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South Sudan: We won’t give up on you

South Sudan Country Director, Fred McCray

South Sudan Country Director, Fred McCray

By Fred McCray, CARE Country Director in South Sudan

In all my 16 years as a humanitarian aid worker, I have never seen anything like the violence that besieged Juba, South Sudan, last month. It started on a Thursday night with small-arms gunfire that I thought would end quickly. Little did I know it was merely the start of a bloody five-day battle in the heart of South Sudan’s capital that would result in hundreds of deaths, thousands of newly displaced people and widespread panic throughout the city.

As aid workers, we prepare for moments like this, especially in a country like South Sudan, where the only thing predictable is the unpredictability that each day brings. All of our staff had stocks of food, water and fuel for just this type of violent outbreak, which could imprison them in their homes indefinitely.

After the gunfire exchange on Thursday, the city of Juba was tense. You could feel it in the air. As a precaution on Friday, I closed the office early so staff could collect any extra supplies and hunker down in the safety of their homes. It turned out to be a good decision, because the fighting resumed Friday night and escalated quickly. Outside the team house, I could hear gunfire, heavy tank artillery and helicopter gunships. I was fearful, not so much for my own safety as for my staff members. And it wasn’t just their physical safety that concerned me. I worried about their emotional safety, too, as they endured and navigated the escalating violence. We employed every method of technology in order to stay in touch as a team, constantly sharing security information, checking on one another’s safety and providing psychosocial support to one another.

Mercifully, Saturday brought a lull in the violence that served as a false sense of hope that the fighting had ended. On Sunday morning, Juba exploded into what seemed like full-blown war. I wasn’t worried as much about the military violence, because I knew we were not targets, but I was worried about the armed looting and chaos that most certainly would follow.

It was in this moment that I made my most grueling decision as a country director: to evacuate all international staff from South Sudan. Many other humanitarian actors were making the same decision. As the leader of more than 200 national staff, it was so difficult to look at them in the midst of violence and utter chaos and say, “I’m leaving.” But I found the risk simply too great for the international staff to stay.

My entire team supported that decision. Luckily, I was gone for only five days, working remotely from Nairobi. During that period, my dedicated staff ensured that CARE’s office was safe and secure, that information flowed to the appropriate people and, most importantly, that our life-saving work continued.

Now as we focus on scaling up our emergency response, we face even more challenges. There’s a saying in South Sudan that “easy things are not easily done.” That couldn’t ring more true. Aside from the unpredictable bouts of violence, the biggest challenge we face is lack of infrastructure. There’s no power grid, the rainy season renders the roads inaccessible and supplies are limited — all of which obstruct our ability to reach the people most desperately in need.

Yet we must march on. And we will. Working in a country like South Sudan, you have to be a passionate, dedicated problem-solver, and that’s just what every member of CARE South Sudan is. The staff’s commitment to the communities we serve keeps me going on those days when I could more easily give up. When the violence broke out in Juba, the staff in Unity State kept providing treatment to malnourished babies. Even though there is fighting in Eastern Equatoria, the staff wants to get back to work. They know the people in these communities, they know the depth of their needs, and they want to honor them by doing everything in their power to meet those needs. They inspire me daily.  

South Sudan is in a time of extreme uncertainty. In spite of that and the suffering they endure, however, the people here do not give up. They are survivors who kindle a lasting hope for a peaceful tomorrow. To honor them and their resilience is to keep that hope alive, powering through the chaos with the tools and services we know the people of South Sudan need — even when our work is fettered and “easy things are not easily done.”


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