To gain access in South Sudan, humanitarians walk a political tightrope

A clinic set up by the International Organization for Migration at the United Nations Tomping compound in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by: UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

JUBA, South Sudan — Charity Mardi eases herself into the broken plastic chair at the mobile clinic in Berakole — a makeshift village deep in the bush in South Sudan’s southern Equatoria region. The settlement has become a refuge for 5,000 people escaping the country’s five-year civil war.

“I used to walk four hours with all of my children to get medical care,” said the 28-year-old mother of three. This is her first visit to the roving clinic, which comes once a week and is now just 10 minutes from her house.

When fighting broke out in her hometown of Lainya a year and a half ago, Mardi and her family escaped to the bush for fear of being killed. Today, she’s one of thousands of people still hiding in the forest around Central Equatoria, trapped between South Sudan’s warring parties and too terrified to return home. With little access to health care or basic services, the community relies on mobile clinics for support.

Yet due to the volatility of this region, few aid groups are able to penetrate these remote parts, leaving thousands without food, medicine, and shelter.

What used to be renowned as the country’s breadbasket and pocket of peace, the Equatorias were dragged into the fighting when renewed clashes erupted in the capital of Juba in July 2016. Today, the tranquil backdrop of rolling hills provides a stark contrast to the string of ghost towns and burnt cars strewn along abandoned roads. Rife with fighting, more than 1 million people have been displaced from this region, most of whom are now sheltering in refugee camps across the border in Uganda.

Although the main towns are occupied by government soldiers, the surrounding areas are controlled by the opposition, thus holding civilians hostage in the middle, and posing extreme challenges for aid workers struggling to gain access to the most vulnerable people.

Humanitarians who are able to reach those in need say the key to their success is being able to strategically and artfully gain each side’s favor.

“We tell the government they’re helping the people in the bush who were displaced, and we tell the opposition that we’re supporting them,” said Herbert Male, health supervisor with South Sudan Health Association, a local NGO working in partnership with IsraAID, an Israeli organization that provides technical and financial support.

Male says the only way to gain access is to tell each warring faction what it wants to hear and to remain in constant communication with both parties.

Based in Lainya, SSUHA has been operating in the region since 2013, focusing on health and protection initiatives. They briefly paused activities two years ago, when one of their staff was shot in the leg while traveling in a car, and although they resumed work in early 2017, the team continues to face challenges.

On a visit to the region in November, Devex drove with SSUHA down the same road where local staff said they were recently ambushed at gunpoint, robbed and forced to their knees while the perpetrators deliberated whether or not to kill them.

Despite the setbacks, including the two months it took to negotiate access, Male says they were able to earn the trust of both the government and the opposition. This has allowed them to deliver aid to communities harboring deep in the bush.  

“What’s made us gain their trust is that no NGO was ready to come here,” said Male. Persistent fighting had blocked the roads leading to severely restricted access, yet Male still deployed his team and began forging relationships with both warring factions. As a result, he won their confidence.

Some of the people key to helping Male secure access in Lainya when SSUHA first arrived were the community leaders and chiefs: “The chiefs appear to be on one side with the government, but behind the government’s back they’re communicating with the opposition,” said Male.

Through the chiefs, the SSUHA team was able to develop a relationship with the opposition “under the nose” of the government, and this allowed them to move relatively freely, as long as they communicated their whereabouts to the opposition ahead of time, Male said. From the government’s side, Male said they were told they could “move at their own risk,” however government officials were unaware that SSUHA was also in contact with the rebels.

The International Organization for Migration, one of the few other organizations operating in the area, also relies on community leaders and chiefs to provide information as to the number of people in need in remote areas, and to mobilize populations for the distribution of goods. Contested territory can be particularly difficult when trying to find people, as most of them have fled so deep into the bush for their safety that aid groups have a hard time locating them.

“On average, people walk at least two hours to reach distribution sites,” said Ashley McLaughlin, communications officer for the United Nations migration agency. In order to find the populations in need, their teams are often accompanied by locals who will take the lead.

When it comes to gaining access, pushback is often rooted in suspicion of intent or lack of trust, McLaughlin said. In order to ensure safe access, IOM usually obtains “safety assurance” from both sides in order to safeguard that all parties understand that their mission is humanitarian, while emphasizing the importance of reaching populations in need of support. This involves informing both sides of the areas they intend to operate in and how long they’ll be there. Even when they do this, however, there are still violations that take place in the form of access denial or the eruption of fighting, which can result in suspended activities.

To minimize setbacks like this, Male has built one-on-one relationships with those in power on the ground. One of the best things he did when arriving to Lainya was to get in touch with the government’s county commissioner, who was the head of security in the area in which they were operating.

“Often, in bigger groups, people won’t say anything or aren’t willing to cooperate,” Male told Devex. “If you speak to them individually and explain what you’re trying to do, you’re met with less resistance and can appeal to their emotions.”

The other piece of the puzzle, which Male heavily relies on, is making people feel valued: “You have to speak nicely to them. The worst thing you can do is to call them rebels or say that you support the government,” he says particularly of the opposition.

Emphasizing the need for communication and transparency, Male said he’s in constant contact with “the guys in the bush.” Not only does this help foster trust, it’s also imperative for the organization’s safety. For example, on a recent trip from Yei to Lainya, the opposition called SSUHA and told them to delay travel by two hours in order to avoid potential clashes on the road between warring factions.

SSUHA also provides the government with regular updates, not only in terms of their whereabouts, but with monthly reports detailing the number of people they’ve seen and the materials they’re providing them with: “They’re worried that we’re supplying medicine to people and that they’ll treat the opposition and help them recover,” Male said.

The open lines of communication help reinforce accountability and reassure the government that they’re neutral and that “health has no borders,” he said.

There are currently 15 organizations operating in Yei County. Some aid groups such as SSUHA have resorted to negotiating their own access with both parties, even though other organizations, like IOM, say that proficiency among agencies is key, including letting the U.N.’s coordination of humanitarian affairs office take the lead.

“This way each organization is not constantly negotiating access individually, but rather it’s negotiated by OCHA on behalf of the entire humanitarian country team,” McLaughlin said. Additionally, McLaughlin says for smooth access to occur, the presence of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the field is helpful, as well as cooperation from both the government and opposition forces.  

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.