"The longest 90 minutes of our lives,” was how one WFP staffer described the experience of driving his children and colleagues to safety through the Sudanese town of Kadugli, as gun battles raged on a summer day last year. The same staffer returned just hours later to help distribute food to frightened inhabitants
ROME -- The decision by the 27 WFP Staff in Kadugli, Sudan, to evacuate their sub-office and other NGO staff and their dependents saved lives: shortly afterwards armed attackers looted and ransacked the sub-office. And they still managed to carry out vital food distributions to people fleeing the fighting.
“It was the longest 90 minutes of our lives,” said Saad Yousif, a senior programme assistant, describing the evacuation in a 12-vehicle convoy.
“Although I felt scared at the time of evacuation, I knew we had made the right decision,” Ahmed Fadul, a senior finance assistant told a WFP ceremony, accepting a 2012 Award of Merit on behalf of the whole Kadugli team. “The office had been attacked just four hours after the re-location. If we had stayed in the office, we would not be here today.”
Returning a week after the evacuation, Fadul and his team found the office destroyed and the interior looted.
A tough call
On the morning of 7 June 2011, fighting had broken out between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army - North (SPLA-N) in Kadugli, capital of Sudan’s South Kordofan State, and was moving rapidly towards the WFP Office in the centre of town.
The decision to evacuate was not an easy one. The town and surrounding areas had erupted in violence, and leaving the WFP office meant driving directly through it.
The trip to the UNMIS compound, which would normally take 15 minutes, took two terrifying hours. Saad drove the next-to-last vehicle in the 12-vehicle WFP convoy, which was transporting 109 people.
"Just as we left the sub-office, we got stopped for an unknown reason," says Saad. It turned out this was one of many stops eventually made by the SAF and PDF (Popular Defence Force) to inspect the convoy.
"The road was the only escape route out of town, and so we were also surrounded by people fleeing on foot. Shelling was still coming down from mountains, and in the back seat my children asked again, 'Are these guns? Is this a shelling?' I had to answer again, 'Yes,'" he said.
The team’s bravery didn’t end there though. Five WFP staff chose to stay behind in Kadugli as the fighting and evacuations continued, to continue to manage food distributions. At this point, UNMIS started to move staff away from the compound because of the security situation.
But thousands of refugees from Kadugli had started arriving around the compound too, seeking refuge. "Fighting was still going on, but people still needed food, and distributions still needed to happen," says Programme Officer Selamawit Ogbachristos.
So five WFP staff opted to stay behind at the UNMIS compound for three additional weeks, including Ahmed, Saad and Selamawit. Despite the security risks, they worked to maintain food distributions to the people affected by the fighting.
"The relief I felt from watching families starting to cook their food is unforgettable,” said Saad. “Seeing that helped me realize we had saved thousands of lives.”