Humanitarians should never be a target but unfortunately they still are
A terrifying experience for WFP staff on an assessment mission in South Sudan.
Story by Musa Mahadi
For ten years Benjamin Nicholas Vuni, in his role as a senior security staffer with the World Food Programme (WFP) in South Sudan, has trained colleagues and visitors alike in how to remain safe and survive attacks in the field while on mission. His job includes organizing simulation exercises so that they are better prepared for how to react should they ever find themselves in danger. Little did he know that one day his decades of expertise would help save his own life when the seasoned security officer was captured in an ambush along with his team.
Benjamin remembers the events of the day vividly.
“It was a sunny but wet morning on 23 July when myself and three colleagues set out from our base in Kapoeta,” he says.
Kapoeta is some 217 km south-east of the capital Juba. The team was on a mission to inspect the feasibility of using a new road as a route for future deliveries of WFP’s food assistance to vulnerable communities. Less than an hour into their journey, Vuni and his team came face to face with gunmen.
This was not a simulation drill; it was real. The WFP crew were facing imminent death if they did not put into practice all they had been taught.
Typically, in South Sudan and elsewhere around the world, WFP vehicles are clearly branded to signify humanitarians on the road and as such, should not be the target of attacks. But not to the three athletic-built, tough-looking gunmen bearing AK47s who seemed ready to shoot and kill, no matter who the occupants of the vehicles were or that their mission was to simply help others in need.
Immediately, Vuni’s mind recalled the security stats he had shared with his trainees. “Only one ambush has taken place on a WFP convoy in South Sudan since 2018,” he thought. “And nine humanitarians have died in 2019.”
Passionate about their jobs as humanitarians to save the lives of the most vulnerable, Vuni and his colleagues found the strength to face their attackers.
“As soon as I saw someone jump out of the bush with an AK47 and point his gun at our car to force us to stop, my training kicked in,” said Vuni while showing part of his head which was hit with the butt of a gun. “I immediately told the driver not to panic — we were caught in ambush.”
Fear must not overwhelm them, thought Vuni, who instructed his colleague at the wheel to remain calm. As the security focal person of the fateful mission, Vuni quickly grabbed his radio to alert his colleagues in the second vehicle behind him.
“Mobile two, mobile one is under attack — reverse back,” Vuni spoke calmly — but with a sense of urgency — into his VHF radio. He heard gun shots from behind. The second vehicle had also been ambushed.
“My children are still young”
One of the three gunmen pointed his weapon at Vuni and his colleague Sam, who was in the driver’s seat. The gunmen, who seemed nervous but determined, ordered them to get out of the vehicle with their hands raised over their heads. They knew that they needed to remain calm and do exactly as instructed. Once they had come out, they were ordered to lay flat on their stomachs on the ground.
The other two gunmen approached the second vehicle where two other colleagues — Maiku John, a logistics officer and driver Anyanzo Emmanuel — were travelling.
“Today someone must die!” the first gunman said as he waived his rifle at Vuni and Sam. It was then that Vuni realized this could very well be his final moment. “I said in my heart, ‘Oh God, if today is my day then I cannot do anything but remember my children. They are still young’.”
What Vuni recalls after that was being hit hard on the head with a stone the nervous gunman had hurled at him. Then nothing but darkness.
Vuni’s colleague Sam recalls that the same gunman got into the vehicle and rummaged around for any belongings, stealing all personal equipment including phones, laptops and both radios.
Thankfully Vuni survived but he suffered a deep cut to his head after the gunmen beat him hard with a heavy stone and the butt of their guns. He lost consciousness and when he came to, his colleagues told him the assailants had left and taken all their belongings. No one else was hurt.
The terrifying experience has strengthened Vuni, who hopes to continue with his work ensuring colleagues are safe and secure to provide assistance to people in need. Vuni, whose childhood dream was to become a politician, believes he was born to serve people. Through his work with WFP’s mission in South Sudan, his work is touching many lives.
Humanitarians are not a target
This is the second ambush on a WFP convoy in South Sudan since 2018.The safety and security of humanitarian workers remain a risk in the country where 7.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. This year alone, nine humanitarian workers have been killed, bringing the total to at least 122, since 2013.
“Humanitarian workers should feel safe to travel and provide assistance,” says Matthew Hollingworth, WFP Country Director in South Sudan. “ They are not a target and it is totally unacceptable to harm them.”