The new normal in South Sudan

Published: 28 March 2014 7:40 CET

Maria Nilsson, IFRC/Swedish Red Cross

I have now been back in Juba for little more than a month. Before Christmas, many international staff with the Red Cross were evacuated due to the conflict which broke out in South Sudan in mid-December. For weeks I was following the news from home in Sweden, looking for information on what was happening in the country, communicating with colleagues still in South Sudan and sitting glued to my computer – working from a distance and waiting to hear news. When I was given the “ok” to return to Juba it was with mixed feelings; very happy to return and support my colleagues at the South Sudan Red Cross in their emergency response to assist people affected by the conflict, but also worried about what the situation would be like and how it would unfold.

Being back in Juba again feels normal in many ways, like it used to. I recognize the heat, the wonderful colleagues at the South Sudan Red Cross, the hectic office environment, the same small, cramped supermarkets, the crazy traffic along Juba’s few paved roads and a myriad of aid agencies around town. But many other things are far from normal. We now have a curfew, meaning we have to be at home by 8 p.m. Living in Juba we are used to curfews. Even before the conflict we had one, although it was later in the evening.

The rains have also started early this year. That is not normal. We are barely into March and in the last week it has already rained four times. I like the rains – they help bring the temperature down from a feeling of boiling near 40 degrees Celsius to below 30, which is more bearable. But this time the rains are bittersweet. With hundreds of thousands of people displaced across the country, the rains also mean it is going to become more difficult to access areas which are already, in normal circumstances, difficult to reach. The rains also bring a potential increase in diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea.

One of the temporary settlements for displaced people in Juba was flooded by yesterday’s rains. It is easy to understand why. As I was driving home from work there was more than 30 centimetres of water flooding the streets, rushing down the slopes towards the settlement. This morning we heard reports of much of the settlement being flooded and peoples’ shelters destroyed. The day before, people in the settlement had taken the gravel-type soil, which the South Sudan Red Cross had meant to use near the water points they are operating, to try and protect their shelters and raise the ground to keep the flood waters away. They have also been taking this soil from the roadside for protection around their shelters, clearly showing how desperate they are now that the rains are coming. Life for them is far from normal.

The settlement area is where I used to go jogging in the evenings, before the fighting escalated. It was somewhere I could escape the hectic traffic of the Juba streets and jog in safety. Now, it is crowded with people struggling to save their basic shelters from the rain, cramped together in a small space, but still too afraid to return to their homes. I no longer run here. I fear it will be awhile before the situation returns to normal.