"We cannot do our work if our own lives are at risk"

Publié: 21 septembre 2015 11:10 CET

When violence erupted in South Sudan, a communication officer with the South Sudan Red Cross was caught up in the middle of it while trying to deliver aid to families who had been affected. He went into hiding with other volunteers, surviving for weeks on plants and dead animals. Zakaria Hoth Keah talks about his journey to safety. 

How did you come to join the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement? 

I joined The Sudanese Red Crescent as a volunteer in 2004, and later, in 2007, I was recruited as a communication officer. When South Sudan gained its independence, followed by the formation of the South Sudan Red Cross, I maintained my position as the communication officer in Unity State. I am in charge of disseminating the Red Cross values and the Fundamental Principles, and assisting vulnerable communities affected by the ongoing conflict. 

When violence broke out, you went into hiding. Describe your experience. 

I was in Leer with some volunteers, working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross, distributing relief to people who had been displaced. When violence erupted again on 15 May this year, we were forced to leave the area and we moved towards the eastern part of Leer County near the Nile bank. We were hiding in a swamp and feeding on the very little we could find. This included water lilies and, at times, dead animals. It was the only way to sustain ourselves for weeks on end.

To make matters worse, I injured my right foot after stepping on a sharp object, but I had no choice but to keep walking in the direction of the Protection of Civilian (PoC) site in Rubkona, where I could seek medical attention. I walked painfully through Koch and Guit Counties for 15 days, as the injury in my foot grew worse and a serious infection started developing.

What belongings were you able to take with you when you ran for safety?

When I evacuated from Leer, I took my office laptop and my certificates. I also took a tent to help me get through the nights I imagined I would be spending in the field. During the long agonizing walk, my bag felt heavier and heavier, and at times I wondered whether the bag was worth carrying at all. But then I thought to myself, if I die, then my belongings have no more value, they may as well perish with me. But if I survive, then having my computer and my certificates would have made that decision worthwhile. I managed to reach the PoC site with my belongings, and as I am speaking with you now, this is the very laptop which survived the trip all the way from Leer. It’s a survivor like me! 

When I arrived at the PoC site, I was immediately taken to the hospital and given a tetanus shot.  The following day, I was able to send an e-mail to the South Sudan Red Cross headquarters in Juba which helped me obtain the evacuation I needed to get to Juba for further treatment and care.

I have now fully recovered and I am ever so thankful to the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement for its support and assistance throughout this traumatic experience. My family remains at the PoC site in Rubkona and is also doing well.

You have risked your life to help others. What message would you like to share on the importance of ensuring humanitarian workers are protected?

I urge everyone involved in any conflict, whether in South Sudan or elsewhere, to actively ensure the safety of humanitarian workers who are carrying out their duties in the field. We cannot do our work if our own lives are at risk. I sincerely hope that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else. The message I want to convey to you today is, let the South Sudan Red Cross volunteers do their work, in safety. Prevention is better than a cure.