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» South Sudan: When It Started (working piece) Travis Warrington

South Sudan: When It Started (working piece)   Leave a comment

I has been too long since I have published anything on this blog. After grad school I didn’t really know what to write about. Post-graduation from Brandeis University I packed my belongings and moved to Nairobi to be closer to my (then) partner, who at the time was working in Somalia. While in Kenya it took me about 9 months to get a job, after countless applications, informational interviews and depressing movements. The NGO that picked me up? Nonviolent Peaceforce/South Sudan (NP/SS).

Since my time in South Sudan, I took some time off…time to myself and enjoy married life with my (now) wife. After being in South Sudan for 16-months, I didn’t want to think about it or talk about it; I just wanted to forget it for a while. I returned to the U.S. in February 2015. It has been two years since the crisis started. And now, I feel I am ready to share my story.

I remember when the crisis (the current one) started in South Sudan. I was there. I was there in one of the worse places to be in while in South Sudan at the time. My contract with NP/SS started November 18th, 2013. I was a part of a mobile emergency response protection team based out of Bor, Jonglei. We were sent to remote places throughout Jonglei for WFP food distributions and to mainstream protection for the (at the time) David Yau Yau (DYY) separatist faction in the state. I was on my second mission to Gumruck. I will never forget it. Flying into Gumruck – a place that has little to no roads and in the middle of nowhere – next to a UN Mission of South Sudan (UNMISS) base. Small village with many women gathering from neighboring hamlets for their food ration from WFP. All hell broke loose when someone’s baby died during the distribution and the iodine ink (used to mark a person’s finger and the child’s toe to signify they had received their ration) what to blame. My team sprung into action and liaised with the village chiefs (who we knew), MSF, and the agency actually distributing the food to address the issue. My heart was racing. Tensions were high. People needed to receive their food, and trust had to be re-secured in order to continue the distribution. What a rush. Finally, The calm came. No more blame was apparent. Food was given and received. Life moved on.

We flew back to Bor from Gumruck after seven or so days in the field. This was circa December 12th-ish, 2013. We were planning our next mission, as well as the arrival of an incoming new team member – a fellow American. I was excited, and so was the team, to get a new colleague. We wrote these events on our monthly whiteboard calendar. Until the next mission, it was our ‘weekend’. The NP/SS-Bor office was shared with the Bor team as well, and the nearest team was in Waat. At the time, we had a few national staff there with one international. At the time, it was only four of us at the office/compound.

Then on December 14th our national colleague came back from Bor town. He reported that something was happening. From our compound we could hear shots being fired in the distance, coming from the direction of the WFP-Bor compound. We reported the incident to our main office in Juba. Issues had started there as well. Shots got closer. We told our local national staff to go home to be with their families. The rest of us decided to pack up some stuff and go to the UNMISS-Bor compound for the night. At UNMISS, we chatted with other humanitarians and UN personnel about what is happening. No one had a clear idea what was going on and how massive this event would be for the country.

The next day we came back to the NP/SS-Bor compound. Our hired guards were present but spooked. Our plan was to pack up our belongings and sleep at the UNMISS-Bor compound. Once there, we would be safer and be able to fly out if needed. As we packed up our stuff and stacked it on our white Land Cruiser, I had two thoughts: what about the NGO’s assets and what about the belongs of our colleagues who are not here (in Waat). The team thought that bringing our NGO’s main assets (Thurayas, radios, air mattresses – basically anything of high value that could not be purchased in country), but they didn’t seem to care about other’s stuff. We packed the truck. As we drove off we told the guards to stay as long as they could but ultimately save themselves if it meant leaving the compound. They obeyed. I remember that we left a lot of stuff, and that our office/compound didn’t look abandoned. We drove off and towards UNMISS. I wouldn’t be back to Bor and my former compound until several months later.

The next five-days or so were spent staying and sleeping within the safety and confines of the UNMISS-Bor compound. The UN heads told us (all the humanitarians seeking refuge) to set up our tents on this small grassy area, which happened to be right next to two container-sized generators. By day, we had meetings, shared cigarettes, ate rice and beans, and drunk beer. At night, it was hard to sleep due to the loud generators. Yet, more troubleshoot were the shots seen (tracer bullets) and heard from AK-47s, RPGs and mortars being fired over (and back-and-forth) the compound.

