Civil War – Part One

When I think of the civil war in South Sudan I remember two distinct awakenings.

The first found me in Dublin, safe but dazed as fighting and house to house executions swept across Juba, brutal and unexpected.

The second found me sheltering inside a shipping container alongside displaced women and children as machine guns crackled without pause and shells exploded overhead.

Between them, these awakenings left a mark that took years to shake.

…..

The conflict began when a long–standing political dispute descended into violence. An armed confrontation between officers loyal to President Salva Kiir and soldiers backing his ex–deputy Riek Machar broke out at an army barracks in Juba. The events leading up to the clash continue to be disputed, but the subsequent exchange of fire tipped the balance from unstable peace to widespread political violence.

As civil war broke I woke to a series of messages, frantic and uncertain.  I spent the day in constant communication with people on the ground, trying to piece together what was happening, hoping to determine that my friends and colleagues were safe.

The stories that emerged from those first few days were shocking, at the time.  While South Sudan had never shaken the legacy of generations of conflict, previously the violence was localised, limited to pockets of insecurity and intertribal flash points.  From the beginning, however, it was clear that this was no discrete military confrontation: civilians were actively targeted from the off.  While political at root, the confrontation quickly deteriorated as the split in the army was replicated across sections of the population, resulting in widespread violence and killings largely along tribal and ethnic lines.

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 23.10.15

Malakal from air

In quiet moments, friends have since shared their stories with me.  Ethnic Nuer – marked with the distinctive scarification of their tribe, parallel lines transversing the forehead – told of seeking shelter in NGO offices, of getting through hostile checkpoints thanks only to their organisational ID cards.  Others told of hiding beneath tables in marketplaces as bodies fell around them.  Mass graves littered the city.

The organisation I worked for had accommodation – the quaintly named “Red Roof House” – less than a hundred metres from the residence of the ousted former VP, and soon-to-be rebel leader, Riek Machar.  My friends spent two days hiding beneath a mattress in an unfinished safe room as government tanks lobbed shells overhead.  Although they escaped unharmed, these experienced aid workers got out shaken, having been uncertain whether they would survive.

While not yet apparent, these stories were soon to be replicated at scale as the conflict rapidly spread beyond the confines of Juba.

…..

Given the volatility of the situation, embassies, NGOs and the UN were forced to evacuate all but essential staff.  Like most, my organisation retreated to Nairobi, providing what support we could remotely. 

On Christmas Day in Ireland I allowed myself a break, tried to be present for a moment.  Breathe. 

Logging back in on Stephen’s Day I found an email passing on an urgent message from one of my staff.  Fighting had broken out in Malakal, Upper Nile state, where one of my teams were based: he and his family had had to seek refuge in the UN ‘POC’ – Protection Of Civilians’ – site.  They had no food, no water, no shelter.  Marked as he was as a Nuer, he took his young family and walked for days across the swollen floodplains of the Sudd to the relative safety of Jonglei state.   They ended up in Yuai, where I was based for a year; an uncomfortable parallel.

That morning my family went for a walk along the beach, working off the excess of the day before; I felt sick and indulgent and powerless. To this day this is the only time I have smoked in front of my mother.

…..

It is striking, with the clarity of hindsight, that we, the international and humanitarian community, were taken by surprise to the extent that we were.  The week before the start of it all we had our annual interagency strategy workshop, gathering together senior programme staff from across the country to plan for whatever 2014 might have in store.  Despite worrying indicators of political repression and instability, the expectation was a continued steady decline, broadly in line with the trends we had been managing.  The day after the workshop, I flew home.  Forty eight hours later, South Sudan was at war.

There were outliers, of course.  One UN security analyst had taken to carrying his kevlar vest and helmet around Juba with him, serving as effective props to his dire prognostications.  He was jokingly termed the “prophet of doom” for his troubles, in grim reference to the allegations being directed at Machar from President Kiir.  But it was easy to dismiss such analysis.  Little did we know.

