Reflections on a month in South Sudan

The ICRC's Jacob Kurtzer, who is normally based in Washington DC, spent all of January in South Sudan serving as the organization’s acting spokesperson there. 

Intense fighting, which broke out in mid-December, left hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need.

 We caught up with Jake as he was preparing to leave the capital Juba to return to the United States.

Intercross: As an American, you were arriving in South Sudan as most US citizens were being evacuated. What surprised or shocked you most when you first arrived?

Jake: I imagine there was a lot of coverage in the US about the evacuation of US citizens as a spectacular event that reflected a narrative of insecurity. Arriving here as an employee of the ICRC, the evacuation of US citizens did not particularly affect me. I know and understand the relationship the ICRC has with all the political and security actors in this context, as well as with the population it seeks to support. As in all ICRC delegations around the world, the ICRC team here works in full transparency, and in a manner that is consistent with our core principles of neutrality and impartiality. The ICRC has been working here for over 30 years, and throughout that time has built up a reputation with civilian and military alike as an organization that works exclusively for the humanitarian needs of the population. That said, I think the evacuation of Embassy personnel was an important reminder that the security situation was volatile, and focused my attention towards those people who weren’t able to board a plane to a safer place. These are the people who have sought refuge in camps or in villages away from the fighting, and that our colleagues here are working hard to support. Finally, I was struck by the power and capacity of the ICRC to mobilize. I came through Nairobi less than two weeks after the start of the fighting, and was particularly impressed by the way in which the delegation had completely reorganized itself to meet the urgent emergency needs of the affected population. As the head of delegation here, Melker Mabeck, said recently in an interview – this is what the ICRC is designed to do.

Is there a particular image or encounter that comes to mind, that somehow exemplifies this crisis?

During my time here, I have had the chance to visit two of the IDP camps in Juba, as well as hospitals in Juba and Bentiu, where ICRC teams are working. I also spent time in Awerial County, where many thousands of people, who fled fighting in Jonglei state, have sought safety. In the camps in Juba, I was particularly struck by the market that has popped up. Despite all the uncertainty and insecurity, the population has managed to set up and establish a market for basic goods and food. In a sense, it's more significant than just a place to get things, it’s also a central convening area… and that allows for a certain sense of normalcy. In Awerial County, I was able to speak with some of the women who had crossed the Nile from Bor, to try to understand a little bit more clearly what their experience had been like. People’s circumstances were quite different. One person who spoke with ICRC President Peter Maurer, who visited South Sudan in January, indicated that she had left her home with literally the shirt on her back, while the women I spoke with were able to carry a few suitcases. It reminded me that even as humanitarians and diplomats speak about crises and response in terms of numbers and statistics, there are people behind those statistics – each with their own story.

We often hear words like "victims" and "vulnerability" in relation to humanitarian crises, and while their needs might be great, people often demonstrate a tremendous degree of courage and resilience in the face of tragedy. Have you witnessed examples of this?

First, I would draw attention to our South Sudanese ICRC colleagues, who continue to come to work every day, despite the difficult challenges. Many of our colleagues have been affected in some way by the crisis, and yet they continue to work hard to support the humanitarian activities. I would also highlight the South Sudan Red Cross volunteers. For many SSRC volunteers, who work according to the same principles as the ICRC – neutrality and impartiality – the violence has taken a much more personal toll, and to see the motivation and the manner in which they continue to carry out their work is inspiring. To a certain extent, resilience is a bit hard to define, but one colleague shared with me a story today, of someone from a camp with whom he had been speaking. This individual – at some personal risk – chose to leave the camp because he had lost contact with his family. He just couldn't accept this, and so he went back to his neighbourhood and was able to locate his grandparents, and make sure that they were taken care of.

Is there one thing you wish Americans better understood about this conflict?

I think right now the narrative has tended to focus a lot on Juba and the main cities. This obviously makes sense as this is where much of the fighting has taken place, and there are significant humanitarian needs within the cities. Unfortunately, the focus on the contested cities and towns tends to exclude other affected groups, like those who are now living in the bush in hard-to-reach areas, as well as those people who have suffered from smaller scale incidents of violence, which didn't make the headlines but still impacted their lives. These are some of the people who have been most affected, and yet tragically, they receive the least attention. Another important facet to remember is that South Sudan was already dealing with the impact of previous crises. We do have a tendency to focus on the most recent violence, the newest war or disaster, and to sometimes forget others who are in need. And in the same way that we will try to maintain people's focus on the needs in South Sudan over the next few months, when attention might start to fade, it’s also important now, when there is a focus on this crisis, to remind people that there are other needs in the country as well. For example, in Western Bar-el-Ghazal and in the border regions with Sudan.

You'll return to our DC delegation soon. When you go back to meeting law and policy makers in the US Capital, what will be your message to them?

First of all, I think there is a certain measure of gratitude for the tremendous support the United States has provided to the ICRC. US funding contributes to the ability of the ICRC to respond to this particular crisis, and many others around the world. In this particular case, the ICRC was able to respond almost immediately to the emergent needs of the population because it had the resources at-the-ready, and the knowledge that the donors who have supported the ICRC in the past would again be ready to lend their support. The ICRC has significantly scaled up its operation, and other organizations will as well, but we are all familiar with the media cycle and the limited capacity for people to maintain focus. As the displacement continues, basic needs will grow. This is true, particularly as we get into the rainy season, and the inherent challenges that will bring in terms of access around the country, and the implications for public health. Secondly, I would draw the attention to the long-term impact the recent round of violence will have on the needs of the affected population. While we are all hopeful that the situation will improve quickly, it is clear that there will be humanitarian needs that must be addressed not just in the coming weeks, but looking forward to the next months and years. The ICRC does not comment on the political and diplomatic conversations taking place, however, for the benefit of all the population of South Sudan, all the actors, and those who have any sort of influence on them, need to find a way out of the cycle of violence that has taken hold.