South Sudan: Aweil branch

By Malcolm Lucard and Katherine Mueller, IFRC

“We love this work of ours because what we are doing is not for one particular person but for all the people in Aweil, in South Sudan and even Africa,” says Mary Achol Athian Athian, a volunteer at the South Sudan Red Cross branch in Aweil, a city of roughly 150,000 in Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal state.

Mary is just one of nearly a dozen branch volunteers who often walk, or ride bikes, for many hours to their field work because the branch has only one motorized vehicle.

22-year-old Chan Kuar Dut, a Restoring Family Links volunteer often spends days in the bush, riding his bike along bumpy roads and narrow footpaths, in efforts to reconnect separated families or to assess the needs of displaced people. “They are very unlucky,” he says. “They are in need of hospital care, medicine and shelter.”

Like several of the National Society’s newer branches, the Aweil branch has little infrastructure, equipment and support to offer volunteers. Its headquarters has no running water, radio for communications with field teams, electricity, computer, internet access or latrine. Despite the limitations, volunteers are able to pull off amazing results, promoting hygiene, offering first aid, building water points, and distributing food or non-food items to thousands of people in extremely vulnerable communities.  

In a country dealing with internal strife, lawlessness, little infrastructure, and on-going war along its northern border face, there are often many challenges. “The most important thing is just to be neutral,” says volunteer Peter Geng. “Wherever we go, we always talk to people about the principles of Neutrality and Impartiality, that we don’t take sides and that we’ve come to help everybody.”

By following the principles, says 31-year-old volunteer Philip Andrew Lino, volunteers can visit extremely impoverished camps, with limited amounts of aid, and carry out peaceful distributions. “When we explain the Principles — and do things openly, in accordance with the Principles — there is no grabbing and no quarreling during the distribution lines. Things go smoothly.”

Still not everyone understands the volunteers’ mission. Sometimes, army personnel block Red Cross vehicles, and some communities affected by war and inter-communal violence, can be distrustful. “We have to build trust,” notes volunteer Abraham Yelwek. “If we go abruptly into the community, they might even think we are an enemy.”

What keeps the volunteers going? “When the distribution is done correctly and people who really need the aid are served, that makes me feel good; that’s my motivation,” says Geng. For 22-year-old volunteer Sunday Acheer, a recent hygiene promotion where all people in the community listened attentively was particularly satisfying. “When people understand the message and take it seriously I feel very happy and motivated.”

“Every human being is born with the energy to help their community,” adds Lino. “This is why I am energized to help all humanity, not just in South Sudan but for everyone in the whole wide world. I will even go to Europe and help!”