…..

7 am.  Instantly awake to the sound of automatic fire and shells exploding overhead. This was different to anything we had heard in the days and weeks before – there was no hesitancy here, nothing tentative. This was it.

…..

It is February, and I am back in Malakal, the capital of oil producing and conflict-stricken Upper Nile State. Six weeks before I was here with my boss, preparing for the year to come. We ate greasy food from street vendors and drank lukewarm Tusker after long days.  All felt normal in the oppressive dry heat of December.

I have spent the past few weeks in a tent in the ‘POC’.  Originally built to provide temporary refuge from fighting for up to 5,000 people, it has swollen to an estimated thirty thousand people.  Not having been designed to provide longer-term support the POC has no water or sanitation infrastructure, no shelter, no pre-positioned food stocks / supplies.  The camp had self-organised along ethnic lines, and in the cramped conditions tensions were running high.

Previously South Sudan’s second largest city, Malakal was by now largely a ghost town. The tukuls – traditional mud hut homes – were emptied out, the marketplace deserted: the scene was one of pure desolation. Dogs feasted on carcasses both animal and human.

Those that hadn’t fled were scattered between a few sites across the city, taking shelter in churches, mosques and school yards as we ran distributions of basic emergency items – blankets, plastic sheets, jerry cans for collecting water: the bare essentials. 

Depending on ethnicity some had moved north towards the Sudan border, some south towards safer locales.  We spent days hiring boats and shuttling up and down the Blue Nile, carrying out rapid assessments in an attempt to determine where best to concentrate our scarce resources.  Most of us were running skeleton structures, our staff scattered or at risk, our offices and warehouses ransacked and looted.  On the river we passed boats being piloted by combatants, NGO logos plastered proudly on the hull.

…..

We knew for some time that conflict was coming.  Malakal was a city of strategic and symbolic significance, and by the time I arrived it had already swapped hands twice.  Currently under government control, troop movements and military build ups were increasing as the opposition closed in from three sides.  An attack was an inevitability – it was just a question of when.

In the meantime, we got on with the work, and spent the evenings trying to forget about what was to come.

The night before the attack fighting broke out in the POC between the different tribal groups.  The UN peacekeepers – Nepalese and Indian battalions – sent in tanks to separate the factions. Women and children had broken through the fences and were seeking shelter in the already cramped area where we humanitarians had pitched our tents.  We watched the fires spread together.  Little did we know that the next night flames would be burning across the city proper.

…..

Nights are cold in Malakal in February.  As always, I slept fully dressed, with my belongings and emergency ‘quick run bag’ by my side.  Food, water, first aid kit, comms equipment – all ready.

As the guns began their hoarse chatter and the shells provided the dull thud of counterpoint we roused ourselves, and rushed towards the shipping containers that served as our shelter.  Surrounded by hesco bastions and with sandbags draped half-heartedly across the roof, they were rudimentary at best.  We piled in alongside the women and children displaced the night before, watching the tracers pass overhead, the shells flaring low and heavy.

In Jonglei a year or two before I had my first experience of going to ground. Lying on the floor of the tukul, shooting on all sides, no way out, I determined never again to find myself in such a situation without music.  Tunes are key in moments such as these.

In the haste of it all, I left my iPod in my tent.  As the whole thing unfolded all I wanted was to listen to Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’.  In his absence, Paul Simon rotated in my mind:

The earth was born in a storm

The waters receded, the mountains were formed

“The universe loves a drama,” you know

And ladies and gentlemen this is the show…

The first wave of the assault lasted several hours.  I rolled cigarettes with shaking fingers, sharing them with colleagues and laughing a little too loud.  I kept note of it all in my journal, writing increasingly spidery as the adrenalin surged and faded. 

