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Behind the scenes in South Sudan

Emergency insight:
the horrors of South Sudan

Oxfam emergency expert Kerry Akers describes the harrowing scenes she recently saw in South Sudan - and explains how she stays hopeful amid the horror.
I've just returned from working as Oxfam's senior protection officer in South Sudan.  Around 600,000 people have been displaced as a result of fighting there. 

It's a horrific situation, where people - largely women and children - are fleeing violence by walking for days through swamps up to their necks. People told us harrowing stories of children drowning, of mass rape, of killings. People are carrying children and babies and sometimes aren't able to make it to safe places a few days' walk away. 

Our work in South Sudan
Oxfam is distributing transport vouchers so people can travel to the safe areas without needing to walk through the swamps. We're providing clean water and food too, because many people are starving. And we're helping people travel to the food distribution points, where airdrops are happening. 

A big part of the challenge is reaching people, because many of the most vulnerable people are far from the mainland, living on remote small islands. These are some of the safest places, but they are also some of the most difficult places to reach. Other people are literally living in the swamps - standing up to their necks in water for days and days, then travelling to the food distribution points. 

The power of communities
We're also helping to set up protection committees in the villages in South Sudan. So if a woman has been walking for days and days and arrives in a village, for instance, these community groups will help her get support - explaining where hospitals are or how she can contact health workers. 

In the midst of the horror the communities have been amazing. When people have the resources, the things they do for each other are life-affirming.  

People are opening their homes to strangers. There are no camps but in some small towns 70 or so people are arriving each day, and people are literally opening up their homes to them. People have no food for themselves but are still opening their doors to others.  

You see girls of eight years old leading their elderly blind grandmothers to safety for days. You see community groups looking out for the most vulnerable people living nearby or helping people deal with mental health issues. You see people organising plays and dramas to raise awareness of issues like forced marriage and sexual assault. You see so many things. 

Hope among the horror
It might sound difficult to understand, but I love my work. I want to help people. Once you've seen these situations and you've talked to people who are living this life, you feel compelled to do something. I feel like there's an obligation to help. I couldn't not do it. 

I feel that Oxfam is making a tangible difference to people's lives and I want to be a part of that. If I can, I will. Oxfam is helping people find safety, providing clean water, saving lives and helping people find food.  

You've got to be an optimist to do this job, and the communities I met in South Sudan offered that glimmer of hope. I've seen women and children in desperate situations, arriving with nothing, and communities coming together to help them. 

It's not Oxfam and other organisations like ours that make the biggest difference - it's the communities themselves. And if we can support them, that's what I want to be a part of.

Header image: Families collect water at an Oxfam built water point in Lankien, Jonglai state, South Sudan. Credit: Richard Elson Inset, Kerry Akers.

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