In the heart of Africa, the battle for humanity
South Sudan, Somalia, and Congo have one thing in common: they are among the most dangerous places on earth, for civilians and humanitarian aid workers alike .
Nyakuor lives in perpetual fear. On a day like any other she left the camp to collect firewood when she stumbled upon armed men. “It was too late to run. They got me. Every time I go out now I’m terrified. But I have no choice. For my children, I have to do it,” she explains with the youngest of her eight children looking on in the doorway of their makeshift shelter.
Nuakuor lives in Bentiu, South Sudan’s largest ‘protection-of-civilians’ site. With 115,000 other South Sudanese she chose the relative safety around the United Nations peacekeeping base in Unity state over the chaos and atrocities outside. But living in this so-called ‘safe haven’ doesn’t protect her from rape, harassment and violence when she steps outside.
In countries with peacekeeping missions such as South Sudan, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), peace is ironically in short supply. Seven years after it gained independence from Sudan, South Sudan is the world’s most fragile state according to the Fund for Peace’s yearly index. More than a third of the population has been uprooted since December 2013 when dissent among the new leadership degenerated into a full-blown civil war. People survive, labelled as refugees or internally displaced persons, but continue to face unacceptable choices.
Women and girls do not necessarily face more risks than men and boys, but they face unique risks, according to Gemma Connell, Head of UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (United Nations OCHA) for Southern and Eastern Africa: “Who goes out to get firewood, to do the collection of water, to get the food assistance when there’s a food drop? By and large, it’s women and girls. No family should be forced to choose between the risk of a father being killed or a mother being raped, but these are the types of decisions so many families are confronted with every day in conflicts.”
Although more than half the population — 7 million people — is in need of humanitarian assistance, being an aid worker here is risky business. More than 107 humanitarian aid workers have been killed since 2013. This makes South Sudan the most violent country in the world in which to deliver aid.
Locals on the frontlines
One of the most horrific and publicised attacks involved the gang rape of five foreign aid workers and murder of a local journalist in July 2016 when fighting erupted in the capital Juba. Incidents involving foreign aid workers are often in the spotlight, but ‘locals’ are the ones most at risk on the frontlines: 95 per cent of the aid workers that have been killed are South Sudanese.
Many of them have had a lucky escape. A South Sudanese colleague who was visiting a protection-of-civilians camp to assess the humanitarian needs recalls how a rowdy crowd turned against him: “I was mistaken for someone belonging to an ethnic group that was not wanted there,” he says. “What probably saved me from instant death was that I pulled out my ID to show which village I come from. After that incident, I had to avoid certain locations.”
There’s no one quick-win approach to stop attacks on civilians or aid workers, but we have to try everything. Even if we can prevent one attack, that’s something.
Insecurity and attacks on aid workers have an immediate impact on the delivery of life-saving assistance, both its quality and quantity. With many regions off-limits to aid workers for long periods of time, the EU’s humanitarian strategy is to support organisations that are flexible and responsive enough to take advantage of every window of opportunity. But, when they go into previously inaccessible areas it is crucial that the EU’s partners carefully weigh risks for their staff.
“These relentless attacks against aid workers and the looting of humanitarian facilities and supplies are unacceptable breaches of international humanitarian law,” says Morten Petersen who spent two years heading the EU’s humanitarian aid office in South Sudan.
“They prevent our aid, which is neutral and impartial, from reaching the people who need it.”
No silver bullet
The rules of war, formally known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL), seek to preserve a measure of humanity during armed conflict. Despite near constant violations, IHL remains the most powerful tool at our disposal to uphold the safety and dignity of civilians, including aid workers, in times of war.
Connell puts the ‘violators’ into two main categories: armed actors who do not know the rules, and those who do not care. “No matter how much time we spend engaging, explaining, negotiating; at the end of the day, parties to a conflict often want to win the war at the sacrifice of the civilians who are caught up in it. There’s no one quick-win approach to stop attacks on civilians or aid workers, but we have to try everything. Even if we can prevent one attack, that’s something,” she says.
More than a thousand kilometres south of Juba, in the troubled eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), humanitarian space is shrinking by the day. Since 2016, 60 out of the 132 non-governmental aid organisations present have pulled out due to insecurity and lack of funds. “Barbaric” is how a UN agency recently described the violence in Ituri province where entire villages have been reduced to ash. However, populations in other provinces are also being terrorised.
Clotilde in South Kivu was raped and forced to watch her children as they had burning plastic poured into their eyes. Marie, a 17-year-old student in Kasaï, was on her way to school when she was shot and survived unlike two of her friends. Kavumbu, a displaced nurse in Tanganyika, witnessed how his pregnant wife was disemboweled. These horrific stories are common in eastern DRC. It hurts the victims to recount what happened to them and their loved ones, but they want the world to know.