It was instructive watching the reactions of the children in the shipping container.  For some this was clearly not their first experience of conflict or displacement.  They sat still, faces lined and lips pursed: they knew what was at stake.  The youngest were shaken by the violence that was erupting around us, and cried out in search of comfort.  Others still were fortunate enough to be at that age where all is new, and were therefore oblivious, and continued to play and look around with wonder at their new surrounds.  Mothers cried and held their children close regardless.

Amidst it all the equine smell of unwashed bodies mixed with the acrid scent of smoke and fear.

…..

Advertisements

Reflections on a Year in Afghanistan

It’s been three months now since I left Afghanistan.  Like Turkey and the Syria response before, it was a hurried exit in preparation for a rapid turnaround – quick breath, and onto the next crisis.  This time Baghdad.  Or at least that was the plan.

Instead: every few years I find it’s necessary to rebuild, piece things together again from first principles.  And rather unexpectedly I find myself in that space again.

…..

Afghanistan began in a blur.  I arrived already under pressure, having had only a week between jobs due to the urgent nature of the work to be undertaken (Note: this is a bad idea), only to find that shortly after my arrival my organisation, along with pretty much the entire humanitarian architecture, shut down for Eid.

And so, as with much of the year that was to come, the beginning was marked by a perpetual sense of panic, for no real reason.

…..

Afghanistan occupies a very particular space in the public consciousness. Having largely dropped off the media radar, except for those rare moments when things go boom with a big enough bang to make it through to the attention of the international press, most people are understandably unsure whether things are getting better, or much worse.  What they do know is that it is an unusually dangerous place.

IMG-20170605-WA0011

Crater from the May 2017 bombing in Kabul

And, indeed, that is a correct supposition. My security advisor, a long-time veteran of the country, summed it up: “Afghanistan is a perpetually escalating stalemate”.  16 years on from the US invasion, carried out under the auspices of bringing peace and security, and the Taliban hold or contest 40% of the country; the frequency and severity of attacks is increasing, along with an increase in the number of attacks of a sectarian nature; ISIL / Daeash’s local offshoot, the ISKP (Islamic State in Khorasan Province) have managed to establish a foothold in the east; and the vice President, unredeemed warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, was recently thrown out of the country amidst claims of the detention and rape of a rival, prompting a moderate political crisis.

Meanwhile, early in the carnival barker shitshow that is his presidency Trump chose Nangarhar province as the dumping ground for the MOAB – Mother Of All Bombs – as part of his own rapidly-escalating sabre rattling contest with North Korea.  Having subsequently realised you can’t solve all problems with aerial bombardment Trump has decided that a minor troop surge – a 4,000 person increase that still leaves western forces well over 100,000 short of the numbers present at the height of the Obama years – is the brilliant new strategy that nobody could have possibly thought of before. Or the time before that.

All of which to say: no matter how you parse it, Afghanistan isn’t having the best of times, and all indicators suggest that it’s going to continue on this negative trajectory for the foreseeable future.

IMG_20170727_160356_298

Kabul wisdom

…..

Despite this, however, Afghanistan is not an acute humanitarian crisis, not like Yemen, Syria, or South Sudan, say.  Sure, there are large numbers of people affected by the conflict and harsh winter conditions, in addition to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees ejected from Pakistan, but this is not a new operation, the threats are not-unpredictable, and neither are the modes of response.  There is a long-standing humanitarian presence in Afghanistan with agencies and staff who have years, if not decades, of experience on the ground. Consequently, I made certain assumptions about how things would function.  Or not, as often turned out to be the case.

Each humanitarian response has its own shape, its own variations of process, modality and approach, determined by leadership personalities, practical considerations such as are there roads? / is this a giant swamp? / are the people doing the war a bit behead-y?, and the broader socio-historical context in which you are operating.  Once this has been established you are working within a system – an often-clunky and bureaucratic system, at that – and the best you can likely hope for is iterative change.

