18 February 2019
A New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) officer serving in South Sudan thinks there is hope for the war-torn country despite widespread poverty and despair caused by decades of conflict in the area.
South Sudan’s civil war, which erupted in 2013, has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. About 400,000 people have died, more than four million have fled their homes and about half of the country’s 12.5 million people face severe hunger because of the conflict.
“New Zealand, and the NZDF in particular, is making a worthwhile contribution in a very challenged nation,” said Major James Martin, who is a Military Observer for the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS).
Major Martin, who grew up in Melrose, south Wellington, is based at Malakal in the north-eastern part of the country close to the borders with Sudan and Ethiopia.
He works with 24 other UN Military Observers from 18 countries to carry out patrols around the Upper Nile state. He also helps liaise with government and rebel forces to arrange access for UN personnel and the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Dust storms, daytime temperatures that soar to 42 degrees, venomous mambas and stray dogs are among the day-to-day challenges he has to deal with. However, mostly he is confronted by the immense challenges faced by people in the conflict-torn Central African country.
Many people were living in makeshift settlements with no medical facilities, schools and basic utilities, he said.
During a recent patrol he helped a medic from the Rwanda Defence Force provide first aid to two South Sudanese children who had infected wounds.
“One of the boys, who was about four, had an open cut on his foot and was walking barefoot in the mud. The other boy, who was about three, had a five-centimetre wound on his scalp that was seriously infected. We told his mother that the child needed to go to the nearest Medecins sans Frontieres clinic but unfortunately that was 100 kilometres away.”
Although government forces and rebel groups are mostly adhering to the peace agreement signed last September, the people were sceptical that it would hold, Major Martin said.
Born in Tunbridge Wells in the United Kingdom, Major Martin emigrated to Wellington with his family when he was eight.
Following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, who was an officer in the British Army, he joined the New Zealand Army in 2010 after graduating with an honours degree in English literature and economics from the University of Otago.
“The Army seemed more interesting than an office job and my experiences so far have proven that.”