A few weeks ago, a team from Citizen’s Call, (full name for the Emergency Evacuation of South Sudanese or CCEESS) were on the ground in Renk when a child died in front of them from dehydration and hunger. Exhausted and traumatised by her escape from Khartoum, the desperate young mother, arrived in Renk only to face a new kind of heartbreak as she cradles her only child.
It was hard to forget that moment for Akoch Manheim from Citizen’s Call, who returned to Juba to rally a response to the brutal conflict unfolding in Sudan’s Capital Khartoum, since 15 April.
Two weeks, later, this is the second load of cargo Citizen’s Call has entrusted to MAF. The first, carried on a flight last week, was comprised mostly of medical supplies. ‘This freight is made up of medicine and therapeutic food for distribution in the camps around Renk,’ explains the Citizen’s Call Chairperson. He is working hard to make sure that the refugee needs are met.
Refugees from Sudan continue to arrive at the border every day. In Khartoum, an active warzone, and other parts of the country, the situation is becoming increasingly desperate – with access to food, water, electricity, and healthcare at crisis point.
Akoch explains that Citizen’s Call is helping both sides of the border. He is working with colleagues to arrange the trucks which have evacuated 6,600 people so far, taking advantage of every ceasefire to help people flee. With an estimated 800,000 South Sudanese registered as refugees in Sudan at the outbreak of war, and may more residing in the county for work, education, and medical reasons, they could be at the beginning of a very long response.
People are fleeing Sudan with little more than the clothes on their back. What they find in Renk is safety, and organisations who are working hard to meet their basic needs for food, water, medical care, toilet facilities and onward transit to their places of origin. The response has only recently stepped up.
Getting food and medicine to the people in Renk is becoming increasingly vital. Soaring prices at the market reflect the fact that the trade route bringing supplies from Sudan, has all but dried up. Meanwhile the muddy wet-season roads will continue to stop trucks in their tracks for at least the next five months. At the river ports along the Nile, river barges require armed escorts to ensure safe passage of people and freight from Malakal heading South. Renk is six-hundred very long miles from South Sudan’s capital Juba if you are travelling by boat or by road.
In comparison, the three-hour flight to Renk, is relatively safe and straightforward, although the wet season weather can be challenging as Pilot Andy Mac Donald explains. ‘I was expecting a few storms on Tuesday having had to turn back due to weather, the previous day – thankfully, I only encountered a large overcast layer and was able request weather reports from the Red Cross De Haviland buffalo flying ahead of me,’ Pilot Andy Macdonald reports.
Andy shared what he saw on the ground in Renk. ‘The airspace over Renk was busy with three aircraft taking off in the 10-15 minutes before I landed. On the ground the massive UN MI 26 Helicopter, which can carry 20 tons of freight took up the whole of the apron. The activity at the airstrip and the presence of UN peacekeepers shows that the response is starting to pick up.’
As a MAF pilot, loading and unloading cargo is bread and butter work, there is little time for reflection as Andy explains. ‘Single crew operations keep the pilots pretty focused on the ground. Afterwards, when you have time to stop and reflect on the reality facing the people, you realise how much the boxes of food and medicine are needed. They will benefit people like the couple of dozen refugees camping in the bushes towards the end of the runway looking for a way to leave this nightmare behind.’
‘The boxes of cargo, I unloaded were an equal split of medicine and therapeutic food, that will meet the needs of people in some of the camps in Renk Town where refugees living alongside the host community. The sachets will be given to children. Each sachet, made from peanuts, milk and whey protein, provides exactly 500 calories of nutrition to a child over 6 months old suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition. One box containing around 150 sachets, will treat one child for the 6-8 weeks it takes for them to recover. It may not seem like much, but 10 boxes will help ten vulnerable children survive a conflict they are too young to understand. That’s about the number of passengers we can evacuate on a flight.’
Emergency response in such a remote location means long tiring days for the pilots. With his cargo unloaded, Andy was keen to get back in the air for a return flight that was far from straightforward ‘The wind at the airstrip indicated there would be storms to the south. The return flight meant two hours of active navigation to avoid storm activity on the way back. That a three-hour flight is the safest and easiest option, speaks volumes about the size of the challenges facing the people in Renk,’ he reflects.
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