IMG_20171009_130452_559

A hopeful oil tanker in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province

For nobody, at least nobody who actually works within the industry, expects aid work to be simple. After all, the very contexts that require humanitarian assistance are defined by complexity, with competing interests, direct opposition from conflict actors, and interference from local power holders taken as read. And that’s before you bring geopolitical trends, macro-level state interference, or donor-government demands and agendas in to the picture. It is difficult, and often messy, work.

Nevertheless, in Afghanistan, little functioned like I expected.  As always there were some great people who knew the context and knew how to get shit done. And I saw signs of progress over the course of the year.  But for a response that should have been well-established, little was straightforward, views were entrenched, agencies were at loggerheads more often than not, and there was the frequent sense of reinventing the wheel. It was dysfunctional, inefficient and exhausting.

…..

On a more personal level, I was coming to Afghanistan on the back of one of the most unsettling and dispiriting experiences of my professional career. The agency who I worked for on the Syria response found themselves embroiled in a scandal entirely of their own making, one which brought the critical life-saving programmes of which we were so justifiably proud grinding to a halt, and nearly brought the entire organisation to its knees.  It wasn’t pretty.

IMG_20170206_100524 2

Kabul does the BEST snowmen, it’s true

Having lost faith in an organisation in which I once strongly believed I jumped at the chance to move to an agency with a strong global reputation, and I felt positive about this new job, and the opportunity for a fresh start. If nothing else, I thought I was done with internal crises.  Instead, I walked from an one organisation undergoing a macro-level existential crisis to another undergoing its own localised shocks in a seemingly straight swap.

What followed will be familiar to any aid worker, but its ubiquity makes it no less exhausting to live through. Soon after I arrived in country we underwent a rapid turnover in personnel, for a typical range of reasons. Desperately understaffed we lurched through months of survival-mode panic, people burning the candle at both ends as tempers frayed and reports piled up and relationships broke down.  We kept things afloat, but it was toxic and it took an inevitable toll on us all.  Me, I went more than twice the R&R rotation and came home for Christmas worn out and insomniac, having spent weeks sleeping two, maybe three, hours a night.

None of this is conducive to either effective work or to positive mental health. Add in the additional stressors of life in a high-risk security environment and it’s unsurprising, in retrospect, that there were moments when burnout or breakdown felt near at hand.

14099399_664177237063215_1024722140_n

BBQ in a bomb – upcycling, Afghanistan style

…..

Shortly before my year elapsed I was offered a new job with my organisation, a position in Baghdad that was a step in the right direction in all of the key professional and personal rubrics: increased responsibility; a more direct connection between myself and programme implementation, and a decreased risk of kidnapping / going boom. After several months of careful personal preparation I signed the contract and packed my life back into its suitcase, looking forward to three or four weeks of rest back home.  Overall, I felt in a much healthier place than I did upon arrival in Kabul: happier, calmer, and having learned some important lessons, personally and professionally, over the previous year.

Instead, the first Monday after my return the job fell through, due to circumstances outside of my control.  And so I found myself dazed and uncertain as to what was next. I was back home, with a group of dear friends around me, and summer stretching out in front of us.  On the face of things, this was too good an opportunity to turn down. And so I decided to take some time off, rather than going straight into job-seeking mode.

Slowing down enough to reflect on everything that was going on, and everything that had happened in the years since I had last lived at home, I recognised that I needed a proper break.  A reset.  Because as I have seen before, both from first-hand experience and in the lives of my friends and colleagues, these things and these places they take a toll. We all have our limits, beyond which we can push and push with all the willpower that we may possess, but eventually we have to stop, or we will snap.  And I can see now that the past two years pushed me closer to my limits than perhaps I realised at the time.

After years of moving back and forth between home and various humanitarian crises I have got better at the ability to deal with the transitions, and having previously made a successful return to Ireland I was confident that I could benefit from a few months to rest up and reconnect with the people and things that matter to me.

The previous transition, after the end of my time in South Sudan, I unpacked my life from boxes, took a job back in Dublin, went to weekly therapy sessions, and invested in relationships with friends and family, committing to staying still until I felt strong enough to go back to ‘the field’.  And it took a year and a half, but eventually I was ready to venture forth again.

