“We are here for a purpose” – Aiding women and children in one of the toughest assignments

In northern South Sudan a camp for families displaced by fighting has become the second largest settlement in the country after the capital, Juba. For humanitarian workers there to assist them, life has few comforts, but many rewards.

By Simon Crittle

© UNICEF/Ellie Kealey

BENTIU, South Sudan, 24 January 2017 – The boy feels almost safe. After the thrill of a helicopter ride, he’s now downcast by the commotion at the airstrip. Replacing his uniform of the past three years, he now wears jeans and a bright orange soccer shirt. The child is placed in the care of a UNICEF officer after being rescued from a military outpost in South Sudan by aid workers the day before. He is one of more than 19,000 children serving in armed groups in the war-torn South Sudan.

The circumstance of his personal tragedy will become known. But first, the search for his family must begin. UNICEF Child Protection Officer Franka David takes the 13-year-old to a foster family, where he will stay while his relatives, if living, are traced.

David says the boy, who is quiet and shy, shows signs of trauma. “He’s still tired, and he’s hungry.” Now he’ll be fed his first home-cooked meal in years. The fact he survived for so long on the scorched battlefield is a miracle.

Displacement camp offers sanctuary

The child soldier (UNICEF is withholding his identity) is evidence of the horrors committed in Bentiu, a state capital in the oil-rich north of the country, and backdrop to some of the worst fighting since the civil war began in 2013. The bloodshed has driven thousands here from their homes to the sanctuary of an enormous camp, protected by razor wire and UN peacekeepers.

© UNICEF/Phil Hatcher-Moore

The Protection of Civilians camp, or “POC,” is roughly one square kilometer of red dirt on an arid, heat-soaked plain, and home to 115,000 people. A thick coat of dust gives way to deep mud as the seasons come and go. The shelters are arranged in long rows, separated by dirt roads and drainage ditches. The seemingly endless camp teems with children in soiled clothes, mothers hunched over cooking fires, and idle men.

In one remote corner, a heavily guarded “humanitarian hub” is occupied by more than 40 aid organizations. UNICEF has an office amid a large complex, made up of three purpose-built shipping containers, fitted with lighting, air conditioning and desks.

The aid workers are here to provide for the basic needs of the displaced population, distributing sacks of dry food, erecting temporary schools and staffing field hospitals. At the same time, armed peacekeepers, from countries as distant as the United Kingdom and Mongolia, provide logistical support and man guard towers along the POC’s perimeter.

The hub is also home to a maze of white, tightly packed shipping containers, serving as living quarters. In the evenings, staff escape the heat for their tiny containers where they cook, shower and sleep. In the morning cool, peacekeepers jog the dusty roads. Respite comes on Saturday night, when the inhabitants of the white boxes emerge to drink beer, blast electronic music and try not to think about work.

In the world today, Bentiu’s surreal “container-life” is well-known among aid workers as one of the toughest outposts staffed by the humanitarian community. Hundreds of hardworking, exhausted people from across the world have existed here, behind the wire, for the past four years.

Fierce fighting across the region continues to drive civilians to the POC, which is largely populated by South Sudanese from the Nuer tribe. A kilometer from the POC, Bentiu township has changed hands between government and opposition troops several times during the conflict. Soldiers walk the tense streets, buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes and tanks sit quietly at strategic locations.

At the UNICEF office, staff are busy assisting a visiting team from the regional headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. Following the recent famine – the first declared anywhere in the world for six years, which gripped four nearby counties and lasted several months – the team has come on a “lessons-learned” mission to determine if UNICEF’s response to the emergency was effective.

As well as providing services to the displaced people, the office is responsible for roughly one million people living outside the camp, across Unity, one of the 10 original states making up South Sudan. The country broke off from Sudan, to the north, in 2011, becoming the world’s youngest, and perhaps most deprived, nation.

