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Surviving 3 Months In The Conflict Zone Of South Sudan

20/09/2016 12:41 PM IST | Updated 21/09/2016 8:26 AM IST
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I knew I was going into a conflict zone, but I was more worried about food than the political context of South Sudan. "How will I survive as a vegetarian?" was a thought that crossed my mind several times. My fears proved unfounded, because on my first day in the country I saw chapatis being prepared. What more could someone from Chhattisgarh have asked for?

From April to July this year I worked as an all-round logistician at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)'s project in Thonyor in Unity State. My role was to make sure that everything ran smoothly and medical staff had all the logistical support they needed to carry out their interventions.

South Sudan was not an easy experience for me. We were living without any internet or electricity in tukuls where scorpions paid the occasional visit.

In Thonyor, MSF carries out primary health care interventions, therapeutic feeding programs, as well as mobile clinics to reach the displaced populations and those affected by violence. As Thonyor is a new site for MSF, new construction was needed to carry out interventions immediately.

Construction can be quite a challenging task in a conflict zone like South Sudan. Cement and timber were not available locally, and even something as basic as nails would have to come from Lokichoggio, situated across the border in Kenya. Due to the resource constraints, we had to utilize local materials, such as grass, wood and bamboo, as much as possible.

Climatic conditions did not make things easier, with unpredictable but heavy rainfall sometimes making the roads practically unmotorable and preventing flights (carrying supplies) from landing. On lucky days, it took our skilled drivers every inch of their concentration to keep vehicles from sliding off the perilously slushy roads. On other days, we had to wade in knee-deep mud and get our hands dirty to rescue the cars.

I was needed to build simple yet efficient structures which would streamline the entire treatment procedure and make patient organization easy so they didn't get exposed to the rain or heat while waiting for a consultation. My responsibility was to supervise the building of primary health care centres, maternity wards, warehouses and structures for out- and inpatient consultations.

Some of my colleagues had lost their family members and had even spent a few nights in swamps to escape violence.

Unfortunately, soon after the structures were completed, violence broke out in July and many of us were evacuated to MSF's project inside UN's Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp in Bentiu, as carrying out interventions in Leer and Thonyor became increasingly dangerous. The camp has a population of 120,000, consisting mostly of people from different regions who have fled violence. In the PoC, MSF operates a hospital to provide emergency care, intensive care for malnourished children, and surgical as well as maternity services.

During my brief time in Bentiu, there was an outbreak of malaria in the town. We came up with a simple structure within eight hours, with separate areas for registration, testing and treatment. The situation demanded a quick response to medical needs, and once again MSF delivered.

South Sudan was not an easy experience for me. We were living without any internet or electricity in tukuls where scorpions paid the occasional visit. But all of this pales in comparison with the suffering people in South Sudan have braved and endured. Some of my colleagues had lost their family members and had even spent a few nights in swamps to escape violence. Despite this, they retain their warmth and hope. If this is not inspirational, what is?

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MSF has been working in the region that today constitutes the Republic of South Sudan since 1983. In 2016, MSF has been running 17 regular medical projects throughout the country and in 2015 undertook close to a million medical consultations.

Memento Mori by Pablo Bartholomew

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