This time, while tired and ready for a break, I had not undergone any acute personal trauma, and was not generally at a crisis point, so three to six months sounded more than sufficient. What I did not foresee, however, was how this liminal space – home but not properly reintegrating, a period of temporally-limited rest before going back overseas – would present its own set of challenges.

A few months in and the sense of in between – of being home but not home – started to lose its appeal. While I could not be more grateful for the time, compassion and generosity of my friends who have put me up, and put up with me, during this period of reorientation, the lack of stability and routine have not proven particularly helpful.  Couch surfing and sofa hopping take on a different connotation as you approach your thirties.

And so, much to my surprise, I find myself looking forward to the remainder of my time off – a bit more travel, and then staying resolutely still; more time with friends; more writing, more self-care, more meditation and rest – but also increasingly looking forward to getting back to work. And infinitely grateful for the fact that I have work to return to that I care about and gives me a sense of purpose.

Let’s see what’s next.

IMG-20170507-WA0006

Gallows humour at the exit of the NATO base, Kabul

…..

On the Road Again

“Then you ask why I don’t live here –

Honey, how come you have to ask me that?”

– Bob Dylan

…..

It’s snowing in Mazar tonight: sheets of white that blow in off the mountains, crisp gusts slipping into sleet along the edges of the road.  We pass a man wheeling his bicycle through it all.

After my time in Turkey was unexpectedly cut short by a combination of visa issues and coup, I am on the road again.  This time, Afghanistan.

I am here to roll out a new emergency assessment tool to UN and NGO agencies, which has me in constant motion – each week a new province, a new city.  This week finds me in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province in the north of the country, where winter is closing in.

img_20161124_150741-pano

Mazar in Snow

My accommodation in Mazar can best be described as ramshackle, in a conflict-y sort of way.  Faintly reminiscent of one of Kabul’s peak-opium ‘poppy palaces’ left to rot, it is large, cold and empty.  Although Mazar is typically seen as being the safest part of Afghanistan the building was damaged in a recent Taliban attack on the German consulate.  The blast was 2 kilometres away, but powerful enough to blow out the windows on the nearside of the house and warp the frame of the balcony doors, rendering them impossible to shut.  At night they clank and bang in the wind.  I am the only inhabitant, and the initial effect is as unsettling as you might expect.

…..

It is strange and invigorating to be back in ‘the field’ once more.  I was in Turkey working on the Syria response and, by the time I arrived, it had long passed the risk threshold for international staff to cross the border into northern Syria –  Jabhat Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) weren’t exactly renowned for their tolerant attitudes towards foreigners, after all.  And so the whole thing was carried out through remote management, an inherently frustrating model that left my Syrian friends and colleagues bearing the brunt of the risk while the rest of us sat just 25 km from the border in the pretty Turkish city of Antakya. 

img_20161106_095028-pano

Afghanistan from Air

While the work was by no means easy, Turkey itself was a very pleasant place to live.  Antakya had all of the amenities which are usually denied to you in a humanitarian aid environment – infrastructure, electricity and functional internet, foremost – and Istanbul and Beirut were but short hops away.  In comparison to South Sudan, say, there was nothing to complain about.  But still the sense of disconnect and lingering guilt sat heavy.

And so it was with considerable excitement that I was told within minutes of arrival in Kabul that I was driving down to Jalalabad, on the Pakistan border in the east of the country, the next morning.  Far from the attention of the international community, Pakistan has decided to expel, at exceptionally short notice, over one and a half million Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for generations.  I was to travel with my boss to carry out an initial assessment of the returnees, to feed into the UN appeal that was expected imminently.  After a year of working on programmes I never saw, with people who I spoke to every day but could never meet, the opportunity to get closer to the reality on the ground, and to work directly with the people implementing the actual programmes, felt like a blessed relief.

