My column in the March issue of Seasons covered highlights of my time in Egypt and Israel in January with the Minister of Defence and NZDF personnel. We were there to acknowledge New Zealanders who are serving in those countries and to gain first-hand insights that will guide future deployment decisions.
The final leg of that trip took us to South Sudan to meet with our troops and support personnel who are assisting the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. Established when South Sudan gained its independence in July 2011, UNMISS is the newest United Nations peacekeeping mission.
South Sudan is a primitive country with widespread poverty and a constant threat of contagious diseases such as Ebola spreading, so international aid and assistance are vitally needed. It is humbling for Westerners, who enjoy prosperity, advanced education, health services, career opportunities, and stable democracy, to witness the deprivation and instability that are the norm for most South Sudanese.
There is rubbish everywhere in South Sudan, most of it plastic, reflecting the lack of collection services and infrastructure that most of us in developed nations take for granted. Although similar to the size of France by area, only about 200kms of its roads are paved, so driving can be slow, hazardous and very bumpy – an experience sometimes colloquially described by those who do so as “an African massage”! However, many of those “roads” are sometimes treacherous and unnavigable in the wet season.
While it is heartening to observe that the work of the dedicated UNMISS team is making a positive difference for many, I am concerned that South Sudan’s fragile stability may be shaken by the coup last month that saw the long-serving President of its northern neighbour, Sudan, ousted from power.
The four core elements of the UNMISS mandate are protecting civilians, creating the conditions conducive to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, monitoring and investigating human rights, and supporting the peace process.
For the past two years, UNMISS has been led by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative, David Shearer, who was previously MP for Mt. Albert following Helen Clark’s retirement from Parliament. Between 2011 and 2013 David was the Leader of the Labour Party.
Although we were from different parties, I always enjoyed David’s company, respected his service in Parliament, and held him in high regard, so it was great to meet with him in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, and to hear details of the important multi-faceted work that he is leading. It was clear that he is doing a fine job and commands widespread respect from the members of his international team.
We met with David at our accommodation beside the River Nile, which was a picturesque setting, and we visited several sites connected with their work.
Most moving of those experiences was our visit to one of the UN’s Protection of Civilians camps, which provide basic shelter and security for some of the millions of South Sudanese for whom internal displacement is a way of life following decades of civil war and violence.
Thousands of families have sought sanctuary at UNMISS protection camps, and undoubtedly many lives have been saved as a result, but the camps provide respite, not a long-term solution, and it is sobering to consider the plight of those who are living within them.
I am immensely proud of the contribution that New Zealanders are making.