A Kindness in the Midst of Conflict

By Caelin Briggs
UN peacekeepers offer protection to residents of Pibor, Jonglei State from the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Photo by UNMISS
Juba, South Sudan -- A man stands in the middle of a dusty compound. Around him, 60 people sit and drink water that he paid for, eat food that he gave them, and take shelter under the roof of his own house.

Their faces are a mix of relief and sadness: relief that they escaped the violence that caused them to flee, and sadness for the destruction they have witnessed and for those they have left behind. These people are not this man’s family – in fact, he has never met most of them before today. But for these 60 people, this man is their only hope, and the only person keeping them alive.

To protect his identity, I will simply call that man James. Heis from Jonglei state in eastern South Sudan. Pibor County, his home county, is today the epicenter of a brutal campaign of violence being waged by the South Sudanese armed forces (SPLA) against the local Murle ethnic group. Jonglei gave birth to the SPLA in 1983, at the start of its long campaign to free the South Sudanese population from the oppressive powers in Khartoum. But the message from the army there today is a far cry from the inspiring rhetoric of decades past.

James no longer lives in Pibor: he has made his new home in a safer area that is further away from the conflict. He is not a humanitarian by profession, but as he stands in front of me, surrounded by 60 strangers that he cares for as his brothers and sisters, he is more of a humanitarian than most of us who call ourselves by that name.

James’ compound has become a refuge for Murle fleeing the violence in Pibor. As James and I talk, a truck arrives at his unmarked gates, and another 40 or so people hurry through his small doorway. Some cry, and some desperately hug relatives they thought they had lost.

The town where James now lives is also not friendly to the Murle population, and so James and the 100 people inside his compound keep quiet to avoid drawing attention to themselves and exposing themselves to attack.
But it is clear that James cannot keep this up for long – he is quickly exhausting his limited resources. The UN and NGOs are scrambling to find a way to support James, but for now, he is on his own.

“There are another 170 people coming,” James tells me. “Soon my compound will be full and I will have nowhere to put them to shield them from the rain.” I ask him if he knows these people, and why they come to him. “I am one of the only Murle in this town,” he says, “I don’t know them, and I don’t know how they find me. But I am the only one here that will protect them and help them. Until the UN comes, I will do whatever I can.”

Most of the displaced seeking shelter with James will eventually try to make their way to South Sudan’s capital, Juba. There, they will be further from the conflict in Jonglei – and, they hope, further from the discrimination and violence that pushed them from their homes.

All over South Sudan, people like James are giving everything they can to help vulnerable people escaping conflict. But they shouldn’t have to do it alone. The international community must step up and demand that the government of South Sudan allow humanitarian access to these conflict-affected populations, so that James won’t lose his own life trying to save those around him.