organization helping children work through their trauma.
This month in the capital, Juba, the group hosted its annual holiday celebration with a 25-youth choir.
"Singing gives me strength and makes me forget all the things that have happened," said 16-year-old Hannah Konga, one of the soloists.
On her first visit to South Sudan earlier this month, the princess of Jordan and the U.N. refugee agency's adviser on gender issues, Sarah Zeid, warned that the country's enormous needs are often overlooked when it comes to children.
Children's creativity needs to be nurtured so they can envision a different future, she told the AP. "If you can't dream the impossible, how are you ever going to see beyond your current reality?"
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