Humanitarian Evacuations

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I’ve realized that since I’ve started this site, I’ve done very little to actually describe the places where I live as a humanitarian aid worker in Africa. Unconsciously, there could be a number of reasons for that. It could be that life is just sometimes really hard, working and living in these places, and often times the life-work balance is non-existent. Tourism is absent here, which doesn’t always make for a good read. National parks once did attract a small following, but constant insecurity has destroyed that possibility. Since, all of the big game has either been killed or migrated on to neighboring countries. I often times find my life quite bland, a mix of introvert activities to pass the time, and extrovert activities with the same people I live and work with day in and day out.

In South Sudan, I live and work on the same compound. I very rarely leave it except for R&Rs every ten to twelve weeks, and weekly sector meetings at the UN compounds to discuss specific problems that are being faced for that week. There, we discuss food assistance, food security and livelihoods, insecure hot spots, famine levels, using a slew of technical humanitarian terminologies and impossible to remember acronyms. I am now proficient in speaking acronyms which no one outside of the humanitarian world would understand.

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My life in this context looks rather unusual to the onlooker, and because it’s so starkly different I don’t go into detail about it. Not many others besides those who live in this same world get it. My team is on call to respond to man-made crises that pop up anywhere across the country at any minute. A work day can look like a nice eight hour stint or a double shift of sixteen hours, only finishing around 11pm when our team in the U.S. is done for their day, eight hours behind us. The compound curfew has recently been extended to 8pm. I can visit some close by areas, mainly hotels to eat at or swim at, but still at large we need to be inside the compound walls by 7pm each evening. When you finish work by 6pm, it doesn’t allow for much time away if any. The pace of life is schizophrenic, high and low: we work hard for a solid ten weeks, and then take ten days to do traveling or nothing, R&R, going full speed to no speed. Psychologically, our bodies cope limitedly with those two contrasts.

The definition of security in my everyday life in Juba is skewed from what security looks like in North America or Europe. I feel secure in my compound home because there are four to six compound guards each night on the lookout, and I know that I live in a district where gun shots can’t be heard when you try to go to sleep. Our staff from Juba who are just trying to make a living and raise their family in a safe environment, aren’t quite so lucky. Hearing gunshots is what their youngest children consider to be nighttime lullabies. Exercise, or any physical movement, isn’t always possible outside of the concrete walls called home. Walking directly outside of the compound isn’t safe. One of my closest friends was mugged several months back when going for a two minute walk to the neighboring hotel swimming pool. This place is not so hospitable to white foreigners who are a target for the 800% inflation rate that plagues urban communities, destroying the local currency. My organization will not allow women to walk alone after that incident. But by and large, yes, I feel secure in Juba.

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The pace of Juba life is broken up every month or two by a visit to one of our several field sites, areas scattered across the country where we are doing the actual humanitarian work: providing food via mass distributions, teaching better household hygiene practices, drilling wells, teaching literacy, supplying children under five with much needed nutritional inputs to ward off the looming threat of malnutrition that almost 50% of the country will succumb to at some point in their lives. All in all, my life is not bad. It is exciting, albeit adrenaline induced most times, and when I look back on these two years I’ve had some amazing opportunities. But it is hard to see the suffering of innocent people, moms, kids and dads. Avoidable suffering that keeps getting worse.

One of the challenges of this place is the threat of real insecurity outside your doorstep, not just the occasion compound break-in by thieves. It is the type of insecurity when armed conflict arrives to your home, armies converging in one place with heavy artillery and little self-discipline in regards to refraining from use of the trigger. While not new to the South Sudanese, such conflict arrived last July in Juba. Wikipedia now has a page just for this time period, called the 2016 Juba clashes. I wasn’t in Juba at the time; I was flying internationally from the East Coast, US, and a much needed month of home leave. When I arrived in Nairobi I was told to “stay there, cancel your flight to Juba”. Which I did. And then one half of my expatriate colleagues evacuated to Nairobi with me two days later. One week after, the other half of managers and directors followed suit. Anxiety was high and so was frustration: what about our South Sudanese staff left behind in direct fire? Stories soon came out of compound guards being shot, grenades being fired and blasting walls, and of personal fears and stresses.

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This pattern of living in evacuation continued for two more months, our group of about 40 expatriate persons moved between various guesthouses and hotels in Nairobi and eventually to Kampala in neighboring Uganda. Some staff tried to re-enter Juba for a few days before being flown out again in haste, others were flown to other parts of Kenya, still others moved to the field sites more permanently. I moved to Kampala at the end of July, and was there for the most part of the next six months. Work continued at the typical crash and burn pace, only this time with the added stress of trying to manage it away from normal circumstances: we couldn’t interact with our South Sudanese colleagues outside of email or Skype, and we couldn’t see the people being served through our programming. Four months into evacuation mode, I took my R&R to the Seychelles, an unexpected locale that I never thought of visiting. The ticket was cheap, and I needed to leave the crises of Africa. But more on that to come. When I came back ten days later, almost all of my colleagues were able to return to a more stable Juba, except for four. We were girls and we weren’t seen as having vital enough roles to be considered for reentrance into the place we used to call home. I enjoyed Kampala a lot; Uganda is a beautiful, welcoming country that I want to highlight in the weeks ahead. But it still wasn’t home, and then being the only ones to be left behind, we began to feel a bit worthless and that the organization had forgotten us. The time in Kampala, working and leading a more semi-normal life, dragged on. We lived on a week by week basis, being ready to ‘go’ whenever the word came from our supervisor. I visited one of our field sites in South Sudan once in November, but was not allowed to stay in Juba. I did though get sick in Juba while transitioning from a field site to Kampala, so I had to stay two weeks in my old room. It was some flu or food poisoning or both, combined with vertigo like I’ve never experienced. I packed up my room in anticipation of not returning and flew back to Kampala when I was strong enough to stand and walk without getting too dizzy. Once in Kampala, I was happy to be back. There was good healthcare, good food, secure streets to walk on.

As December came upon us, we didn’t know quite where we stood. We still couldn’t lay down our roots in Kampala because we were always on call, nor could we claim Juba as our home as we hadn’t been there in five months and the prognosis for return wasn’t very high. Christmas came with a glittery plastic tree that we purchased and set up to raise the spirits; Ugandan staff from the same organization were there for us in such a loving manner, but the anxiety of living in two different places began to wear down our senses. My second R&R came, and I flew back to the East Coast for one week to be home. While there, the girls in Kampala finally got the call to move to a new house very abruptly, and a day or two later, we finally the call that we could return to Juba on the 10th of January came. Besides the anxiety that comes when someone else moves house for you, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to South Sudan. At that point I felt so ostracized from the Juba context, and honestly I was scared to go back. Typhoid and weekend bouts of food poisoning were not uncommon for me, and with an already pre-existent tendency for high leveled anxiety, I wasn’t convinced that Juba was my home anymore. But neither was Kampala.

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We went back to Juba with ten heavy bags as closer friends; almost like sisters. After all, we had simultaneously experienced the ongoing mental tension of a heavy workload coupled with not having a stable home for six months. In light of everything, the experience gave us a small reality of what it felt like to be a refugee, only that we had proper beds and meals without the stress of knowing if our loved ones were alive or not. Real refugees have no bed, no food and no confidence that it will be okay tomorrow. Having lived in a homeless state once, I could probably do it again, but wouldn’t want to do it again. Humans need roots and community. Being rootless for six months was more emotional and mental than I ever would have imagined.

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