Watching South Sudan and its people evolve is proving a life-enhancing experience, writes Major Ron Christmas.
Photo of Convoy escort between Rwandan Coys and MLOs. Countries represented are: NZ, Rwanda, Germany, Brasil, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Guatamala
My role in support to the mission is as a military liaison officer (MLO) based in Yambio. Yambio is in the Western Equatorial Region (WER) of South Sudan and shares an international border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic .It is the capital of WER and the location of the UNMISS Base for the region.
The ground is not dissimilar to what you would find in East Timor and the Solomon Islands – there are plenty of trees, bush and other vegetation in this area. If you are fond of fresh mangoes every day, then this is the place for you. They grow everywhere, including the Base, and it has become a sport, seeing who can get them first when you hear them fall from the tree (they are not familiar with rugby here so a couple of fends and a well timed tackle can usually result in a fresh mango). To the uninitiated, the crack and thud of a mango hitting the roof of your accommodation, especially at night, can sound like the beginning of something more sinister, but you soon get used to it.
As an MLO, I work in a cell of other MLOs from many nations. Currently my MLO colleagues are from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Yemen, Canada, Germany, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Nigeria, and we are about to welcome a new colleague from Ghana. Rwanda also provides the force troops for base and airfield security as well as force protection for patrols and convoy escorts.
Each day I find myself interacting in some way with UN personnel from other African nations, South Sudan, Russia, Philippines and the Middle Eastern regions, to name a few. Most speak English, albeit as a second or third language. Communication overall is generally straight forward, it’s the accents, including our own, and pronunciation that lead to some confused looks and entertaining moments.
My role as an MLO is varied. In camp, the cell has several staff functions that need to be carried out – operations, information, training, logistics and administration. I found myself in the operations, information and training, functions, sometimes simultaneously due to people being on leave, on patrol or away for other matters.
Additionally, we conduct three types of patrols which vary in time. Our task on these patrols is to get a sense of the security situation, typically through liaison and Key Leadership Engagement. We are also there to negotiate checkpoints on convoy escort tasks.
There are no Protection of Civilian sites in WER, however, there are Internally Displaced Persons Camps (IDP) and a Refugee Camp. As part of our patrols, we visit these sites and meet with community leaders and representatives. This is normally done in conjunction with some of the civilian groups within UNMISS, such as Child Protection or Civil Affairs. Many are built around a local church, being the place most will run to when scared. The IDPs are equally as scared of the Government as they are of armed groups and bandits, and have usually been the victim of both sides. They look to UNMISS to provide security so they can return to their crops without fear of attack or reprisal.
Their conditions are rudimentary; families live in makeshift shelters, maybe with a tarpaulin to assist with keeping the weather out, but mostly just a thatch-style hut. Their clothing is often grubby and well worn. The church and other agencies provide what they can, some have it better than others. At one of the camps they have a soccer field and a school; however, in other camps, food and sanitation is scarce, if not non-existent. The UNMISS role here is to report, so that the proper agencies can get in and provide the necessary essentials - shelter, food, clean water and sanitation.
I was asked what I’ve found tough on this deployment. One thing has been watching our first born, who is under one, grow up through photographs and the occasional video chat. Another is seeing children his age just surviving, their parents struggling each day to give them the necessities. On reflection, it reminds me that even at home in a place like New Zealand, there are children and parents facing similar struggles, albeit for different reasons than here. When I heard about South Sudan it seemed like such a long way away from NZ, but in that sense, I’m not so certain the distance is as great as we would like to believe. I, like many of you perhaps, also used to ask “why, if they’re so poor, and there is no food, do they keep having babies?” I think I have the answer to that now – the chance of their one child surviving to adulthood is low, but the chance of one child of several reaching adulthood is much higher. I have grown from this – as an individual, a father, a partner and a soldier.