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.


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