It may not be me. It may be one of my friends, or a co-worker, or one of the other aid workers who live on my street. But it’s going to happen: we will be attacked.
Best-case scenario: we get robbed. They take our things and they leave. We’ve backed up our hard drives, saved our favourite photos online, we’re ready for this. Worst-case scenario: we get raped. Or killed. It’s a 50/50 split on which people think is worse.
Over the past four months, security for aid workers in South Sudan has sharply deteriorated. For a few weeks, it was estimated that there was one attempted NGO compound break-in per day. Thankfully, for the time being, many of those attempts have been unsuccessful. But far more worrying is the growing incidence of violence against humanitarian staff, particularly a new trend of sexual violence.
It starts out like any other night: you have dinner with friends, have a few drinks, and catch a ride home before your 10pm curfew. If you’ve had a particularly long week, maybe you stay out a little past curfew to blow off steam. On your way home, you’re stopped at a checkpoint. Men with AK47s stand in the road, and they’re wearing uniforms, so your driver stops. They approach the car, and tell your male friends to get out. Then the armed men get in the car, and everything goes horribly, irreversibly wrong.
This is the scenario that keeps every female aid worker in South Sudan awake at night. Sometimes, the women have been able to escape. Other times, they have not.
Even with the best security procedures in place, it is difficult to know how to prevent these situations. Our curfews have been lowered. Aid workers have been banned from going to one of the most popular restaurants in Juba after two such incidents occurred just outside their doors. But with these attacks happening more and more frequently, eventually it begins to feel like it’s just a matter of time. We’re sitting ducks.
There are no easy answers on how to manage this. We’re doing everything we can to be prepared in case of the worst: we’re updating our guidelines on managing sexual assault, ensuring we have staff who are trained to administer HIV post-exposure prophylaxis, and doing everything we can to help our staff be prepared. But it’s not enough. We should never be in this situation in the first place.
Nevertheless, aid workers continue to get up and work six or seven days a week to address the overwhelming humanitarian needs in South Sudan. Famine is looming, massacres are regular in parts of the country, and more than 180 000 people still seek protection in UN bases. There is simply no time to slow down.
In the same way that we need the humanitarian leadership and international community to engage on issues of violence against civilians, we also need those same leaders to engage on issues of violence against humanitarian staff. The current environment is untenable. Humanitarians cannot be effective at their jobs when the risk of violence against them or their friends is not just a possibility, but a probability. We have done everything we can. But now, we need help. – By Secret aid worker
We are reporting stories of sexual violence against aid workers; you can contact us confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org with Secret aid worker in the subject line.
Image – The flag of South Sudan flies outside the United Nations after a flag-raising ceremony on the day the General Assembly voted to admit the newly formed nation of South Sudan to the UN July 14, 2011 at UN headquarters in New York. (AFP)