…..

The road from Kabul to Jalalabad is beautiful, if stark. It wends through mountain ranges and flood plains and is lined with reminders of the historical and ongoing violence. Recently burnt out trucks compete with Soviet-era tanks, decorated as markers of victory, for attention.  Much of it passes through areas outside of government control.  At one point on the journey my boss turned to me and said: “It all gets a bit Taliban-y after this bridge.” 

Welcome to Afghanistan.

…..

Wild Is The Wind (Station To Station)

For Reuben

Distance begins in the navel.
I feel it there in the morning – wake to the dull ache
That I placate with poached eggs and milk.
On slow days this does not work.

Feeling tied – to people and places and the requisite familiar faces – it starts small.
A thread winds quietly around this diaspora of broken people, binds us,
And we dip down, drop, a day at a time. I think this is a slow day.
I feel the wandering wind at my back
We’ll walk hand in hand as we watch other people passing by,
Trapped in minarets without a conjunction to order their days;
But we, we have unfaithful eyes.

I heard a couplet from a street-singer, from the tip of her tongue:
“There is hope in the air,
There is hope in the water.”
I brush hope across my lips, savour its aftertaste;
This is what it means to be free, in a song that carries memory
In a forgotten melody.

A man I love he carries this gift,
His voices wrap around my wrist and pull me towards home,
Fingers package sadness and beauty and tuck them between
Intricate chords – Major and minor and minor again.

These afternoons are dull, scented with the afterthought of rain
That anchors the gathering clouds in a silhouette of retreat;
Angry and moving again, they sway with rudiments of loss, metrical and sparse.
I don’t want to run my friend, not this time.

Let us stay here, let spring bloom around us,
Share it with the people we love.
But I know that we are soon scattered with seeds,
Swept with the rivers, hapless and uprooted again.
I am tired and I can see that you are wilting too.
For wild is the wind
Where our way is lit with flickering lights.

Your songs are generous and rare, these days,
They slip out with the ache of one treading to stay afloat.
You say a lovesong is at the heart of it all
And you’ve no need for a lovesong in your life.
Listen again.

………

In memory, David Bowie

Jonglei

In this place of cattle songs and bridal bartering,
There is blood in the air and conflict between the clods
Of sun-dried equatorial earth.
It may not yet run red, but give it days.

This place, barren, flat and empty, is marked by dichotomy,
Binary seasons and sudden shifts in message and intent.

Our pronouncements and activity plans fall short.
We fill collapsed latrines with the evidence of spent efforts,
Expired chemicals whose dates ring out a chorus of our failure,
A procession of missed targets,
A cavalcade with hubris at its head.

We skirt around the periphery of it all, oblivious,
The inheritors of far flung fancy and colonial folly –
The cattle lands and peace-stick prophets give us short shrift.
We do but meddle.

We sit each evening behind iron fences
Oxidising to the echo of battered calf skin.
‘Mobilisation’ has rarely carried such ominous portents –
We hear the beating as villages empty.
This is the rush before the run of red.

…..

In the hurried breath that precedes the storm
Iron sheets grate against uprights,
The wind a diaphragm whose movements conduct
A chorus pitched as a choir of women in labour
Ushering forth something terrible and new with their strains and tearings.

This evening tukuls will collapse under the weight of bad weather,
Fence posts will snap in the face of it all
And nature’s theatrics will be accompanied by an entirely human counterpoint
As cattle raiders and neighbouring tribes sneak in beneath the cover of the rolling skies.

These are not my people, and perhaps I should never have come,
But this evening will find me sheltering alongside strangers,
Lying between a circle of concrete six feet below the earth
And watching tracers pass overhead
As automatic writing fills the skies.

No, these days the nights are never still.
Even for a dark-dweller as myself the mornings come as welcome relief.
Maale, Murle – hold off another day.

The unspoken rules of war have dissolved over decades
Leaving innocents at the heart
Of a cycle of revenge and revenge
And staked through wombless women.
Please, Lord, give us days.

