Stuck

We have had visitors in Jonglei.  Our Logistics Manager and our roving technical genius were out with us to review the project, and to identify areas where there are room for improvement.  There are, it transpires, many such areas, all of which are – unexpectedly – now my purview.

At the start of this year our venerable logistician, who had been with the project for five years – an aeon in humanitarian terms – found himself a new job, and ventured off to pastures new.   And, due to the essential combination of proximity and willingness, I now find myself responsible for all of our project logistics.

First among the many challenges facing us is the state of our fleet, for one of the difficulties with operating in an environment such as Jonglei is that it takes a tremendous toll on vehicles, upon which you are reliant for essentially everything.  The compound of hostile terrain and unsympathetic driving combine to drastically curtail the lives of our trusty Land Cruisers.

Stuck

Stuck

Through a combination of ingenuity, stubbornness and duct tape some of the vehicles are now pushing five years old, and it shows.  So, after six months of sitting prone in axle-deep mud we conducted a review of the fleet to determine the functionality or otherwise of the vehicles now that movement is possible once again.

We found that in our fleet of five we had only one fully functional vehicle, a year old three seater pick up – Mobile 4. The first weekend back Mobile 4’s HF radio mast sheared off.  As the radio is the only reliable way to contact the base or Juba when in the field, this left us with a grand total of zero fully functioning vehicles.

Leaving the mechanics to their Sisyphean task, Fernandez, Alick and I decided that it would be worthwhile to conduct a driver training exercise wherein we tested both the driver and the vehicles’ ability to drive handle the unforgiving terrain.  And so we headed towards the remnants of the river which for much of last year separated us from the project sites.

Where once the river was chest deep and took two hours or more to cross, now the unrelenting equatorial sun had withered it to knee deep and several hundred metres wide.  Deciding to see how far we could get we ploughed straight on.

Sunset Over Swamp

Sunset Over Swamp

We didn’t very far, of course, but that was the expectation, and at first it was all an awful lot of fun – splashing around in the embarrassingly shallow water offered a welcome relief from the heat of the office.  But after an hour or so of utilising the jack and mud plates and alternating between coaxing and brute force it became apparent that we weren’t getting out.  The four wheel drive wasn’t working, we didn’t have a winch and all we were succeeding in doing with each attempt was further embedding the wheels in the thick clay, and amusing the onlooking children.

As three of the five vehicles were on the other side of the river at far away project locations and the one remaining vehicle in Yuai was completely non-operational we were stranded.  Fortunately, we had another NGO staying in our compound at the time, so we radioed base and waited.  As the sun went down there was a burst of AK-47 fire from across the river.

In the end we got back without too much trouble – the oft-repaired towing rope snapped on the first attempt, but we were soon on our way.  But it was a reminder of how easy it is for a series of simple oversights to potentially spiral into an altogether more serious situation.  Without a torch between us, no backup at base, no spare food or water in the vehicle, broken four wheel drive and a broken winch, we were helpless.

In an emergency, these are the basics upon which you need to be able to depend.

There is work to be done.

……………………

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Medevac

This morning there was an accident.  

Our WASH (WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene) team were staying in our sub-base in Motot this week, carrying out mobilisation to engage the community in beginning the process of replacing the latrines that were destroyed in last year’s floods.

Some of the chemicals that are used for water quality testing had expired and needed to be destroyed.  As one of the latrines in our compound in Motot collapsed during the rains it is now used as a rubbish pit.

Usually when incinerating rubbish, a small amount of diesel is used as fuel for the fire.  In this instance, however, the guard used petrol instead, and a lot of it.

The critical difference between the diesel and petrol is that diesel, of course, is much more stable, and therefore burns more slowly.  Petrol ignites immediately upon contact with open flame.

The instant that my friend struck the match, the pit erupted, engulfing him in the flames.

The news came in over the radio while we were eating breakfast.  We immediately got in touch with Juba to arrange a medevac via the UN, who diverted a flight for us.  But the airstrip in Motot is apparently too short for UN planes to land on – despite the fact that identical planes flown by other aviators can land there without difficulty – so the team had to travel back to Yuai by road, over the cracked and pitted tracks, bathing the patient’s wounds with water in the absence of proper medical care.

Four hours after the accident the flight arrived, and our brave and uncomplaining teammate – smiling and joking throughout – was whisked back to Juba for stabilisation and onwards to Nairobi, as it transpires that there are no facilities for the treatment of burns in South Sudan.

As traumatic as the whole incident undoubtedly was, we can consider ourselves fortunate that the outcome was not more serious.  Our teammate is going to be fine.  And there are many ways in which this could have gone even more badly wrong – returning to Yuai the gearbox broke, and we had to send another two vehicles.  In this case the delay was incidental as the flight had not yet arrived, but in a genuinely life threatening situation these are the moments that count.

The whole thing has underlined the need for care and rigour.  As NGO employees we are fortunate to have access to an infrastructure that other Jonglei residents could only dream of, but nevertheless, we are isolated, we are vulnerable, and we need to take responsibility for ourselves.

Tomorrow we are taking the guard, who himself suffered minor injuries, to the MSF hospital in a neighbouring county. Next week we will carry out training on the identification and handling of different fuels, and we shall spend our Saturday carrying out a review of all our safety and security procedures.

In Jonglei you must always be on the alert.