ON UN DUTY
How Britain's military is helping deliver aid to South Sudan.
More than 300 British troops are currently deployed in South Sudan as part of Operation TRENTON 6.
They have been present in the region for three years supporting the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
Although they are not directly working to help the locals, members of 39 Engineer Regiment ensure UNMISS continues to operate in the country by taking on engineering tasks given to them by the United Nations.
The British task force is spread across three bases where they are expected to remain until 2020: Juba, Malakal and Bentiu.
Since July 2011, the United Nations has been carrying out a mission in South Sudan to protect civilians and restore durable peace in the region.
A team of 14,000 people, among them peacekeepers, police, security and civilian personnel, from more than 60 different countries are currently active in the country as part of UNMISS.
South Sudan is the world's youngest country. It gained independence from neighbouring Sudan in 2011.
Two years later, a row between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar resulted in civil war.
Both factions targeted civilians, with women and children bearing the brunt of attacks.
Nearly two million people have fled their homes since 2013. Many of them now live in Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites near UN bases.
Picture: UN/Isaac Billy
Picture: UN/Isaac Billy
The Protection of Civilians site in Bentiu is the largest of its kind in South Sudan. Rows and rows of makeshift shelters are home to more than 100,000 people.
Since December 2013 the site has grown exponentially as people have fled violence in their towns and seek UN protection.
Many had to run for their lives leaving everything behind. Michael Tergiek, a local teacher, is one of them.
"I was chased by people with guns and I had no equipment I could fight them with," he explains.
"I am not a soldier. I am not a politician. I have no power. I am just a civilian."
However, the camps are not free of violence and there have been attacks at night.
The work of the British engineers has been crucial in restoring safety to Bentiu's camp.
Until recently, there were regular break-ins to the site. Intruders scaled the perimeter fence unnoticed in the dark, coming with machetes and guns to steal, rape or kill.
"Before, there were some people from outside using guns," says Michael Tergiek.
"They also attacked people at night."
"They would take someone and they would also kill some people, but since the British soldiers came here, all these things have stopped."
To tackle the issue, British troops were tasked with erecting the equivalent of street lights around the edge of camp.
Forty-seven solar-powered lights went up and crimes in camp came down. They enabled the UN troops in the watch towers to see those attempting to break in and stop them.
"Then, we were blessed with another 100," says Corporal Zack Vakasawaqa from 39 Engineer Regiment.
"To me, it is a massive thing. This is what I wanted to do."
With a total of 147 lights around the perimeter, the UN camp in Bentiu is safer than it used to be.
"People who were crossing the fence are not doing that [anymore]," says Hiroko Hirahara, the Head of the UN Field Office in Bentiu.
Children, she says, are now spending their evenings reading and doing their homework under the lamp posts.
Much of the engineering work carried out by British troops has been focused on improving conditions for UN workers, to allow more of them to go to South Sudan and bring help to the region.
Immediately beside the British camp in Bentiu is the newly-completed UK-built Level 2 field hospital.
The hospital has now been handed over to Vietnamese forces to run, but the two medical teams have been working side-by-side to share expertise.
Around 140km south of Bentiu, British engineers have also been at work. At the UN camp in the town of Leer they have used their skills to improve the living and working conditions of Ghanaian troops.
Soldiers there had been living in tents for years as they protected displaced civilians.
Members of 39 Engineer Regiment upgraded and extended the camp perimeter, fixed the drainage system and installed hardened accommodation for the Ghanaian troops.
How To Build
Picture: UN/Isaac Billy
Picture: UN/Isaac Billy
Around 30,000 civilians are living under UN protection in Malakal, South Sudan's second largest city.
British troops are based right on the doorstep of the PoC site. They witness extreme levels of poverty on a daily basis.
"It was an emotional experience the first time I went to the PoC camp," says Lance Corporal Abbie Quick, Combat Medic with 32 Royal Artillery.
Seeing how other people live at the PoC sites in South Sudan, she says, was a "reality-check" for her and other military personnel.
"Seeing them everyday, especially children running around... it is a hard life," adds Cpl Vakasawaqa.
"It is a chance to help and give something back," he says speaking of his deployment to South Sudan.
Major Matt Clarke, Officer Commanding of the Malakal Engineer Group, has been on operational tours to Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of Africa but this, he says, is the worst he has seen.
"The conditions here are probably the most difficult that I have seen for local people."
The living conditions at the Malakal camp are hard for everyone to come to terms with.
The PoC site is squalid and overcrowded with insufficient sanitation facilities. Life is hard but for many it is preferable to living in fear of violence on the outside.
Father Michael Bassano, a missionary, had been living in Malakal town for just a few months when war broke out in 2013. He fled the city along with thousands of others and went to the UN camp for protection.
It is normal for a family of six or eight to be living in a one room shelter, he says.
More than six years have passed since people first arrived at the camp. Many of the children have known nothing else.
"Most of the people are living in plastic-sheeted tents."
British engineers are proving their worth in South Sudan.
Following the success of the new UN hospital they built in Bentiu, they have been tasked with building a replacement for the run-down hospital in Malakal.
The original hospital in the UNMISS camp is built on a flood plain, there is water damage on the floors of the operating theatres and the roofs are leaking.
The construction works for the new hospital started in May 2019 and the structure will be ready by the end of the year.