And so we wait, filling backpacks with essentials and the keys to flee –
We hold onto our own days here,
And we guard them jealously.

…..

In the aftershock of the storm
My mud hut swells and creaks.
The plastic sheeting hung over the wire mesh windows
Drift and press against in the breathing out,
Rhythmic and redolent of the ocean.
I am all at sea.

On Paisley, Peace and Reconciliation

I had the misfortune to hear Ian Paisley deliver a sermon once.  Rounding the corner of a busy Belfast street I came across a street preacher – a common sight to this day – holding forth on the eternal reality of Sin and Hell.  Amidst the pointed gestures and weary familiarity of the message, I recognised the man.  Dressed in black, straight backed, he was taller than I expected – but his stature made sense.

Having been born in Northern Ireland, Paisley and others of his ilk filled the newspapers and television screens of my childhood, spewing forth their nationalist cant and infectious bigotry.  At the time the divisive rhetoric and identity politics meant little to me, but I was intimately familiar with the concept of the God whose name they invoked in vain.  And although my parents strove at all times to stand apart from that too-common Northern Irish identifier – “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” – that this was a God at once loving and standing in unbending condemnation was clear, so his choice of men like Paisley as his messengers made some kind of instinctive sense.

Ulster Says No

Ulster Says No

The landscape of my childhood is littered with the inevitable outcomes of these men and their unyielding extremism.  Northern Ireland in the early ’90s was a place distinguished by armed police, bomb scares, and the ever-present crackle of hatred.  Small towns marked their allegiance with coloured curb stones and crudely painted murals glorifying ‘martyrs’ and murderers as the lampposts held aloft their signifier of choice – Irish tricolour or Union Jack, take your pick.  I lived in a relatively peaceful town by the sea, within walking distance of the forest from which C. S. Lewis took the inspiration for his Narnia books, but it seeped in nevertheless.

In South Sudan my experience of violence was much more direct.  Conflict zones became part of my daily reality as I became fluent in radio speak, dug foxholes to while away the evenings, negotiated with military commanders, and became intimately acquainted with the sound of bullets passing overhead.  It was easy – too easy – to become hopeless in such a place, and many of us did, wearing our hard-won cynicism as a badge of honour.  

After two years the low level background hum of danger was abruptly punctuated and I left South Sudan with the taste of fear still fresh in my mouth, retreating to an Ireland I barely recognised.  I left hurriedly and in a daze, ostensibly to catch my breath before the next return, the next go around, but soon realised that I was locked headlong into a spin from which there was no quick recovery.

And so I sat for months, picking out new bearings before losing my way all over again, marking out a new topography of home and self that hasn’t yet coalesced, and likely never will.  Like most aid workers I have come to the realisation that I live with feet in two worlds, places defined by competing and often mutually exclusive demands.  I am no longer sure about my place in this life, but after a year at home I step more lightly between the two, and I have come to value the movement.

But in the midst of it all, there were moments when I was confronted with the fact that my two worlds are perhaps not so dissimilar, at root.  When people in South Sudan found out that I was Irish a common reaction was to ask about our own war of liberation and our fight against the British.  They could relate to this, and it created a momentary, if uncomfortable, bond.  When I asked them why they continued to fight, they pointed me to my country’s recent bloody and internecine past.  I had no easy reply.

And so Paisley’s death gave me occasion for reflection, and also reason to hope.  For regardless of purity of motive, that this most devoted of sectarians and his Republican counter-parts – cheap preachers of hate, the lot of them  could sit around a negotiating table and learn to govern together, to steer a country from violent conflict to halting peace, attests to the human capacity for healing and forgiveness.

For if there is one thing I have taken away from my time in South Sudan it is that there is no dark continent, no intransigent and uniquely ‘African’ propensity towards violence.  We all share the same dark heart.

