You worked in South Sudan for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for almost a year. What exactly did you do there?
During this time, I was stationed in Wau, a city in the northwest of South Sudan. I was working there for the ICRC as an Administration Manager. Despite living in a war-torn country, I had a relatively safe office job. I led a small team and was responsible for finance, residential buildings and administration. The ICRC is in dialog with all parties involved in the conflict. Their objective is to minimize the impact of the war on the population, and they also support development projects, such as building hospitals or water projects. The ICRC works independently of governments, other aid organizations and the UNO. However, the ICRC coordinates its efforts with other humanitarian actors to avoid duplicating various projects.
What was your first impression when you arrived?
The culture shock started right at the airport. When I landed, I saw two commercial airplanes and a whole armada of planes from aid organizations. That was very telling. I just thought, wow, this country must really be in an awful state. The airport itself was just made from wooden pallets and a few tents. But after that I got used to the new surroundings really quickly. Through the organization I was well integrated and was introduced to the new situations.
What did a typical working day look like for you in South Sudan?
It was incredible how quickly I got used to day-to-day office life in an unusual environment. You got up in the morning, went to the office and got started on the day’s tasks. Yet it was anything but a routine job. You always had to change the day’s schedule because of critical security events, repairs or because co-workers asked for help. Often, I wasn’t able to work in peace until the evening. On the one hand, you were in a completely different world than you can imagine here in Switzerland. On the other hand, even in South Sudan we were not completely at the mercy of the civil war. Thanks to the safety management of the ICRC we were continually informed of changes relating to the conflict. Our buildings were protected by walls, barbed wire and unarmed guards. The ICRC encouraged and recommended that we regularly spend a few days away from the conflict situation in a neighboring country or in Switzerland so that we could recover and relax. At the beginning, I considered the recommended duration in South Sudan too short. But it soon became clear that it felt longer than originally anticipated, and the work and situation on the ground were really demanding.
How did you find the cooperation on the ground with the parties involved in the conflict? (Editor’s note: the ICRC negotiates with all parties involved in the conflict and can thus develop suggestions for solutions which are supported by all parties)
The negotiations could be very lengthy. An example of this was a small medical aid project. It took months before the project finally got off the ground. The preliminary investigations had to be redone multiple times, security guarantees renewed and meetings with the authorities organized. The people involved required a great deal of perseverance. The South Sudanese culture is also very different from what we’re used to. They are less direct and discuss every detail before anything is implemented. Once you’ve accepted that, it’s manageable.
During your time there, were you ever in danger or at least scared of being in danger?
I basically never felt any danger to life and limb. Even so, there were high-risk situations, like when you woke up at night after hearing gunfire and didn’t know exactly what was happening. The city I was stationed in, Wau, was relatively safe. In April, when the front lines moved, there were often attacks and occasionally artillery fire south of the city. But even then, I trusted the security concept of the ICRC which also had emergency plans in place for every situation.
NGOs and development aid workers are often criticized. The accusations are that development aid creates dependency, that operations are not targeted or that things are forced on the local population. What is your opinion of these accusations?
In my opinion, people are very quick to make these accusations from an office desk in Switzerland. When people are displaced, for example, they have nothing and suffer from hunger. At that moment, you can either leave them to themselves, which for many would mean death, or you can provide emergency aid, such as in the form of food. However, this isn’t a long-term solution and can quickly lead to dependency. The situation and developments on the ground present aid organizations with very difficult decisions.
In my view, it is important to have a reliable presence, a coordinated approach and good communication on the ground. In this way, and together with the local population, something can be achieved. In contrast, organizations without much experience which start short-term projects are not very effective, to my mind.
What effect has your time in South Sudan had on you personally?
I think I’ve become noticeably calmer and more balanced. If something isn’t working, I can be less perturbed by it and I’m probably a bit less stubborn. Apart from that, you also learn to value the ordinary, everyday things about Switzerland, like being able to go to the mountains or the range of food. In South Sudan you just eat what’s available at the market, namely, millet. There were practically no milk products, the same was the case for bread and pasta. Each time, I took a lot of food with me from Switzerland and significantly developed my cooking skills so I was able to occasionally enjoy fondue or risotto.
What happens next now that you are back in Switzerland?
At the moment I’m still not certain exactly. I can well imagine taking part in a shorter mission again, or finding a job in Switzerland. But I don’t want to work long-term for the ICRC in crisis-hit countries. Looking back, it was an amazing experience which I would definitely do again. I would recommend it to others. Nonetheless, you do have to be aware of what you’re committing to and that in many respects, it can be extremely intense.
The answers are the personal opinion of Martin Markovic and are not representative of the official position of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
International Committee of the Red Cross
The International Committee of the Red Cross is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance.
It acts in response to emergency situations and promotes respect for international humanitarian law and its implementation in national law. The ICRC also endeavors to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles.