Matilda Cooper, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegate, has spent the past year working to protect and rebuild communities in the Western Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan. Here, she talks about the challenges that face the world’s youngest country following nearly four decades of civil war.
Given that South Sudan has so many humanitarian issues to focus on, what have been the key priorities for the ICRC?
As a delegation in a new country, we faced new challenges despite the fact that the ICRC has been working in the area since the 1980s. The ICRC is only able to operate effectively in so many fragile areas of the world because it is trusted as a neutral organisation – therefore you need to understand the area and get to know the people. South Sudan still faces unresolved political problems, with a population that has been affected by past and present conflict. So it was vital to build dialogue with the local civilians, authorities and armed groups.
This puts us in a better position to respond to more sensitive issues and provide protection to civilians affected by conflict. We maintain a dialogue with armed groups and ensure civilians feel they can contact us during conflict if there is a breach in international humanitarian law (IHL). The ICRC can then raise these concerns in a confidential way with the relevant authority. We also provide training and legal advice to all parties, the government and the armed group, to help them better understand, and therefore respect their obligation under IHL for the benefit of the victims.
What key progress has the ICRC made in Western Bahr El Ghazal and the surrounding regions?
We are now able to make recommendations to the prison authorities regarding conditions of detention, to ensure they are in line with international standards. The next stage is for us to visit all people detained in relation to the conflict in order to assess their conditions of detention and to deliver messages between them and their families. A Red Cross message or telephone call can be a beacon of hope, helping family members and detainees exchange news.
How have you seen the ICRC’s work in South Sudan making a difference to people?
One of my favourite aspects of our work is our orthopaedic service for physically disabled people, particularly land mine victims. Once a month, the physical rehabilitation team comes from Juba to the western region for the week. They provide a drop in service where anyone can be assessed and maybe given wheelchairs, crutches or prosthetics.
I would say that is a classic example of how our work benefits people – I remember one young girl who had been fitted with a prosthetic limb some months ago and was back for a check up. She just looked absolutely delighted and a family member explained how her life had been transformed by it. For some people it means they can get married or earn money for their family – it really is life changing.
Unfortunately there are still thousands of unexploded mines in South Sudan and the need for this service is huge so the ICRC is looking to increase the orthopaedic work it does.
During the past year what were the main challenges?
The key challenge for me has been joining a new Red Cross delegation in a new country – from building up a basic structure to the recruiting and training of staff. Most countries have an established Red Cross with local staff that know the area inside out and can provide advice, whereas I didn’t have this established support. Recruiting good national staff has been difficult too, the country has been ravaged by civil war meaning many people missed out on good education.
I have developed many new skills over the course of the last year and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to such valuable work. In terms of my daily working life, logistics have been an obstacle at times. During the rainy season, a large number of roads become inaccessible and you have to look at other, more difficult ways of getting to places if you are to reach people. Also due to the ongoing instability, you have to be prepared for possible bombings in border areas at any moment. This has definitely developed my flexibility and increased my tolerance threshold in order to get the job done!