Travelling to Maban is a challenge. You need to reach the NE corner of the South Sudan border with Sudan and Ethiopia. It is a 2 hour ride from Juba on a small plane with WFP. It travels every Tuesday and Friday. Maban is only accessible by plane at present.
It is a tent city of 140,000 refugees fleeing the Blue Nile conflict of Sudan and 60,000 returnees from different refugee camps in Eastern Africa. There have been 2 evacuations of humanitarian staff in the past year because of insecurity. The first took place in December 2013 when the national conflict exploded in Juba- all NGO staff was advised to leave their work stations. In July 2014 the local militia attacked Nuer groups and killed 5 humanitarian drivers. All NGO staff except essential support staff was advised to move. Humanitarian workers returned in September.
To say the work there is challenging is an understatement and the work of humanitarian teams there is heroic in very difficult circumstances. Many have been living in tents in 40 degree heat in the past year.
Some of the greatest challenges are the following:
The complexity of the conflicts affecting the local and refugee population:
Maban is the meeting place of many conflicts. The majority of the refugees flee the conflict in the Blue Nile within the Sudan. They seek autonomy from the Khartoum Government and are in negotiation with the government for some form of independence.There are many political factions and militias within the Blue Nile state seeking at times in a splintered fashioned such autonomy. This movement for autonomy is supported militarily and politically by the SS Government and training and trading of arms takes place on the borders.
Another significant group are the returnees (60,000 approx). They have come back from exile after the 25 year war. They live in temporary dwellings in a county where there are few services. Their livelihoods are on the edge of survival and their post independence expectations of a better life have been dashed.
Another conflict existing in the area is the tension between the locally formed militia and groups within the national army present within the area. This conflict is an off shoot of the national conflict which split Nuer versus Dinka. The Nuer who have remained in the national army view other ethnic army members with suspicion and they in turn are viewed with suspicion by other army members and local militias. This tension could blow up at any time as happened in July when the local militia attacked the Nuer army members in Maban.
Humanitarian teams work within the confluence of many conflicts and their presence and work there is remarkable.
Accessibility and climate:
It is an isolated zone and landlocked at present because of rebel movements in the area.
Communication by road in and out of Sudan and Ethiopia and down South to Juba has been affected by bad rains and floods and also insecurity.
Basic supplies are not easy to access locally and everything has to comein by plane especially in the wet season which is expensive and slow. Building supplies are very expensive. One bag of cement costs 130 USD in Maban in November 2014.
Midday heat reaches 40s at times and malaria is frequent in the area.
On Thursday 13 Nov. 2014 The Sudan Government bombed Maban county. This is the first time cross border bombing took place in this area since independence and casualties were brought to the hospital in Bunj town. Rebel movements were reported on 16 Nov moving to the Blue Nile seeking training and arms. On the night of 17 Nov there was armed robbery of store in Bunj town. Security is fragile and its maintenance depends on so many factors such as the peace talks in Addis, the behaviour of local militias and commanders and developments in Blue Nile. Some forecast a resumption of hostilities on a national level when the rainy season ends in December.
Weak local governance structures:
Maban county and payams like all parts of S. Sudan is striving to put in place local governance structures and services. Many exist in name but do not function. The local education department for example do not know how many primary schools actually function and recent research done by NGOs show most have closed down and the teachers who have been unpaid have gone to work elsewhere in NGOS. As in many conflict and emergency situations there are dual economies and governances operating in parallel- the local fractured one and the one operated by the humanitarian agencies in the county. The reality in Maban is that the refugee community have more services available to it than the host community.This has the potential to create real tension between the two communities.
Continuity and consolidation;
The humanitarian effort in Maban has had a short and interrupted year but has made real connexions to the refugee community, host community and other stakeholders. There is a capital of good will amongst all the actors in the environment. Real work is taking place in teacher training, psycho social, pastoral activities and WASH. This is a great credit to the present teams.
What is key to the maintenance and the building up of the project is continual presence of core teams, Another evacuation would be difficult for the teams both physically and psychologically and could lead to the closure of the project. Meanwhile, there is an immediate need to consolidate the teams and locations of work within the compound site and in the camps and local communities.
Urgent need for peace:
There is a crisis of leadership in South Sudan and in the Sudan and as the Swahili proverb says when elephants fight the grass gets hurt. Too many people are hurting at present –almost 4 million need direct assistance within South Sudan- national and local leaders need to wake up to the suffering of their people and fight for and build peace and not for war and division.