Back to work after bombings

South Sudan

June 15, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mathieu Rouquette/Mercy Corps  </span>
    After bombings forced evacuation two months ago, our teams are happy to be back helping families support themselves with small businesses and agriculture. Photo: Mathieu Rouquette/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mathieu Rouquette/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Bentiu residents welcome Mercy Corps staff. Residents here are hopeful about building livelihoods in the new nation, even as their lives continue to be disrupted by fighting near the border with Sudan. Photo: Mathieu Rouquette/Mercy Corps

We hope we never have to use it, but we have a Contingency Plan for a reason.

Mercy Corps has been working in Bentiu, Unity State, since 2005, and for the past year specifically helping people make a living in the local market with small business and farming support.

Two months ago, when border clashes erupted in the area, we made the decision to move our equipment and key files to our office farther south, in Leer. Eventually, the skirmishes turned into aerial bombings — and general violence escalated in the area. We were forced to suspend our work and officially close the office to keep our two dozen staff members safe.

Most of them — guards, cooks, drivers, program officers and managers — are from Bentiu and live there. They, like all South Sudanese, have been optimistic about their country's future after its official independence from Sudan last July. But the two countries continue fighting over borders and shared resources like oil, while hundreds of thousands of people are caught in the middle.

Much of our work is about giving people the resources they need to build healthy, safe and productive lives for the longterm. To do so in areas where conflict threatens not just livelihoods, but lives, can be especially challenging.

WATCH VIDEO: Local market perseveres after attacks

We were able to return to Bentiu last month after the bombings stopped. The security situation is better, but there is a new normal here. Soldiers are everywhere. Bentiu is the rear military base, where the hospital is. All the wounded are treated here, and soldiers returning from the front are always streaming in. You can feel the tension in the humid air.

One bomb fell just 20 yards away from the bridge that we use everyday — Sudanese planes were targeting the strategic river overpass. It left a crater and a frail, charred tree standing alone. It's a warning to people who drive by (including us) to slow down and look at the sky before crossing the bridge.

In the market, we saw a couple of small craters and one shop entirely burned to the ground, another scarred by shrapnel. It seems there are less women and children, who escaped the danger and have not yet returned. The recent events definitely shook some confidence in the market. Trade was disrupted and prices are off the charts, fuel almost unavailable.

But the resilience of the community is quite extraordinary. Life goes on. Shop owners have reopened their doors. Farmers are tending their fields. More local production generates more local profit. And we'll keep working to help individuals build their income, thereby strengthening the economy against shocks like this.