Isha Wright (in blue) and two of her mobile response team members waiting for a helicopter pick up at Wau Shilluk in Upper Nile State. Photo: WFP/Togoba Tartis
The World Food Programme (WFP) and partners have been working all-out for months to try to prevent a hunger catastrophe in South Sudan, overcoming enormous obstacles to bring food and other assistance to people in desperate need. Part of WFP’s response includes deploying emergency mobile teams to reach vulnerable people who have been isolated by conflict in some of the most food-insecure areasof the country. The teams set up distribution sites from scratch, managing air-drop zones and sleeping in tents – and facing challenges that range in size from tiny scorpions to big guns. Here are a few stories from WFP staff members who have been part of these mobile emergency response teams.
JUBA – At the WFP compound on the western edge of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, staff are frantically loading plastic chairs and tables, sleeping bags and mattresses, tents, tarpaulins, ration cards, bags of food and packs of bottled water on to a pick-up truck before it heads to the airport.
The cargo belongs to members of a rapid response team deploying to Wau Shiluk, an isolated community in conflict-wracked Upper Nile State where WFP and its partners are providing assistance to 40,000 people.
“We fly in with as much as we can take,” said Isha Wright, a WFP programme officer who has led emergency mobile response teams to several parts of Jonglei and Upper Nile states.
“We pitch our tents where we can, deal with the snakes and scorpions that stroll in when it is wet and muddy outside, dig our latrines, fetch water from the rivers for cooking, washing and bathing,” added the Sierra Leonean.
While living with few amenities is challenging, the most important issue is delivering food assistance and covering the nutrition needs of the people whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the conflict, according to Wright.
The teams arrive in villages with empty market stalls, or in places where large numbers of IPDs have gathered in the middle of nowhere. They see weak, gaunt and tired looking children and elderly people, who often gesturing towards their mouths and stomachs to show that they are hungry. In view of such need, the team members set aside concerns about their own comfort, and give their full attention to registering beneficiaries and distributing food.
“Nothing compares to the happiness you see around a village after a food distribution. Nothing,” said Wright. “It is drumming, singing and people stopping by your tent to say thanks, and that’s the best reward you can get from this job.”
However rewarding, these emergency response missions can be risky. For instance, Wright recalls a local youth leader threatening to take her hostage in a village in Jonglei if she did not follow his recommendations for food distribution.
“I told him I was not afraid, that as an African woman I am at home anywhere in Africa and I don’t think I could be scared,” said the 5 foot 7 Wright. Her courage and firmness earned the respect and complete cooperation of the local authorities.
But Wright, whose previous work has focused on transitional justice systems and who holds MA degrees in Human Rights and Conflict Mitigation, was struck by fear recently when a violent thunderstorm tore through her campsite in the island village of Wau Shiluk, near Malakal.
“It was the worst storm I have ever seen. I tried to stay in my tent, but the wind was lifting it from the ground, water was flooding in and the rain was beating hard until the tent caved in,” said Wright. She sought shelter in another tent, but the whole camp site was flooded for another two days.
Andrey Kildishov, a WFP logistics officer, also had his brushes with the wind. He was coordinating airdrops as part of a rapid response mission in Akobo, in north east of South Sudan near the border with Ethiopia, when the wind gave them a fright.
The team had asked all residents to leave the drop zone (the area where the plane unloads its cargo) and all the WFP staff had moved out of range. The Ilyushin-76 cargo plane that had come with cereals from Gambella, Ethiopia, had completed its dry run and was now approaching the drop zone.
“As the hatch of the plane opened to unload its cargo, the wind suddenly changed direction and sent the bags tumbling towards where we were standing,” Kildishov said. “We all started to run away, frightened of being crushed, but fortunately we were at the appropriate distance away from the drop zone and the wind was not so strong – otherwise it would have been terrible,” added the native of Uzbekistan.
WFP is using a combination of airdrops and airlifts – in which the aircraft lands and is unloaded – to get vital food supplies to Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states, which are the ones most affected by the conflict. Insecurity and impassable roads are causing serious problems for WFP moving food into and around the country.
Several times, rapid response teams have had to evacuate when fighting has erupted nearby, as was the case in July in the small locality of Nhialdiu, near Bentiu in Unity State.
“We had heard artillery gunfire in the distance from around 3 a.m. until dawn,” said Armand N’Cho, a WFP senior telecommunications assistant, who was part of the team in Nhialdiu.
“But when the shooting resumed around 7:45 in the morning, it sounded close to where we were camped in tents, so one of the local community members immediately advised that we leave the camp site to seek refuge in the bushes,” said N’Cho, who hails from the Ivory Coast.
“I ran with the High Frequency (HF) radio on my back. It was heavy and slowed my pace. As the gunfire seemed to get closer our security officer urged us to move faster. We ran for more than five hours through the bush and swamps to get to a safe area,” he said.
Using the radio equipment that N’Cho had carried in his 20-kilogram pack, the team leader and the security officer got in touch with WFP’s office in Juba, and a helicopter was deployed to rescue the stranded team.
Despite the risks WFP’s dedicated staff continue on a daily basis to bring urgently needed food to people facing hunger. The agency reached 1.4 million people in South Sudan with vital food and nutrition assistance in July.