On the third-ish day of our stay at the UNMISS compound we had another humanitarian meeting, and one member of each NGO was requested to be at this meeting; we chose my American coworker (at that time it was only the two of left from NP/SS). Suddenly, a loud and very close noise occurred. It was an RPG, which landed inside the UN compound. I remember hearing the noise, standing up and looking towards it to figure out what in the hell it was – all the while everyone else around me was running the opposite direction. The people in the meeting heard the RPG as well and stormed the door. Meeting participants pushed people out of their way to be able to exit the container (building), and I remember thinking, “This isn’t the way humanitarians should act!” Then someone called my name and told me to run. The crowd ran towards the nearest bunkers. Then, after people thought we were in the wrong place, we ran to another set of bunkers. Then, we sat/stood and waited. For hours. In fear, and with no to little information. Then it got dark. After a while we were told to “go back.” But what you have to remember is that we all were sleeping in camping tents, which wouldn’t stop any bullet let alone another RPG. Nerve racking.

That night, or possibly another night while in that compound, I got a call from my American coworker. I was half asleep when she called, and I remember being confused as to why she called me when she was literally sleeping in the tent next to mine. She yelled, “Keep laying down; don’t get up!” I was confused, as all I could really hear was the generators. Then she said, “Bullets. Shots” and I knew; there was gunfire overhead and it was extremely close to us. Needless, I didn’t sleep well this night.

During this ordeal I was in contact with my (then) fiancée. I didn’t communicate with my parents, as I didn’t want to worry them, so I asked my fiancée to relay the info to them back in Seattle. I wasn’t completely open as to what was happening. I may have been numb at that point.

During our stay at the UNISS compound, the humanitarians worked with the WFP air-ops to plan evacuation plans for all the humanitarians. First would be nationals (South Sudanese), as they were in the most danger. Then it was sick or injured or people who needed to leave immediately (e.g. people with pre-arranged connecting flights for their R&R). So, our one national team member left first, and in the second day our Kenyan colleague left as well. Then, the NP/SS-Bor team was with two of us, both Americans. We vowed to not leave each other alone, and we were side-by-side the almost the entire time from that point forward. One day, we were on the roaster of people to fly out. But as we were leaving, there was a miscommunication between WFP and OCHA. This meant that a few of the people on the flight roaster couldn’t go that day. The focal point asked something like, “Who has been here the longest?” or “Who has a medical condition that requires them to leave today?” Many, if not most, said, “yes” to the latter. Their medical condition to require them to fly that day? “My leg hurts” or they just didn’t have an answer. After a few minutes of yelling and tears, my coworker and I, who refused to leave without the other, gave our seats to others who were being selfish. As we watched the armed escort leave that day to take people to the Bor airport, my coworker dropped to her knees with her face buried in her hands, me trying to console her with my hand on her shoulder. We were exhausted from the stress and the worry. Another night would be spent in hell, watching and listening to bullets flying overhead. The next day, we would make damn sure we were getting on a flight and getting the hell out.

Next day, we were on the roaster. First ones on the list. We repacked our stuff one last time. Locked our Land Cruiser, and gave the keys to the Logs person of the compound. Again, there was some miscommunication and the armed escort was not ready. We could go without it, but risk being shot once outside the compound and/or stopped but any armed group was too high. If we waited for the escort, we may miss our flight. So, we waited. The armed escort arrived. We could only bring one or maybe two bags. We crammed into two, heavily fortified armed vehicles, who were driven by UN Peacekeepers armed to the teeth. Once inside, there were small fans blowing but it was still a scorching 100+ degrees. We drove away from the compound, and saw our first glimpse of what occurred since arriving.

The civilian population of Bor had attempted to also seek refuge in the UNMISS compound. Outside the gates were long queues of people waiting to enter. People who were desperate attempted to breech the barbed wire fence and throw over their mattresses, tables, and other belongs. UN Peacekeepers were seen shoving and arguing with civilians, and at times using brute force for crowd control. We drove toward one of the main intersection of town, where we saw one burned military Land Cruiser. We turned left towards Bor town. We had to drive slow and carefully, as there was a tremendous amount of people on the road. They were all going to the one of the NGO’s compound (I’m pretty sure it was Save’s compound) as it was the closest to the UNMISS base. There was literally a queue of people going from the UNMISS compound, to NGO’s compound, and back. Civilians were looting the compound of their NFIs and whatever else they could find. Women carrying buckets, tarps, etc. – anything they could loot, they took. We continued to drive until we reached the airport parking lot, and allowed the Peacekeepers to secure the area. Then, one by one, we jumped from the escort vehicles and into the airport. By that time, the airport had no personnel and had been looted at well. Nothing worked (which wasn’t a big surprise before the crisis started). We sat. We waited. During this entire ordeal I befriended a few fellow humanitarians – an Aussie, a Spaniard, and a Brit – and grew extremely close to my American coworker. When a person undergoes through an experience like this, bonds create families. As we sat together, chatted about ‘what next.’ Another hour of waiting passed, and still no evacuation helicopter. I looked out the airport window to see the constant stream of people looting that NGO’s compound, and I remember being in complete amazement. I didn’t peak out too long as I didn’t want a IO member to see me.

