The other side of aid work (part VII)

Kadugli from above

View of Kadugli from above, May 2011

It was at the end of May/beginning of June of 2011, during what was meant to be a 2 year mission to South Kordofan, then Northern Sudan, at the time just before Sudan split into two countries. As Project Coordinator for both the Muglad and Kadugli offices, I had just spent a stint in Muglad with our team there. It had been a hectic time: Abiyei had been attacked and UN guest houses and many other properties looted. Muglad’s markets, not far from Abiyei, were filled with bags of rice and food for sale (all with UN and aid agency logos on them); and the roads were filled with trucks of furniture, office items and aid goods—all taken from Abiyei during the looting. Muglad’s silences had been interrupted by the sounds of people firing bullets into the air, and it had been hard to know if it was the customary firing of empty bullets to celebrate a wedding, or gun-shots. Either way, bullets fired at random are never good news, so we had been on heightened alert. I had been worried during my time there, as Kadugli had been very unstable during my absence, and only very few colleagues were, alone, at our guest house, together with our wonderful national staff. I felt like I had abandoned them, was concerned

Things calmed down and so I was able to return to Kadugli. Driving back from the airport, there was a sense of renewed calm. Shops were open again, you could see people on the streets–not as many as usual, but some sense of normalcy had resumed. We had sent our national staff home, and so it was only my two international colleagues and myself in the office/guest house (the two were adjoined) that afternoon, looking forward to a bit of rest after the turbulent days.

Back at the guest house, I was just busy emptying and re-organising my bags and dirty washing when the phone rang, calling me to a “heads of office” meeting with the UN and other NGOs to discuss the security incident and potential next steps to take in the event of the situation deteriorating again. The election results were still not out, and the delay was directly responsible for some of the murmurings, unrest and accusations of electoral fraud that had contributed to the violence during the previous few days. Caution was therefore still in order, and so the meeting was over-due. Truth be told, I was not too happy about having to rush out again but expected it to be a short meeting. I popped into my room, grabbed my handheld radio, a pen, a notebook, my phone and my wallet and stuffed them into my handbag. For a split-second I considered re-packing my “grab-bag” (the emergency 5kg bag which all aid workers are meant to carry around in case of an immediate evacuation, containing valuables, copies of passport, phone, emergency food items, water and a change of clothes) but decided against it. I had no time, my lift was waiting outside and in any case I would be back within the hour. Once and once only, I left my grab-bag at home.

It was probably only about 30 minutes later, as we were sitting around the large table in the security office of the UN compound located outside of Kadugli on the airport road, when our conversations were interrupted by a loud thud. I cannot remember if it was artillery fire, a rocket or gun shots, but it did not stop. The security officers rushed out,  and seconds later the order came: everyone was to stay at the UN compound; no-one was to travel back to Kadugli. It seemed unrest had once again broken out in town and heavy firing was underway. I felt sick to the stomach, sick with fear for my colleagues left in the guest house alone, stood and sat paralysed. Not long after, the order came for us to check into the UN guest house for the night, as we would no longer be able to return to our guest houses in Kadugli.

So much of what happened in the next 2 days is a blur. Perhaps my brain has blacked it out, it is all so painful, even now. I remember the chaos, the many questions we all had which no one could answer: What would we do? Could we go back to help our staff? Were they safe? Would they be evacuated? I remember us all  waiting to be checked into the UN compound which could barely cope with us all; I remember standing in a food queue, seeing the food and water stocks at the little UN shop gradually reducing. I remember lying wide awake at night in a camp bed, unable to sleep, hearing gun-fire, worried about my colleagues, desperate for a change of clothes in the heat. I was not frightened myself–just felt a sense of powerlessness which I never ever hope to feel again. Staring into the barrel of a gun would have been preferable to that feeling of sick fear for those under my care.

I remember trying to talk to my colleagues; at times succeeding to catch them on their mobile phones during their brief stints outside of the small, hot, ill equipped “safe room” that was their hideout as bullets flew about the air near their guest house. I had wanted to do something about the bunker; we had been looking for a new guest house with better living conditions and an improved safe room; and I had told the guards repeatedly not to take out any food or water rations located in the bunker –to ensure that there would always be food and water in there. But all that was work in progress–and now two of my staff were stuck in there, depended on that horrid little room for their survival. I felt sick to the stomach thinking about it.

I was also trying to get hold of my other staff. How crippled I felt for not speaking Arabic. So often phone communications did not go through. When I did manage to get hold of some of the staff–especially the English-speaking, “re-locatable” staff (most of whom from what is now South Sudan), I did not know what advice to give them. I knew they would have to get to the nearest UN compound to be safe, but how could I advise them to do that when the roads were blocked and heavy firing was taking place around them. I told them to stay inside and be safe–was that the right advice? Was it the wrong advice? I will never know. I wanted to scream with fear of making the wrong decision.