Mustapha Messaoud, Tunisian, UNICEF’s Chief of Office

© UNICEF/Simon Crittle
Mustapha Messaoud, UNICEF Chief of Office

Container-life isn’t unfamiliar to Mustapha: He was born in a cave. Mustapha is originally from a troglodyte community in Tunisia, where the locals live out their lives beneath the ground. Mustapha proudly points out that Star Wars was shot near his home. (Fans will remember first being introduced to Luke Skywalker, then a farmhand, when he lived in a cave on the fictional desert planet, Tatooine.) “It’s very convenient,” says Mustapha. “During the really hot season, it’s cool inside, and during winter, it’s warm.”

The feisty Tunisian now lives in Lyon, France, and speaks English with a thick French accent. He also speaks fluent Arabic. He says he prefers to cook in his container rather than eat in the cafeteria. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years. You just get fed up eating bad food.”

Mustapha says UNICEF’s role in Bentiu is to respond to the humanitarian disaster, as well as lay the groundwork for redevelopment.

“Our job is to provide support to women and children. To help build resilience for them, to empower them, so they can be more independent, to be able to feed their families,” he says.

The key to being a good manager in such a challenging environment, he says, is to strike a balance between demanding results from his staff while understanding that their well-being is paramount.

Despite the tough conditions, the reality check, he says, is the horrific plight of the women and children across South Sudan, whose situation is infinitely worse than his. “We are here for a purpose. We must deliver. It doesn't matter how difficult or challenging the situation.”

On a hectic day, he and one of his staffers meet two elderly women who’ve just arrived from a previously famine-affected area.

They tell a heartbreaking story of being forced to eat leaves and waterlilies to survive. In their desperate search for food, they walked through the night after learning food was being distributed by aid workers. After reaching the destination and begging for food, they’d begun the walk back only to be attacked by armed men. They hang their heads, saying their food was taken and they had been raped.

“This is a wake-up call for us,” Mustapha says later. His work here is never done.

Dr. Chandrakala Jaiswal, Indian, Nutrition Officer

© UNICEF/Simon Crittle
Dr. Chandrakala Jaiswal, Nutrition Officer

Every morning, Jaiswal peers out her container window to look at the sky. Although the space is too small to fully stretch out her extremities, she manages to perform all 12 poses required by the Surya Namaskara.

“People say Bentiu is very tough,” she says. “In fact, I like Bentiu. I’m very happy with my morning yoga and my walk around the humanitarian hub.” Jaiswal says her regimen of yoga, meditation and a vegetarian diet prevents the mood swings she sees in some of her colleagues.

Jaiswal, a pediatrician from India, heads UNICEF Bentiu’s nutrition program. Her job is to provide technical expertise to UNICEF’s many partner agencies working across Unity state. UNICEF contracts with NGOs to run a network of feeding centers for malnourished mothers and children. As well as responding to child hunger, UNICEF is charged with preventing malnutrition before it strikes.

With famine not far behind, Jaiswal’s challenge of stabilizing this hungry community is daunting. Despite a massive humanitarian effort, children in South Sudan are going hungry. Across the country, an estimated 1.1 million children are “acutely malnourished,” including almost 280,000 who suffer from “severe acute malnutrition,” a life-threatening condition.

In Unity, the malnutrition rate recently dropped, but some areas remain on the brink. For Jaiswal, the situation means very long, sometimes dangerous days, as she must reach previously famine-affected communities, often walking for many hours in extreme heat.

Jaiswal says she won’t leave Bentiu for at least two years or until she’s made a lasting impact. Her proudest moments have been persuading mothers to return infants to the breast.

Shortly after her arrival, she’d noticed new mothers “top feeding,” supplementing breast milk for cow milk, water and other foods. As a result, their milk dried up and they put their babies at risk of infection. She instructed her staff to refer mothers experiencing lactational failure to a hospital. Using a technique called supplementary sucking, Jaiswal reported that a number of mothers had seen their milk return. “As a pediatrician, I’m delighted,” she says.

Luel Ding, South Sudanese, Education Officer

© UNICEF/Simon Crittle
Luel Ding, Education Officer (right)

Ding recalls how his schoolteachers used dry animal skins instead of blackboards when he went to school. In place of chalk, they used charcoal. Then UNICEF got involved and things changed: They got a real blackboard. “We got bags and pencils,” says Ding.