Violence has now driven millions of Congolese from their homes. DRC counts 4.5 million internally displaced people — the highest number of any African country — and although they are in desperate need, many areas are out of bounds for humanitarian aid workers.
A study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the EU’s most prominent partners in armed conflicts and the reference on International Humanitarian Law, found that globally more armed groups have emerged in the last seven years than in the previous seven decades. In DRC, the ‘fragmentation’ of armed groups, from 75 in 2015 to over 132 in 2018, poses a huge challenge for aid organisations. Road ambushes and attacks have soared, making road travel nearly impossible across a vast territory. Humanitarian aid workers in Congo run the second highest risk of being kidnapped compared to anywhere else in the world.
One way in which the EU helps its humanitarian partners get staff and supplies safely on the ground is air transport. The EU runs its own humanitarian air service — ECHO Flight — to over 15 destinations in DRC, and also funds UN helicopter flights to inaccessible locations in North and South Kivu. ICRC has warned that access to one million people who are in need of protection and assistance is at stake.
Mobilising against famine
In the Horn of Africa, on the far eastern tip of the continent, Somalia’s name has become synonymous with chaos and violence since the country descended into civil war in 1991. More than a quarter of a century on, the combination of conflict and drought has displaced 2.6 million Somalis. Over the years, humanitarian organisations have retrenched to a dozen or so enclaves in southern and central Somalia. The Islamist armed group Al-Shabaab controls vast rural areas and does not tolerate aid organisations. An estimated 20% of the population is out of reach of humanitarian aid workers.
When in 2016 El Niño led to severe drought, many feared a massive death toll. Just five years earlier, famine had left 260,000 Somalis dead. Taking to heart the lessons learnt from this tragedy, the humanitarian community mobilised fast and succeeded in preventing a second famine.
“In just three months, all aid was multiplied by five,” says Dr. Johan Heffinck who manages EU humanitarian aid in Somalia.
“This time, Al-Shabaab let people leave to the urban centres and did not block humanitarian aid there. One suicide bombing during a visit would have been enough to close things down.”
Foreign aid workers can only travel a few kilometres out of the town centres under government control. They have to limit the time they spend in each location to avoid being targeted or abducted. Direct contact with the people who need aid or can benefit from it is, thus, limited. However, EU humanitarian partners have found innovative ways to reach people in need, using relatively well-developed mobile technology (telephone and mobile money). The most vulnerable receive cash directly on their mobile phones, with which they can buy basic necessities and services.
Most donors have outsourced the monitoring of their projects. EU humanitarian experts, however, believe it is important to see the field situation for themselves. They plan two to three field visits per month, but last-minute cancellations, mostly due to imminent security threats, are frequent.
“We want to guarantee the correct use of the funds, and more importantly, we want to see what people are really going through,” says Heffinck.
“We want to be sure that we have a correct assessment of where the needs are and how people are supposed to be helped rather than rely on second or third party guesses.”
Not who we are
In conflicts, respect for civilians and aid workers has sadly waned since the glory days of humanitarianism in the 1970s.
Connell believes humanity, the first principle of humanitarian action, still resonates today. For her, we can be ambassadors for humanity to the wider world and amplify the voices of civilians and aid workers on the frontlines, to generate the empathy and understanding that will help keep them safe. She also warns about compromising on the other humanitarian principles. “The minute we stop being neutral and impartial, that’s the minute our risk increases exponentially.”
If one warring party perceives humanitarian workers to be biased, this can make a dangerous place lethal. Somalia, where EU humanitarian aid helps former child soldiers return to civilian life, is a good example. Humanitarian aid and law are viewed as western concepts by Al-Shabaab’s interpretation of Islamic doctrine.
In such circumstances, how can we influence fighters to show restraint, to avoid harming civilians and allow aid to reach them? That is the million-dollar question. Heffinck believes we have to find a way to make the rules of war also appealing to these non-state actors by promoting “the principles and global moral values that can be found as much in the Bible as the Koran as Humanitarian Law.”
A recent study by ICRC recommends integrating the rules of law more effectively into doctrine and linking them to local values and norms. Armed groups are more likely to refrain from hurting civilians and aid workers if they are convinced such behaviour “is not who we are” rather than just “against the law.”
Until then, the challenge of protecting people caught up in conflict and the humanitarian workers who work tirelessly to deliver aid remains. If there is one battle worth fighting, it is the battle for humanity.
By Anouk Delafortrie, Regional Information Officer for the Great Lakes, East and Southern Africa, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.