Serving in War-Torn South Sudan a Privilege Despite Risks, NZDF Officer Says

12 July 2018

A New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) officer serving as a United Nations peacekeeper in South Sudan has to navigate the threats from ethnic violence, as well as dirt roads that turn into muddy rivers during the rainy season.

Major Stephen Challies is a Military Liaison Officer for the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). Based in Yambio, a city 445 kilometres west of the South Sudanese capital of Juba, he works with 13 other peacekeepers in the UNMISS field office to support the mission’s mandate to protect civilians, create conditions conducive to the delivery of aid, and monitor and investigate human rights abuses.

“It’s a privilege to serve as part of a multi-national peacekeeping force and to help bring aid to people in need,” Major Challies said.

“I have such a huge admiration for Africa and its people, and it’s heartening to see the resilience of the South Sudanese despite what they’ve been through.”

However, the fluid security situation and the rain could make it difficult to use dirt roads to move aid supplies, he said.

During a recent patrol to Tumbura, a small town close to South Sudan’s western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, Major Challies had to contend with threats of kidnapping and armed attack and poor road conditions as he led 90 UN personnel on a 25-vehicle convoy.

South Sudan has been riven by civil war for the past five years.

The conflict has forced about 3.5 million people to flee their homes, with nearly half going to neighbouring Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia. It has also caused pockets of the country to suffer from famine.
Amid the spiralling violence and the worsening humanitarian crisis, the South Sudanese try to restore some normalcy in their lives, Major Challies said. 

“It’s heartening to see competitive sport, particularly football, being played regularly, with huge community support.

“I am amazed by the vision and energy of the South Sudanese youth. Despite their predicament they want nothing other than a better life for themselves and their communities.”

South Sudan can be enormously challenging even for seasoned soldiers like Major Challies, who has served in several conflict-ridden environments in his 37-year career in the NZDF.

Major Challies joined the New Zealand Army in 1982, after attending St Bede’s College in Christchurch.

An infantry officer, he has served in UN missions in Angola, Kosovo and East Timor and the Nato-led multinational peacekeeping force deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Bosnian war.

“I continue to live the dream every day and couldn’t think of myself doing something else,” he said.

“I still genuinely enjoy my work and have found it very satisfying all these years.”

This page was last reviewed on 7 February 2019.