| The Star | Malaysia | 29 Feb 2016 | Asia Samachar |
By S Indramalar
When the opportunity to work on the field in South Sudan, Africa presented itself early last year, Sukhdave Singh seized it without a moment’s hesitation.
The former English teacher had been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for more than a decade at the time. He was a trainer with the humanitarian body’s learning and development division and as such trained staff about ICRC’s mission as well as helped prepare field officers for the tasks that they would face while on the tour of duty, regardless of where they would be stationed.
Although he enjoyed being a trainer, Sukhdave felt uneasy.
“How could I train field officers and prepare them for their mission when I had no actual experience being on the field? I wanted to know what it was like to actually be out there, directly helping people. As a trainer, I am preparing our field officers for their humanitarian work. But I wanted to get my hands dirty, so to speak,” says Kedah-born Sukhdave, 50.
And so he went to one of the world’s worst conflict zones as a field delegate. Though oil rich, South Sudan remains undeveloped as it has been mired in various conflicts for decades. The latest civil war between the government forces and the opposition militia broke out in 2013 and fighting between government troops and rebel factions killed more than 50,000 South Sudanese and prompted some two million to flee their homes.
Sukhdave prepared himself for the worst – hostility, discomfort and challenges in dealing with authorities to carry out the ICRC’s work. After all, South Sudan is known for being one of the most dangerous places for aid workers, as well as the most bureaucratically restrictive.
‘I don’t know why but I never felt fear while I was there. Maybe it was a coping mechanism where you just don’t think about it at the time,’ says Sukhdave Singh.
As a field delegate, he had to understand the local situation on the ground and liaise with the local government and military and explain the mission of the ICRC and what they were there to do.
“We have to establish a relationship with all parties and explain that we’re there to help and support them. We also tell them our logistical needs and build a working relationship,” explains Sukhdave.
Although he thought he’d prepared himself for his mission, Sukhdave admits to being “a little disoriented” when he first arrived in South Sudan.
“I didn’t know the geography of the place well enough and so I wasn’t familiar with some of the places they (the locals) were referring to. Luckily, I was first taken to the country’s capital, Juba, for training. This helped me get my bearings and get a handle of the situation on the ground,” Sukhdave recalls.
His six-month stint in South Sudan was an intense humanitarian journey for Sukhdave, both emotionally and physically.
“It is difficult to describe the feeling of being there. We were literally in the midst of armed conflict and while I was excited to be in the thick of it all, it was sad to see the situation there and how the people of the land were affected by the conflict.
“But, it was also really inspiring to see how they deal with it all. I mean life goes on for them – it has to, right? They don’t have much and they have to be ready to up and go and carry all they need and can with them but they do it in their stride and manage the best they can. This was one of the things that really struck a chord with me,” recalls the father of two; his children are aged 20 and 22.
One of the things he had to deal with was the uncertainty of living in a conflict-ridden area.
“No one knows what’s going to happen next and we always have to be prepared. Life is so unpredictable there were several times when we had to up and go, trying to carry as much of our supplies as we could, in a split second,” he shares.
Did he live in fear while in serving amidst the conflict?
Arranging the logistics – that the ICRC team gets the supplies they need on time – was a huge challenge Sukhdave had to deal with.
“There aren’t proper roads where we were. Tarmac roads are limited and when it rains, it gets muddy and our land cruisers get stuck. So we get around in tractors and a 30km journey could take us about three hours, if everything goes as planned. And, by the end of the journey, we’d be covered in mud!” enthuses Sukhdave animatedly.
Once, he shares, the tractor they were on had a flat tire and what would have been a three-hour journey took three days.
“We were evacuating our station because we could hear gunfire nearby and we had a flat tyre! We had to fly in the tyre and also a mechanic and change it. We got it done and resumed our journey and after two hours, the new tyre burst! We had no idea where we were and thankfully we could use the satellite phone to determine our location but we had to wait a while before help arrived,” he says, recalling the adventure.
The upside of such calamities, according to Sukhdave, is witnessing the generosity and kindness of the people of Sudan.
“There was a family nearby and they were extremely warm. They lived in a mud hut and they welcomed us in and allowed us to put up with them for the night even though there really wasn’t much space. They next day, they offered to let us use their livestock to transport our goods and ourselves to our destination,” he says.
“I don’t know why but I never felt fear while I was there. Maybe it was a coping mechanism where you just don’t think about it at the time. But when I came home and recalled everything I went through while in South Sudan… well, it was scary at times,” he says with a big smile on his face.
Sukhdave is back being a trainer now, based in Bangkok, Thailand but his stint out in the field has certainly left an impression with him which he says will translate into his classroom sessions.
“I understand it all better now, having been in the thick of it. It’s not just the conflict that I was exposed to it’s the people, the locals and the way people cope and move on despite their immense hardships. Sometimes, the less we have, the more willing people are to share,” concludes Sukhdave, wistfully.
The story originally appeared in Star2 section of The Star, a Malaysian newspaper, on 29 Feb 2016 entitled In the Thick of it. Sukhdave Singh has been nominated for Star Golden Hearts Award 2016.
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