"We had absolutely nothing on this site," says Corporal Simon Murphy, Section Commander of 39 Engineer Regiment.
"It was filled with containers.
"When the ground team came, they produced a base for us.
"Then, my team came and we started building the vertical structures," he explains.
The buildings are prefabricated and quick to erect.
There is a real sense of achievement for those involved in the project.
"We started from nothing and usually, with our training, we build something and strip it back out. It is nice to see that we are actually making a difference."
Building the hospital in Malakal is no easy job, with each day presenting new challenges.
"The UN had limited resources for us to build with," said Captain Gareth 'Nobby' Clark, Garrison Engineer.
On one occasion, the sand for concreting had run out, but there were fences to be built.
The engineers devised a new way to secure poles using HESCO wire units and soil.
The pioneering fence construction surrounds the Ebola Holding Facility which the engineers also built.
The tasks are numerous for 39 Engineer Regiment in Malakal and for all of them the environment adds to the challenge.
Malakal's proximity to the River Nile, however, is a benefit.
The river is used to transport people and materials. It is also the source of the United Nations' drinking water on camp.
The Worst Of War
Trying To Eradicate Sexual Violence
Conflict-related sexual violence is endemic in South Sudan. Estimates suggest there are tens of thousands of victims in the country.
In November 2018, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provided emergency and psycho-social assistance to 125 women and girls who were sexually abused in northern South Sudan in a span of 10 days.
"Some are girls under 10 years old and others are women older than 65. Even pregnant women have not been spared from these brutal attacks."
The following month, Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) submitted the first ever case against the Government of South Sudan for the rape, mass rape and sexual slavery of 30 South Sudanese women and girls by members of the South Sudan Army and the Presidential Guard.
Warning: Some may find the subject matter discussed in the above video clip upsetting.
Women who have been attacked often find themselves shunned by their family and community.
The perpetrators are rarely held to account which means speaking out for victims is often not just futile, but dangerous.
UNMISS is working hard to raise awareness of the issue of conflict-related sexual violence.
Community events are held to look at how to de-stigmatise survivors and reintegrate them in society.
British troops have been offering self-defence classes for women from Malakal's Protection of Civilians site. It is a small, but empowering step for many of them.
"Girls were nervous at first, especially the first time we got them in," explains Captain Euan Irvine, from the Malakal Engineering Group.
The key to making the training successful, is starting simple and making the women feel at ease.
"It is an important aspect," says Hazel Dewet, Head of UN Field Office in the Upper Nile Region.
"It is done in combination and not in isolation, and that is the important factor."
Ensuring that at a political level sexual violence is not tolerated is crucial, said Christian Mikala, UN Regional Coordinator for Human Rights.
Change A Life?
One third of South Sudan's population is displaced but there is hope one day they will return home.
British troops have been teaching vocational skills to help them when that day comes.
The lessons in carpentry, cementing, joinery and butchery have been popular.
Learning new skills that are easily applicable in everyday situations has "real value", said UNMISS Head Of Field Office for the Upper Nile Region, Hazel Dewet.
Vocational training, she explained, is particularly valuable in a country like South Sudan, where access to education is very limited.
Learning how to build, repair and prepare things has the potential to change displaced people's lives.
Sergeant Rodwell Kumzinda works as a chef at the Malakal camp. He has been passing on his own skills in butchery during a series of hands-on classes.
Since their arrival in the country, British troops have built hospitals and accommodation blocks, surfaced roads and put up lights.
But it is not all work and no play at the UN camps. Saturday is football day.
The weekly football games allow troops to interact with the children in a relaxed way while also getting to know them a little.
"What we have learned is that kids are kids, wherever they are in the world."
Two more engineering units will follow 39 Engineer Regiment in South Sudan. March 2020, however, is when the whole operation will come to an end and British troops will leave the country.
"The expertise they bring is something that we do not usually have," said Hazel Dewet, Head of the UN Field Office in Malakal.
Sad at the prospect of the Engineers leaving South Sudan, she stressed how valuable the British contribution is to the UN mission.
"Having an engineering capability where you do not have roads or constructions, is a massively important aspect."
It is not up to the troops to decide if they leave or stay. When Op TRENTON was set up, the United Nations asked the UK for a three-year commitment.
"The decisions on whether they leave or not are made in London, not Juba," says the British Ambassador to South Sudan, Chris Trott.
"They will have been here four [years], but I think that was appropriate for them to complete the tasks," he adds.
"We have now ploughed ourselves back into the UN peacekeeping system."
Despite the current peace agreement many people in South Sudan do not trust it will hold and feel it is unsafe to go home.
The conditions that await them outside the UN camp may well be worse than those in the shelters in Bentiu and Malakal. Living away from the Protection of Civilians sites also means leaving food security and the protection of the UN behind.
The British Ambassador to South Sudan insists no one will be forced to leave the camps.
Numbers in the camps had started to fall at the beginning of the year, but with the troubles in Sudan, many people from across the border are now fleeing south for safety.
There are still many who need help and the UN sites look set to stay.
With oil resources and incredibly fertile soils, South Sudan could be a flourishing rather than failed state. All are hoping the relative calm will continue and allow the world's youngest country to move forwards.
Extra pictures courtesy: UN/Isaac Billy; UN/JC McIlwaine.