……………………

Return

And so I am back in South Sudan.  I come to with a start as the wheels touch down in a puff of smoke, in time to watch the wreck of a civil war era MiG 23 fighter flash past the window.  

By now Juba airport looks all too familiar, and this time around – having arrived armed with a visa – the entry process goes off without a hitch.  Sure, getting the visa in London may have necessitated joining a library, but that’s South Sudan for you…

A year down.  Let’s see how this next one goes.

…..

I always appreciate the headspace offered by intercontinental travel.  Cut off from the internet, and with a transit time far exceeding my laptop’s Mud Hut-battered battery, there is an enforced solitude to the whole thing.

On journeys with unrushed transfers this sense is only emphasised by the parade of faces that hurry past you in the terminals and transport hubs: in travel, you feel transient and rootless, in motion on more than just the physical plane.

Reflection settles naturally as the world passes by the window – thoughts turn to where I am going, while inertia draws them back to where I have come from.

On the plane I read through my journal, tracking the experiences and emotions of the past twelve months.  The pen-scribbled lines which often required such a concerted effort to get onto the page at the time now provide a welcome record of what I have been through and lived through.

Reading back I am reminded of our programme’s achievements and successes, the reality of which can easily be overlooked amidst the details and daily struggles of project implementation.

The fact that our project is still in existence is in itself a source of pride.  Twice we were coming to the end of our donor funding, at the very time that we could see a massive ramping up of needs.  Staff had to be let go, and many more of us were operating in an uncertain limbo as we waited for donor decisions; those were not easy times.

In Logistics we secured the procurement, transportation and distribution of over 100 tonnes of project goods in little more than a month.  These goods and materials enabled the construction of nutrition feeding centres for several thousand malnourished children.  The rainwater harvesting storage systems we constructed at schools and clinics will provide clean water during the long dry season, while the eight new boreholes we constructed in underserved communities will provide safe water for many thousands more.  In addition we now have materials pre-positioned in new storage facilities ready for the next spike in need, whether due to food shortages, flooding or conflict.

These efforts may be utterly inconsequential in comparison with the scale of the situation, but they will enable us to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable next time around, and that is something at least.  And in this line of the work you need to hold fast to the small victories…

…..

And so it is with a mixture of pride, weariness and regret that I read through my journal.

I can certainly see the contribution I made in my roles to major aspects of our projects. And yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that I and all of us could have done so much more.  If only we had put in more hours; if only we had had the money secured at the right time; if I had only been able to be more disciplined and focused – if only, if only…

A couple of days ago it was a friend’s leaving sodas and speeches (a South Sudan tradition that apparently spans multiple organisations).  I was struck by what she said, at the end of two years in country.  She spoke of how this place it demands a lot of you, how it requires that you give your all, how it changes you.

And I can see that much has changed in the past year; both in my life, and in myself.

I can see now that this year, and the time in the Mud Hut in particular, has made me more solitary, more comfortable in my own company.  Simultaneously, I can see the impact that extended periods of isolation has had on me, and the resulting aversion to absolute loneliness which has developed.  A confusing contradiction.

My times back home are still marked by a rushing around and a certain manic tendency in which the instinct is to see all the people that I love, all of the time.  But in this place there is a sense of remove which I now find essential to survival.

I have come back to South Sudan in a new job, with a new NGO.  And it feels like both a new beginning and starting again.  I was fortunate that last year I made some good friends, people I connected with and could be myself around.  Now, due to the transient nature of humanitarian work and its short term contracts the majority of these friends have moved on, whether to new crises, new postings in country, or they have returned home to rest and nurse themselves back to health.

And so I find myself once again in Juba, looking ahead to another year.  After a very short turnaround between jobs I have come back wary and decidedly weary.  Two weeks in and I can already feel that I am deeply tired.  There is a balance that needs to be struck here, a balance that I have not yet been able to find. So now it is time for head down and absolute focus, and hopefully it will all become clear in time.

A year down.  Let’s see how this next one goes.