Finally, the helicopter came. We loaded up, and took off nearly vertical. At that moment I could tell my coworker breathed a sigh of relief. For me, not yet. Helicopters can only fly so high, and a well timed RPG or bullet could still hit us. I was tense the entire way to Juba. Passengers were shaking, some were fixated out the window, others just sat in silence.

We landed in Juba and were immediately met with the chaos of the Juba Airport. My coworker and I found out that the American flight out of Juba had not taken off yet so we put our names down on the list in hopes of flying out that same day. We found the acting CD of NP/SS and my manager to debrief them, and hand over the hand-over the hand-held assets and remaining NGO cash-on-hand. We met them for coffee but my coworker and I were on edge, wanted answers and to get out. I also wanted to know about our coworkers in Waat; if they had gotten out or if they had heard from them. They didn’t really have answers. At that time my manager admitted that she was leaving. When I heard that I thought to myself, “Well, when your boss leaves, then you should too.” As we got back from coffee, the queue for the American flight had started. I remember a U.S. Embassy worker, who had a cast on, yelling at a Ugandan woman, stating, “If you want to get on this flight, you will do as I have told you!” Tensions were high. Everybody wanted out of South Sudan. We braved the heat, exhausting queue and urine-filled air to the airport building. Once we checked-in we entered into the other side of the airport to wait for the flight to board. We placed our luggage in a queue to be thrown under the plane. Once we all sat down, the U.S. Ambassador boarded the plane, welcomed us, wished us all good luck, and sent us on our way. As the plane took off my hand hurt so much as I found myself gripping the arm rests as tightly as possible. Once we were high in the air, tears fell. We didn’t have time to ponder, respond to, or reflect upon what we had just saw, smelled, witness, experienced and were a part of. Smiles came, and I hugged my coworker.

Before our decent, we were given forms to fill out and told to have our passports ready as we departed the aircraft. The forms were to be signed as we were obligated to pay back the U.S. Government the cost of the flight. As we departed the plane, someone took photos of each of our passports. (Months later the USG sent me a bill for $800+ that I was required to pay).

We landed in Nairobi in the evening. I had already called my fiancée’s brother, who was living in our apartment, to send a taxi for me. I pleaded for my coworker to join me but she knew my fiancée would be there in a few days from Somalia and she didn’t want to impose. So, she tried to go to the hotel that the U.S. Embassy would fund. (After she figured out the U.S. Embassy required some fee or something, she eventually came to my apartment). In this time, we ate good food and enjoyed ourselves. But, I remember, once we were at a mall and a few women were wearing high heals. The ‘clack’ noise of the pumps maybe flinch and cover my head as they sounded like the gun shots that I had heard constantly just days before. The this day I have the same reaction to loud, sudden noises.

My fiancée, who was already en route to Nairobi from Somalia, joined us and we had Christmas together. I came back to South Sudan three weeks later, and worked for NP/SS until July 2014. In that time I returned to Bor on a mission with NP/SS to conduct rScreen Shot 2015-12-18 at 5.37.42 PMesearch on the intentions of the thousands of civilians stranded along the river between Lakes and Jonglei States. In that time I returned to our former office/compound. A colleague of mine (the Kenyan) told me that he returned a few weeks later to find a dead body near the gate, who was then buried there. As we (myself and our Security Officer) entered the compound we made ourselves known, in case there was someone inside. We stepped carefully and intentionally so as to not trigger any landmines that may have been laid in the ground, and made sure we took the same path when we returned. All the windows were shot out, with bullets holes throughout the brick walls. The entire building smelled like bat guano. Everything was gone. I mean Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 5.37.26 PMeverything. In a building that had two office spaces and a share living space, all that was left was paper thrown throughout the floor. In some of the rooms there were remnants of pools of blood, most likely from a group killing another person or group who had claimed this property as their own. People even took the water tanks and the generator (it could have been the GoSS military – the SPLA – or the IO)! What I did find was hate speech and propaganda as well as the whiteboard calendar in our former office (see photos). My name was still on there from our last mission. When I saw the calendar my hear skipped a beat. It was surreal. Time stopped for a moment as I reflected on what had happened since then, and what was left. My colleague and I couldn’t ‘pick up the pieces’, so to speak as there were no pieces left. We combed the rest of the compound to see if we could savage anything else, and we left the compound speechless.

Next, I was hired by Oxfam GB until February 2015, when I flew back to the U.S. to be with my wife. Since then, I have come back to Seattle, WA were my life continues. South Sudan will never leave my thScreen Shot 2015-12-18 at 5.37.35 PMoughts. The experience I had while in Bor when the South Sudan crisis began will be a constant memory.

I may publish another post on my thoughts and hopes for South Sudan in the coming future.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted December 19, 2015 by Travis Warrington in Conflict

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