The Kiwis working in one of the world's most dangerous places

Lieutenant Mel Childs in South Sudan. Photo / Supplied
Lieutenant Mel Childs in South Sudan. Photo / Supplied

Last month World Vision's Simon Day visited South Sudan - today celebrating its 5th anniversary of independence. Amongst the suffering and violence he spoke to Kiwis working to help those affected by the war.

I met 16-year-old David Boum at the Protection of Civilian site in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. He has witnessed things no child should. He told me about seeing mass graves, and the murder of a pregnant woman. Three years ago he fled his home with his brother and four sisters when fighting broke out across South Sudan. Three years later the site has become permanent home to nearly 40,000 people who have nowhere to go because of a fear of ethnic violence and a lack of food. Life in these camps is hard. Large families crowd into huts built from tents and sheets of metal. Sanitation is poor, disease spreads easily, there is not enough food to go around, and the residents have nearly nothing.

David is desperate for long term peace so he can live outside the razor wire fences of the camp. But he fears persecution should he leave the safety of the UN base.

"Here it is not good for us. I want to go out. If this war is finished. If it stays like this we will stay here. But if it becomes ok we will go out. If my heart becomes ok I will go," says David.

On 9 July, 2011, South Sudan declared independence to international fanfare and under the gaze of the world's media. Today is the fifth anniversary of the birth of the newest nation in the world. What began with huge hope, ending decades of civil war that left millions dead, five years later there is little to celebrate.

But around the country there are New Zealanders working in harsh conditions to help South Sudan hold on to hope for its future.

In December 2013, South Sudan fell into an ugly tribal civil war. The violent power struggle between President Salva Kiir, from the majority Dinka tribe, and Vice President, Riek Machar, from the country's second largest Nuer tribe, divided the country along ethnic lines. Innocent civilians have been the largest victims of cruel violence that engulfed the country. Five years since the media's cameras watched South Sudan's birth, the world has mostly ignored the suffering of its newest member.

Kiwi doctor Kay Hodgetts in South Sudan. Photo / Supplied
Kiwi doctor Kay Hodgetts in South Sudan. Photo / Supplied



A peace deal that saw the formation of the transitional government of national unity, and the return of Machar to the capital in April has survived politically. But violence has continued around the country.

Since 2013, 2.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes - one in every five people in South Sudan. Fifty percent of those affected are believed to be children. Hunger is widespread - the World Food Programme fears this summer could see more than five million people face severe food shortage, and 455,000 children are estimated to be malnourished. Six million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

But it is the human stories of the resilience of the people of South Sudan that has moved Kiwi doctor, Kay Hodgetts, to work at a health clinic in Unity State, where violence has been most intense. Living in a tent, working seven days a week with little infrastructure and limited access to the world beyond the village she was based, she saw the true agony of the conflict. She treated acutely malnourished children, teenagers with gunshot wounds, and victims of shocking sexual violence.

"During the last week alone we received a woman impregnated after being gang raped by soldiers, and managed a breastfeeding mother who, midway through her six-hour walk to find food for her family was attacked by a soldier who attempted to rape her. She managed to fight him off, only to be shot through the groin as she fled into the night."

Major Fraser Winskill in South Sudan. Photo / Supplied
Major Fraser Winskill in South Sudan. Photo / Supplied



She has seen a dispute at a local football match deteriorate into murder, and she treated a 13-year-old girl injured by shrapnel from a RPG fired into a market place.

"It had taken her two days to get to our clinic; she was missing half a finger but marched into the clinic with no tears, not even a grimace when we doused her in iodine. Every patient you see has witnessed unimaginable atrocities; but I very rarely saw people cry, but that didn't mean you couldn't see the suffering in their eyes."

In South Sudan Hodgetts discovered a people that had been hardened to violence that had become part of their every day. But their resilience inspired the young doctor, and their enduring hope for peace motivated her to do everything she could to help these communities.

"The people of South Sudan have been through unimaginable suffering. When you silently witness human rights violations on a daily basis you don't tend to go around complaining about the heat or the mosquitos. When you don't know where the next meal is coming from, or whether your makeshift shelter is going to survive the next heavy rain, and you're breastfeeding an orphan you picked up during the journey to your new home, you learn how to survive," she says.

On Instagram, in ripped jeans standing on top of an UN armoured personnel carrier, Kiwi peacekeeper Hannah Scott, makes her mission look glamorous. In reality she lives on the UN base in Unity State where 90,000 South Sudanese have sought refuge in the mud and heat of the POC site. They are civilians, seeking protection from the violence of the war. The population are mostly women and nearly 60 per cent are children.

Working in a war zone for the last two years, Scott has seen the best and worst of humanity. She has investigated human rights violations around the world, but the atrocities of South Sudan have left their mark on her.

"The level of brutality against civilians that we witnessed last year in Unity State, I will never forget. At the same time, it is the courage of ordinary people, the lengths a mother will go for her children to survive that gives you hope."

Life on the UN base is restrictive and a long way from her turangawaewae in Christchurch. There is a 6pm curfew for the residents' safety. The town was completely destroyed by fighting. In the rainy season travel becomes impossible as the roads turn to mud. However, the people she meets each day energises her work.

"I will always remember a young girl, about 12- years-old, who had lost both parents in the war. She arrived at the gate having walked six days through the swamps and bushes, carrying her three younger brothers and sister to reach the UN for safety. Her story isn't unique, you see this courage and determination on a daily basis," she said.

At the Malakal POC site I met two of the three New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) troops serving as part of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). As we walked the rows of shelters, children with big white smiles chased us, gripping tightly on to the fingers and cargo pockets of Lieutenant Colonel Mel Childs and Major Fraser Winskill. It was these children that motivated the work of these Kiwis troops living in such intense conditions.

"As a mother the thing I will take away is the children. It makes me realise how lucky we are as New Zealanders to be born where we are, and how lucky my kids are," says Lt Col Childs, who has a young son and daughter.

"They have no toys, they have very little food, they have maybe one set of clothes, and yet they still smile, they laugh and they find joy in the small things. That will be the lasting memory for me of South Sudan."

The NZDF troops have to work in remote locations with difficult access, where people have witnessed terrible atrocities. But despite the horrific things they have seen, Childs is moved by the resilience of the South Sudanese people. Their strength is where she sees hope. And despite the tiny team, she feels privileged to be a Kiwi making a real difference in South Sudan.

"From a personal perspective I can see the impact that three New Zealanders have on the mission every day. I am really proud to be here and be part of the team helping to rebuild this nation."

If you would like to support the people of South Sudan, please visit worldvision.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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