Aid Worker Diaries: Aid on the front lines in South Sudan

26 January, 2012
12 January 2012, Jonglei State: The World Food Programme begins food distribution for people displaced by inter-communal violence between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes. Credit: UNMISS/Isaac Gideon
12 January 2012, Jonglei State: The World Food Programme begins food distribution for people displaced by inter-communal violence between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes. Credit: UNMISS/Isaac Gideon

It’s an unbearably hot day in Pibor. Takesure Mugari, at the epicentre of South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis in Jonglei, pauses to catch his breath.

It is his tenth day in Jonglei State and the hours are taking their toll. He doesn’t sleep more than five hours a night, but he can’t afford to rest. In Pibor alone, more than 76,000 people urgently need help as the fighting continues between the Murle and Lou-Nuer communities in Jonglei.

Takesure’s job is to coordinate the work of 17 different aid organizations, and to establish exactly what people need and where.

He watches as hundreds of women, displaced by recent fighting, wait patiently in the midday sun outside a vast white tent, clutching the pink ration cards that entitle them to a 15-day supply of sorghum and pulses from the World Food Programme.

One by one they move to the front of the queue, and briefly crouch as aid workers place the heavy bags on their heads. Nearby, another tent (or “rubb hall” as aid workers call it) is piled high with soap and jerry cans.

Some of the women are staying in town with host families or in a local school. Most, however, only come into town for aid and disappear back into the bush. Newly displaced people are being registered every day.

It’s exhausting work, but Takesure says he is motivated by the sheer scale of the need. There is deprivation all around him.

Intercommunal violence has plagued Jonglei State for years, but the recent fighting is the worst since 2009.

Last December, a wave of attacks in Pibor County attracted international attention. Over recent weeks there have been counter-attacks in Duk, Uror and Akobo counties.

Even before the latest round of clashes, in 2011 more than 1,100 people were killed and 63,000 displaced by fighting, according to reports by local authorities and assessment teams.

Today, Takesure is briefing Torgeir Larsen, the State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister of Norway.

“Even though the response in Pibor is taking off, displaced people are living in grim conditions,” he explains. “Our biggest problem is reaching those who fled further south.” Sara Gottfredsen, a Protection Officer with UNHCR, concurs. “Access to those in the bush is a major concern.” The visiting dignitaries are gathered around the Pibor coordination hub, which consists of a few planks and makeshift benches beneath a tree.

This is the centre of the aid operation. It is where humanitarian “clusters”, which bring together agencies dealing with issues such as food or health care, decide who should do what, and check that no work is duplicated or forgotten.

“This is one of the first times we’ve seen cluster coordination at the state and local levels, rather than in conference rooms at the national level,” says Lise Grande, the Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan. “This is front-line coordination—we are rewriting the book on coordination here in South Sudan.”

It isn’t easy; conditions are extremely tough. Ms. Grande asks the aid workers about living conditions in Pibor. “Do you shower?” Participants grin and point to the nearby river.

Ms. Grande warns Mr. Larsen that the crisis is far from over. “We are going to be here for some time, perhaps three to five months,” she says. “Several communities have been burned to the ground, and it will take people some time to get back on their feet.”

Takesure misses his wife and four young children back home, but remains upbeat. “I am happy to be here. This is the first time I have ever been able to contribute in this way. And I do not plan to fail.”

Reporting by Stephanie Bunker

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