Gradually, outside the UN compound, family after family of , frightened people arrived, displaced by the violence. In 2 days, thousands arrived. Soldiers with guns–some of them young—were hanging around the streets outside the compound.  Plans were being made to see if we could get our staff out of Kadugli. This decision, this planning, too, was riddled with obstacles. For reasons I still do not understand, the (armed) UN blue helmets felt unable to drive into Kadugli in their armoured vehicles.  In the end, a group of brave security officers (may they be blessed eternally for what they did) decided to venture into town themselves in their soft skinned vehicles to try and get all re-locatable staff out of there, risking their own lives. We had a protocol for this: safe havens would be visited one after the other, picking up all staff on the way in  a specific order. But in practise, no-one knew if this protocol would be adhered to. When would vehicles get there? Would they get to our staff at all if there was violence and shooting around them? Would all the offices and houses even be visited or would some people be left behind? Would all our re-locatable national staff get to a safe haven on time for pick-up? No-one knew anything. So much preparation, yet so little certainty. People were asking. No-one had the answers. I felt utterly useless.

By that point, my phone was ringing constantly. The agency I was with had made a fatal error in assigning me both the role of head of office for my team, and the task of NGO focal point, together with another NGO rep. The latter did not have a team under her care, but I did. I felt I could not help anyone properly, was pulled in all directions. How could I give advice to anyone  when I did not know the situation in town? How could I give them information when I did not have the information myself? How could I concentrate on other NGOs when I had my own team to take care of? I managed to advise people to do their best to get to one of the safe bases and prayed that they would succeed. When I tried to ring back to see if they had managed, the phones had gone dead. I was left to wonder, to fear, powerless.

I cannot put into words how glad I was to see my team members arrive at the UN compound safely a few hours later. They, too, wanted information I did not have;  and I felt the direct resentment and frustration of one colleague in particular. She had never liked me; our relationship had been strained from day 1; I was only 2 months into my job as head office, learning, still in the “storming” phase of all the relationships with my staff. Managing her on the compound was challenging: she smuggled a national staff member camping with the other displaced people outside the UN base into the compound. As this was putting us all at risk, and was against the protocol that only “re-locatable staff” should be let into the base, I had to challenge this decision, against my own heart, my longing to see him and his family safe.

We tried to get involved in bringing emergency food aid and non food items from the emergency warehouse to those displaced outside but coordination was difficult to achieve, emotions were running high and we could not find the keys to the warehouse in the chaos.  We could do nothing to be useful, not even speak to people as so many only spoke Arabic. Planning was underway; it was clear that an aid effort was needed. But getting it off the ground in a coordinated way seemed impossible.

The scheduled UN flight out of Kadugli had already taken off. When the news arrived that the UN would organise one final flight to evacuate those who wished to leave Kadugli I had to make a split -second decision. Stay and help with the aid effort and support the other NGO members, despite the fact that there was so little we could do; and that food and water was running out fast; or bring those members of my  team eligible for relocation to safety in Khartoum. I chose the latter, against the will of my  colleague I had mentioned, who fought with me and accused me of not caring for our national staff, of focusing only on protocol and not staying when need was greatest. I could understand her concern–it seemed to be that either of the two decisions was always going to be the wrong one. I was the manager, I had to decide; whatever I decided would stay with me for the rest of my life.

The airport was only  a few steps away from the UN base, on the other side of the road. But the Sudanese soldiers were searching the vehicles, detaining us on the open road outside the compound, AK47s dangling randomly from their belts, some of them clearly drugged, young and hyped up. The few minutes we waited at the gate before they allowed us entry seemed like eternity.

I will never be able to put into words what it felt like when the plane took off and I looked down, for the last time,  on Kadugli. I stared down feeling relief that I had brought at least some of my team out safely; guilt at leaving so many NGO and national colleagues behind; a sense of failure, a lack of  peace about my actions and decisions during those 3 turbulent days. Never have relief and failure been so entwined; never have I been so unable to disentangle one of those feelings from the other.

The doubts were worsened by the fierce accusations I continued to face from my colleague when we reached Khartoum. Probably in  her pain, in her anger, all she could do was criticise who I was and what I had done. There was no scope for a conversation, for hearing each other out. When we both boarded planes to go for counselling, I did not know that I would never see her again, that the conversation which could have brought some mutual understanding and closure would never be facilitated and never happen.

The months after Kadugli were among the worst in my life . I was diagnosed with multiple layers of PTSD (a diagnosis I resisted but which was probably correct). I could not sleep for about 3 months, lay awake reading. I felt shame–at all my decision, all my actions, at leaving, yet without knowing why. After all, only this one girl had ever criticised me for my decisions; all others acknowledged the importance of my initative to bring my team to safety, especially as there was nothing we could have done in Kadugli.( Those who did not board the plane with us were stuck there for months after, unable to bring much relief and help when food, water and aid stocks did run out as I had predicted they would.)

Yet I could not find a sense of peace. The lie spoken over me–that I did not care for our local team, the local people– tortured me , weighed on me for months, years. My self-confidence was non- existent: for a long time I applied for jobs for which I was over-qualified;  refused, for months, even years, to think of taking on any type of leadership role , and doubted myself when I did. It was only during this past year that the confidence in my leadership skills started to return.

I have come through all of that to some extent. I can now look at my photos of that time; speak about what happened; cry at some of the memories; smile at the good ones; bring some of the lingering doubts before friends and God when that sense of failure rears its ugly head.

But I know I will never forget. Kadugli has changed my life forever.

village children who learned all about safe antenatal care

 Children in a village outside Kadugli, 4 May 2011.