It was the early 1990s, and Ding, then in primary school, had returned to South Sudan after spending time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Despite the destruction left by the then-north-south war, UNICEF had mobilized in his town and supplied his school. More than 25 years later, Ding says he is returning the favor.

As a UNICEF Education Officer, he is helping transform the lives of children with education, in the same way his life was turned around. “I struggled to get an education,” he says. “But I had the opportunity, so why shouldn’t I help children, too?”

The South Sudan civil war has deprived a generation of children of an education, with two million – or more than 70 per cent – estimated to be out of school.

In Unity state, Ding said roughly 50,000 were out of school, including both elementary and secondary. Most of the residents of southern Unity were displaced to swamp areas, which are difficult for aid workers to reach.

His job is to assist the government in opening schools. Since 2013, UNICEF has opened 194 schools across the state. In the POC, UNICEF has established eight schools, serving 36,000 children in two daily shifts. Ding said his team helped set up learning spaces, provided books and trained teachers.

But outbreaks of fighting hampered his efforts. He recalled setting up a semi-permanent school for 200 children only to return several months later to find both classrooms burned down. "A little girl came up to me and said men burned down our school,” he says. “She knew the value of education, yet people were denying it from her.”

Ding said it was challenging to set up secondary schools and only a few had been reopened. “We don't want the boys to join the army. They are so young. They should continue with their educations. But if they finish their primary school cycle, what next?”

Franka David, South Sudanese, Child Protection Officer

© UNICEF/Ellie Kealey
Franka David, UNICEF Child Protection Officer

David grew up during South Sudan’s previous conflict, the decade’s long war with the north. Originally from Eastern Equatoria, near the Kenyan border, she joined tens of thousands of her countrymen who fled fighting for the northern capital, Khartoum. She was educated in schools for displaced southerners.

When peace was declared between the north and south, in 2005, she got a job with UNICEF. David recalls the end of the war with the north and her return, with tens of thousands of others, to the south. “We were hoping really that we were coming to develop South Sudan,” she says.

As a UNICEF Child Protection Officer, she is an advocate for child rights and works to ensure that children in Bentiu are protected from harm and neglect. This includes educating children about the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordnance.

The agency also has services dedicated to family reunification and psychosocial support. “Children have a right to be at home and be cared for properly,” says David. “When there is conflict, children are separated, they are exposed to risk. They are at their most vulnerable.”

In South Sudan, military recruitment is one of the great risks for children. UNICEF has grave concerns about the recruitment of some 19,000 children into armed forces. David says children who are forced to work for armed groups are systematically mistreated.

“They are overworked. And they will be walking through the bush the whole night,” she says. “If they get sleepy, the soldiers will tell them to fetch water and cook. If they become tired, they will be punished. That's why most of them are scared. They are beaten, there is no food. If they are sick, no one treats them. No clothing, no education.”

During the past four years, UNICEF has overseen the demobilization of nearly two thousand children from armed groups across the country, helping them to return to their families and communities.

Child soldier reunited with his family

© UNICEF/Ellie Kealey

The child from the airstrip spends just one night with the foster family before relatives are traced. His uncle, who helped raise the boy after his father died years before, is living in the POC along with the boy’s four siblings. The boy has learned his mother died a few months earlier, shortly after giving birth. His mother’s sister, also in the camp, now breastfeeds and cares for the baby, as she has a newborn of her own.

The uncle says he was overcome with joy when the boy returned. “I thanked God. I didn't know if he was alive,” he says. He explains that the boy disappeared three years earlier, after leaving the POC at night with friends to walk into Bentiu town. The family searched for him but found no trace. The boy had been taken by a military unit soon after reaching the township.

The shy boy knows he’s safe. David gives him a change of clothes and a blue UNICEF school bag, containing exercise books and pencils. He will now be monitored by caseworkers and remain behind the wire in the POC. But the full story of his time in the military and its longer term effect remain unknown for now.

His uncle, a devout Catholic, has high hopes. “First of all, I want to ask God to give him happiness in this house,” he says. “After that, I will send him to the school and the church. If peace comes, we will go home.”

His regret is that his sister-in-law, the boy’s mother, who never knew her son’s fate, won’t be going with them.

Simon Crittle is an Australian writer based in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.





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