The people's humanitarians of South Sudan: Saving lives on the front line

Share this page: 

Working with local humanitarians in South Sudan, we're saving lives by helping provide clean water and public health promotion.

“Whenever I arrive for work, people always shout ‘This is the man who has come to keep us alive!’” smiles 37-year-old plumber Gatkuoth as he lays down his wrench. Another day’s work is complete; another pump flowing with water.

One of hundreds of local humanitarians that Oxfam has trained and worked with in the past year, Gatkuoth is from Buong – a sandy scattering of mud and grass houses in the north east of South Sudan. Until last year, his town had managed to avoid the direct grip of the country’s four-year war, but fighting devastated this region in 2017. When shells blasted through nearby towns including Waat and Walgak, 200,000 people abandoned their homes almost overnight. Of those, thousands fled to Buong. Many did not make it. Everyone you meet here lost family or friends in the attacks.

Even after arriving in Buong though, the threat to life was far from over. As the village population swelled, water pumps began to break down and the risk of disease grew. People were forced to turn to dirty drinking water.

Calling local humanitarians

In the days and weeks after the fighting, Oxfam and other agencies raced to find and reach displaced people in scattered and remote locations – including Buong. When we landed in a village close by, we called for support from local humanitarians we’d previously worked with.

Gatkuoth was one of those who immediately stepped forward to join our engineers and together they got several hand pumps flowing again. With Oxfam’s rapid response team racing against the clock to find and bring water to tens of thousands of people spread across vast plains, our engineers took off quickly once work was complete; but they left Gatkuoth with a healthy supply of spare parts.

“Today’s repair is my eighteenth since then”, he says wiping his hands down oily blue overalls.

“I sometimes have to walk for two days [to get to a broken water point],” he says, blowing out his cheeks. “And when you arrive there, the work has not even started, of course.” His is the story of a true people’s humanitarian – and he is joined by dozens more on the front line.

The next to step up as emergency responders were the public health volunteers. With few latrines for thousands of new arrivals and people forced to drink stagnant rain water when boreholes broke down, fears of cholera spread. Again, we appealed for help and again, dozens of people put their hands up. Many of them had trained as disease prevention specialists in Walgak – before the town was virtually razed to the ground last April.

Clean water saves lives

 Tim Bierley/Oxfam

Thokuang, Hygiene Promoter for Cholera, South Sudan.

Thokuang, one of the thousands to arrive from Walgak, was one of them.

“I am trying hard to persuade people to wash their hands at the right time, drink borehole water – or at least boil the swamp water – to save their lives,” she says.

Watching as Gatkuoth and his team heave a line of dented pipes from the ground and replace them with smooth new ones – one of 12 repairs carried out in Buong - Thokuang said that before this work, “People would either have to queue for up to six hours or get water from the swamp.” Being out of the home for so long often means women, hundreds of whom have been widowed by the conflict, must choose between having clean water, or preparing food for their children. One or the other.  Walking home after dark can also bring huge risks to women.

“Back in Walgak, we had many boreholes, so getting water was easy,” she says.

But staying had not been an option. “We didn’t just hear the guns in the distance. We saw the faces of the people firing them,” she says, eyes wide.

Trained workers like Thokuang are central to the health of communities forced to move. Having humanitarians embedded in the community proves vital, especially when fighting takes towns out of reach.

Conflict all around, the work goes on

The sound of heavy shelling sometimes rips through the cool night air of Buong, the horizon flashing brightly. The village is 20 kilometers from Waat, where most of those missiles are bound, but the sound is like thunder overhead. Chuol, who is also working as a community hygiene promoter – and visiting Buong today to pick up water treatment tablets – lives just a 40-minute walk from the front line. He trained with Oxfam during calmer times last year, but today his village, which continues to be hit by stray projectiles, has been declared a no-go zone by NGOs.

“We decided to stay because there was no other place to go,” he adds.

Is he the last humanitarian worker there? “Well not quite. There are four of us in the team,” he smiles. The workload has become immense as the situation in the village deteriorates. Only two of five waterpoints are still functioning.

“Some people are drinking water from the swamps. Many of us are suffering from diseases. There have been many cases of diarrhoea and people have been dying. I cannot say exactly how many, but let me say this: people are dying all the time.”

 Tim Bierley/Oxfam

Chuol, Oxfam Hygiene Promoter for Cholera, South Sudan.

Chuol spends his weeks going from house-to-house and school-to-school, giving practical advice to keep diseases away. He grits his teeth: “We have seen some good changes in habits, but there is still more to do. We must keep going.”

He and his team are facing an exceptionally difficult task, but without them, the situation of their people would be even worse.

Back at the borehole, Gatkuoth is still being thanked by people gathered around the water pump, but he acknowledges that he, Thokuang and Chuol face an overwhelming task: “Maybe I will train all of my children – the boys and the girls – to be pump mechanics if they want to be! I hope they do. I want people to look at them the same way that communities look at me.”

 Tim Bierley/Oxfam

This entry posted by Tim Bierley, Information & Communications Officer, Oxfam in South Sudan, on 22 March 2018. All photos: Tim Bierley/Oxfam.

Oxfam and our partners are working across South Sudan to provide life-saving clean water and promote awareness of the key ways in which disease can be stopped from spreading.

Ongoing projects include drilling and repairing boreholes, training pump mechanics like Gatkuoth to keep them in shape, digging latrines and training health promoters to lead on disease prevention in their communities, wherever they go. Oxfam's work in Buong is carried out with the support of UK Aid and European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).