“That was scary”: Diary Of A Peacekeeper In South Sudan

This is a guest post on by Lea Krivchenia, who brings the work of unarmed peacekeeping to life and helps folks understand this relatively new field. 

I sit on a sack of something – probably sorghum – in a trailor attached to a tractor, bracing myself against the bumps, a constant exercise on any road in South Sudan. The moon is bright above us, providing the only light in between the cattle camps, where you can see cooking fires and the occasional flashlight. On the horizon you can see the dull glow of the few towns in the area with generators and therefore electric light – the land is so flat that you can see the light from these towns 20 kilometers away.

The last time I did this trip was in the middle of the night in December, when all of the International NGOs in Yida decided to evacuate the refugee site because ground fighting between the government of Sudan and rebel group in South Kordofan had moved dangerously close to where we all live and work. Last time there were 29 NGO staff in the convoy, all equipped with satellite phones and radios, and with dozens of people in Juba watching our progress, ready to come in and help us. This time it’s me, my South Sudanese colleague, two drivers and twenty seven refugees who we were accompanying to a different site.

The thing I remember the most about the evacuation was the cold. Northern Unity state drops to close to freezing at night in December, and during the three-hour ride I remember trying to control the chattering of my teeth as I huddled next to my colleague from Colombia, a blanket wrapped around both of us as tight as it will go.  After, we decided – half jokingly - that we were too busy being cold to be scared of any of the risks that ride contained – military movement, military checkpoints, militia groups, land mines, etc.

The second one was less cold, but more risky.

The everyday work of Nonviolent Peaceforce is based on risk – risk analysis, risk reduction, and sometimes, taking risks. We talk through risk with our clients, with our partners, with our teams and with the organization as a whole. We have charts to visualize risks, we run trainings to identify and mitigate risk.

But another thing that we talk about is fear. In the language of donors, proposals and coordination meetings, we talk about the importance of perceived security. In the language of communities, families and clients, we ask if they feel scared or nervous or worried. We also ask ourselves if we feel scared or nervous or worried, though maybe less often when we should.

To do my job, I have to be good at identifying worst case scenarios and how to make them less likely. Much of this work is analytical – I mentally calculate likelihood against impact, track escalating or deescalating conflict indicators.

But sometimes things are simply scary. I identify fear by the physical sensation it brings to me – a swooping in my stomach that often comes before my brain can identify why exactly. Headlights in the distance coming towards my tractor at night, being woken up by gunshots, watching a bomber plane circle the camp. My stomach swoops and I inhale, before my brain starts cycling through the possibilities of what it could be, and what my immediate response should be.

Part of the job of a peacekeeper is managing that fear. There is a balance – too much and you can’t help to support communities. Too little, and you may take risks that endanger you and your clients.

Lea Krivchenia with mother and child in South Sudan

On that second tractor ride, I was working. I was calculating risk, talking to my colleague and to the refugees who were with me, discussing how to respond. I was looking for that balance – to not ignore my instincts but to best think how to manage the emotional reactions and turn them into solid protection.

And then there is the payoff – the tractor arrives, the rest of my team is waving at us from the camp. I scramble down from the tractor and help lift the smallest children down into their parents’ arms. People are tired, but they smile at me, and shake my hand. The adrenaline flows out of my arms and legs and I can feel myself relax, able to celebrate with people who feel safer than they did a few hours ago.

As I settle into my tent, exhausted but still exhilarated, I think to myself “that was scary.” And then I think to myself, “I would do it again tomorrow!”

This post originally appeared on the website of Nonviolent Peaceforce where Lea Krivchenia has worked for 3 years in Sri Lanka, Brussels and South Sudan. Lea has spent the last 6 months working in the Yida refugee settlement near the Sudan-South Sudan border as an International Protection Officer, providing emergency protection programming. Lea was born and raised in the U.S., where she has a BA in Women and Gender Studies from Yale University.


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