South Sudan: Coping with the challenges amid armed conflict
Lucia Benuzzi, tracing delegate with the ICRC in Juba, describes the challenges created by the conflict in South Sudan, and how the ICRC and the South Sudan Red Cross try to cope with them while working to reunite families separated by the conflict.
In 2013, six branches of the South Sudan Red Cross (SSRC) were working on restoring family links activities around the country. Then, on 15 December, hostilities broke out which reportedly have claimed many lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, some taking refuge in neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan.
After the crisis started, most of the Red Cross activities in the branches located in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states – those most affected by the conflict – were suspended. In these states, SSRC staff and volunteers were themselves affected by the fighting and, along with their families, were amongst the people displaced.
Facing unpredictable and sometimes deteriorating security situations, ICRC staff in some locations had to be relocated temporarily at particular times. Though today they are regularly present in the areas directly affected by the conflict, they have to remain vigilant and adapt to the situation as it evolves.
ICRC work to put families separated by the conflict in touch with one another became particularly challenging as people were constantly moving, not only because of the conflict, but also due to the upcoming rainy season.
Despite the challenges, which included a total lack of access for humanitarian organizations, a number of meaningful activities were nevertheless carried out by the Red Cross. One such was the phone service organized by the SSRC, in partnership with the ICRC, which benefited many and was greatly appreciated. This service was even extended to remote areas using satellite phones, and became a useful tool to reconnect people with family members not only in South Sudan, but also in neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Kenya.
As shown in the video above, overall some 10,000 phone calls were made, helping over 27,000 people reconnect with family members between mid-December 2013 and May 2014. In cases where phone services were unavailable, traditional Red Cross messages remained a good option as a means of contact.
Playing an important role
Before the crisis began, the SSRC had some 36 local restoring family links volunteers. Within the last four months, with the support of the ICRC, that number has more than doubled. These volunteers, such as Grace Acon (who is featured in the video), play a crucial role in organizing the phone calls as well as in the distribution of Red Cross messages. The recruitment of more volunteers will hopefully allow restoring family links activities to be extended to other parts of the country.
Despite the fact that the SSRC and the ICRC had to relocate from Bentiu, Bor and Malakal, restoring family links services are still being offered in some areas of Unity, Upper Nile, Jonglei and Lakes states, in particular helping internally displaced people.
While the crisis has made it challenging to carry out humanitarian activities, the new set of volunteers being recruited and trained by the SSRC and the ICRC will help build the capacity of the restoring family links programme and allow it to be extended, not only across South Sudan, but also with other Red Cross Societies in the region.