SELFLESS: Food donated by USAID is prepared at a transit centre for South Sudanese refugees. The aid workers who help them often risk their lives. Picture: AP
Gunshots suddenly crackled as Stephanie and her colleagues went about a routine seed distribution in a small farming community in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.

The moment she heard the bullets zipping through the air, the young aid worker knew the country’s civil war had caught up with her.

“There were bullets everywhere. Rampant shooting and three dead – one was a child, one was a pregnant woman and one was a man,” said Stephanie, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

Then, the 26-year-old from the south-central town of Kajo Keji worked for a local aid agency without the means to evacuate employees rapidly.

With the help of other staff, Stephanie had to formulate her own evacuation plan. She used the river to navigate to Ethiopia, rented a car, and drove to the city of Gambella. There she bought a plane ticket to the relative safety of Juba, the South Sudanese capital.

“I think if it was an (international) NGO evacuation, perhaps they would have sent a flight to pick me up but I had to find my (own) way out. At the end of the day, I was reimbursed,” she explained, matter-of-factly.

Danger is by no means a rare experience in the aid world, where agencies provide help in the most difficult of circumstances. But no aid workers risk quite as much as national staff. Eighty percent of the estimated 208 aid workers killed, kidnapped or seriously hurt worldwide last year were local, the Aid Worker Security Database’s most recent records show.

Last year, South Sudan overtook Afghanistan on the list of countries with the most attacks on aid workers, with an estimated 82 humanitarians murdered since the start of the country’s civil war in December 2013. There were 24 deaths last year alone, according to the UN’s humanitarian chief in South Sudan, Eugene Owusu.

The worst month so far for humanitarians was March this year, when six aid workers and their driver were killed in an ambush in Pibor, in the country’s east. Four of the dead were national staff, all belonged to Grassroots Empowerment and Development Organisation, a Unicef partner.

No one has been held accountable for the murders, though a blame game has ensued between the warring factions.

The humanitarian needs are immense in South Sudan. As a result of a vicious civil war between sides loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, 5.8 million people are in need of aid, about 3.6 million have been forced from their homes and famine has been declared in parts of Unity State.

The proliferation of armed groups hinders the delivery of aid.

“The spread of conflict across South Sudan has made humanitarian access negotiations more protracted and complex, impacting the work of aid organisations,” said Ian Ridley, head of the UN’s emergency aid co-ordination office in South Sudan.

“Humanitarians face repeated challenges to reach people in dire need as a result of clashes, insecurity and access denials,” said Ridley. “Aid workers continue to be killed, injured and harassed across the country and humanitarian compounds and supplies continue to be looted and vandalised.”

Checkpoints are manned by soldiers and rebels, making road travel risky – both in terms of insecurity and the bribes demanded. Similarly, the heavy presence of armed groups on the Nile’s banks means the river is off limits. UN charter flights are, therefore, the only safe option for aid delivery and staff transport to remote areas – something smaller national organisations cannot always afford.

Panther is the country director of a local NGO that works to improve living conditions for vulnerable youth. According to him, limited funding to smaller local NGOs can result in recklessness and bad decision-making.

“Our project support is entirely from donors and, if funding isn’t there, then decisions like these are made,” he said of the six aid workers killed in the March ambush.

“Their organisation could have done better. The road (they were on) is only used by traders. I’ve never heard of humanitarians (using it),” said Panther, who asked that his surname and the agency he works for not be disclosed for security reasons. “I think it was probably negligence,” he added.

According to the UN’s Ridley, donors were unwilling to give directly to national NGOs.

“National NGOs are on the very front lines of the humanitarian response in South Sudan and, therefore, face multiple challenges. This includes threats and harassment by parties to the conflict,” he said.

“As the conflict has spread and deepened, (national) NGOs have faced allegations of bias, based on perceived political affiliations or alleged allegiance due to ethnicity.”

Regardless of whether they operate in a small local organisation or a powerful international one, on an individual level, South Sudanese humanitarians will always be exposed to one overarching risk – the conflict’s ethnic dimension.

The government and its army are seen as Dinka-dominated. The Nuer are linked with the rebellion, although much of South Sudan is now a patchwork of ethnic militias.

“Locals have ethnic and tribal challenges and their own families are affected. They are heroic, resilient people,” said Perry Mansfield, country director for World Vision. “National staff are keeping the country alive.”

However, having a team of local staff is not without its challenges.

“We can’t put Nuer to work in a Dinka community,” explained Mansfield, a reference to the fault line between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups.

Johnson Beek, a Nuer and World Vision employee, recalled the day one of his friends, a World Food Programme worker, was murdered by armed men.

“He was arrested and killed. So many guys in the humanitarian world have been threatened or even killed,” said Beek, standing amid rows of white tents in a Protection of Civilians site near Juba.

South Sudan has nearly 200 organisations delivering emergency programmes, including community groups; national and international NGOs and UN agencies.

World Vision is one of the biggest and is where Stephanie works today. A multibillion-dollar organisation, it can afford to be thorough when it comes to security procedures, although it cannot expunge all risks.

“I think I feel safer than when I’m in a local NGO,” said Stephanie. “When I was signing my contract, (I asked:) ‘Is there any means of evacuation, should there be any insecurity.’ This is my first priority when I’m taking an offer.”

But she is also aware when a conflict takes a turn for the worst, it is the national staff and national NGOs who stay.

“International NGOs can leave, but these NGOs remain always on the ground, always with their people,” she said, with more than a hint of pride. – IRIN