I spent most of my time in South Sudan in a county called Maban, in the North Eastern edge of the country, not far from the border with Sudan. The county hosts about 100,000 refugees that started to arrive from Sudan in 2012, moving away from a conflict in Blue Nile State. That is a war whose history probably will never be written, or researched with the adequate attention, although it would give interesting insights on the complex interactions between the provision of humanitarian aid and a proxy war.
My last assignment has been as Camp Manager in one of the four refugee camps in the county, named Doro, where I worked for about one year between June 2016 and June 2017 . If you are like me and need to see things on a map in order to understand what am I talking about, you can find Doro camp at these coordinates. You should be able to see an airstrip, and if you zoom in the area around the airstrip you will be able to see the outline of the compounds and of the shelters of the refugees. Through OpenStreetMap you will get an understanding of the outline of the camp.
This outline is however not updated, as in spring 2017, for some reasons that I will not explain in much detail here, about 5000 refugees had to be relocated to an extension site in the north of the camp. I explained here in a nutshell what a relocation consists of, in Maban it was quite a similar business, although security measures could be more relaxed than in Bor. Also, at the time the rainy season was only kicking in, and we managed to do much of the job in relatively decent weather conditions.
Much of the challenges we faced regarded the poor quality of the soil available, as up to 30% of the allocated area consisted of black cotton soil unsuitable for dwelling, and the construction of a new water network in (or better, the extension of the existing one to) the new site. Luckily enough, my organization wasn’t directly in charge of either of the two.
So, what was I doing there? As camp manager, I ended up being in charge of all the components of community mobilization (which in Bor had been done before I joined the team), and eventually coordinating and supervising the practical movements of people from departure to arrival. The experience in Bor proved a blessing and allowed me to learn a number of lessons. If there is something you cannot usually exceed with, is consultations with community members. This prompted us to have broad meetings to discuss the procedures that would have been in place to practically have the movement happening, and then other plenary meetings with each village that was affected by the relocation, in order to explain what would have happened and when.
Each family received a few days before the relocation a nominal token that acted as a sort of ticket for transportation and for plot allocation on arrival (the families could then be checked in both at departure and on arrival, when the number of their plot could also be registered). On the agreed day of movement, families showed up with their belongings, “checked in”, loaded the (labelled) items on a truck (provided by another partner organization), boarded a bus and headed to the new site. Here they were welcomed by our team, were showed their plot, given a plastic sheet (here again with the secret weapon), got registered, then they offloaded the luggage and started to build their shelters. Vulnerable people were identified at departure and received support when necessary.
Yours truly designed this system, organized the meetings and together with UNHCR facilitated them, and on the days of movement he was at the arrival side, coordinating the movements with the sending end and supervising the plot allocation and registration.
Overall the exercise proved somehow easier than in Bor, I guess thanks to the experienced acquired there, a relatively easier context and weather conditions. As said above, the most challenging aspects were outside our control, which proved to be a mixed blessing. Although not everything went as planned, the relocation was completed within budget and within the expected time schedule.