If you open Google Maps at these coordinates, you will see two huge compounds next to each other, a rectangular and a squared one. The rectangular one is the base in Bor of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The square is the Bor Protection of Civilian Site (PoC). For those who have never heard of it, a PoC is basically a site for displaced people hosted in a UN base for physical protection. As it happened, when in December 2013 the civil war erupted in South Sudan, members of ethnic groups that felt threatened moved en masse to the nearby UN bases, and there they stayed. The PoC was a rather new concept when it was formalized in the early months of 2014, and proved an experiment with mixed results, and matter of contention and debate within the humanitarian community, this and UNMISS, and these and the warring parties in South Sudan. Two incidents, in Mingkamann in February 2016 and in Bor in April 2014, highlighted the limits of the experiment. For much of the last period I spent in South Sudan, a long debate had been ongoing on how to go over and out of the PoCs, even though as of today, most of them still are in place.
I was deployed to Bor for the first time a few weeks after this happened. I went back there a few months later, with another organization, to work on the relocation of the population to the new PoC – the square. Where was the old PoC? Well, check out on the upper right corner of the rectangle – you will see a wasteland of about 500×180 m with a pond in the middle. That was the old PoC. At the time there were somewhere between 1500 and 3000 people in the site. And no, it wasn’t a nice place.
What does a relocation consist of? It can mean many different things. Strip it to the bare minimum, you have to support people in moving with their items from an old place to a new place, which in our case meant check them in at departure, transport them and their items, register them at arrival, allocate them a piece of land in the new place. In other contexts, check in, transportation and registration at arrival would have been unnecessary, but given the security circumstances in Bor, all the movements happened via truck (in this case, the truck fleet was kindly provided by the Indian Battalion of UNMISS) and on a schedule.
Or at least, this is what happens on paper.
What was I doing there? I was in charge of the registration at arrival and allocation of the new plot. And of course, this could mean dealing with any of the following things happening several times a day, sometimes together. Families that lost their family ration cards (basically the only identification document available) during the transportation and could not be identified. Families that couldn’t track their luggage (though to my memory nobody lost it in the end). Families who weren’t satisfied with their plot or with their neighbour. Families “evicting” other people because they liked their plot more. Radio handsets running out of battery in the middle of the day, with batteries too overheated to get charged, meaning that you couldn’t coordinate the movements with the other end, which could mean tens of families coming at the same time with no one available to show them their plot.
And lots of rain. There was no time to wait for the end the rainy season, and the movement took place in September-October, at the end of the wet season in South Sudan. This meant moving with trucks that could get stuck in half a meter of mud, having to stop for long hours as heavy rains made movements impossible, and it meant for displaced people to dismantle and reconstruct their shelter under torrential rain, or waiting for it to stop (that’s when aid workers’ secret weapon, the tarp, comes really handy).
But we did it, and we did it on time. To my memory, the relocation of Bor PoC was the first one in South Sudan that could be completed on schedule. And it made for a rewarding moment once it was completed. The displaced population at the beginning didn’t like the idea of moving to the new site, fearing for their security during the transportation and afterwards – when in fact, the new site was extremely better defended and defendable than the old one. We had spent the last month with little sleep, crazy time schedules, fighting among us and with displaced people. In the first day after the last people moved to the site, we had a small meeting with the representatives of the community. They were smiling and they thanked us.