The civil conflict that has engulfed South Sudan over the past 15 months has had ethnic dimensions, and has particularly ignited tensions between the Dinka and Nuer communities. But the crisis in South Sudan – like the country itself – is far more complex than many people may assume. While providing assistance in some places, WFP’s rapid response teams have seen people from all communities working together. Gideon Thompson, a South Sudanese programme officer for WFP, shares his experience of how food distribution brought communities together in Kotdalok, a small village in Jonglei State.
KOTDALOK - I had never heard of Kotdalok before the head of WFP’s emergency response unit notified me that I had to lead a rapid response mission to that location in Jonglei State. But I am happy that we travelled there, as it showed us the difference we can make as people when we work as one.
Most of the people currently staying in Kotdalok, a village in Ayod County, are internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled fighting that took place in the county in May 2014.
The Kotdalok IDPs are a mixed population of Dinka and Nuer ethnicities with a lot of intermarriages. When one reads about the current conflict in South Sudan, it is possible to think that these two communities just cannot live together. That isn’t the case here. Both groups have suffered from the impact of the conflict: They could not grow crops, they have lost most of their livelihoods and there is a serious absence of basic social services such as health facilities.
When our rapid response team landed in early March, we met with the local authorities to introduce ourselves and explain our mission. One of their first requests was that we allow our registration to last for at least three days to enable Dinka communities, which were in the villages outside Kotdalok, to come for the exercise.
Many of the people within village were ethnic Nuer, so some of our team members asked the authorities if they had any concerns about tension or even fighting among the communities. They assured us that there was no need to fear. And indeed there was nothing to worry about. The registration exercise went on smoothly, and we registered all people from all ethnicities as guided by the humanitarian principles of impartiality, humanity and neutrality.
Like most of the villages in this area, Kotdalok is inaccessible by road. The villages are surrounded by swamps – which make it hard for attacking forces to reach those who seek refuge there. That’s one of the reason people seek shelter from fighting there.
For WFP, this means we can only bring the much needed food commodities by air (airlifts and airdrops). The local authorities mobilised both Dinka and Nuer community members to clear the portion of land that would serve as a drop zone.
When the airdrops started, a mixed group from the two communities worked as porters, collecting bags of cereals and pulses and stacking them. They worked side-by-side, carrying the heavy bags together for two solid days until we completed our airdrops.
The distribution that followed was also a lesson in unity and purpose. We safely and peacefully assisted around 8,000 people here, and there was no fighting between groups.
It was the first time that many of these people were receiving any kind of food assistance. Some of them told us that they had lost hope of eating cereals again until peace returned. The food they received would be a tremendous help for now. Their hope is that peace can come so they can again cultivate their own food.
Our team was impressed by the people’s dignity despite their difficult conditions. The spirit of sacrifice for one another was admirable. What we witnessed gave me hope for my country. To see my people working hand in hand and at peace with one another is what we need for South Sudan to develop – not conflict.
By Gideon Thompson, WFP South Sudan