Working in a high-risk area

Jacob Longar Aleer. Photo: LWF/ S. Gallay

Interview with Jacob Aleer, LWF Security Focal Point in Jonglei, South Sudan

(LWI) - For the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), South Sudan has proven the most challenging country in terms of safety and security in the past year. As the civil war continues, especially local staff find themselves more and more at risk. LWF employs local security experts and maintains a close relationship with authorities and communities, to best protect its humanitarian workers.

One of those security experts is Jacob Longar Aleer, Safety and Security Focal point in Jonglei state, South Sudan. In an interview with Lutheran World Information, he talks about the security challenges in the country, community acceptance and the importance of LWF work.

LWI: What makes working in South Sudan so difficult?

Aleer: South Sudan experiences the legacy of 21 years of civil war. Many people are returning from a life as refugees, they come from different ethnic groups. Bringing these people together is always challenging in terms of security. The entire situation in the country is not stable. Another reason is that we are working with vulnerable people, who live in very remote areas. These are also the places where the armed groups are staying. They are in the bush.

The insecurity is basically caused by the different fighting groups, but also by the fact that there is no rule of law in the country. We work in and pass through areas with no communication network. There is intimidation and arrests. Colleagues have been stopped and questioned. These are people who want to help the most vulnerable. Many of our staff are dealing with high levels of stress. If you are always working in a dangerous environment, you are like a frog in warm water: your perception changes, you might not see when a situation becomes too risky, and get injured or killed. We have a duty to protect our staff in these situations.

How do you manage security in such a context?

Security is all about trust. We have to make sure that we have a very good understanding with the locals, so they can update us on how the situation is in the area. Local and church leaders, peace committees, volunteer workers in the community: they are our eyes and ears for survival. It is important to always let local authorities and local leaders know who we are, and what we are doing in the area.

One of our challenges is that the fighting groups are not very disciplined. A soldier high in the hierarchy will follow orders, but a fighter in the bush is a different person. When I talk to the local leaders of opposition-controlled territory, they understand that I am here to do humanitarian work, but they will still not allow me to go to these areas, because they cannot guarantee my safety. So we always send staff from the same area we are working in. That also applies to international staff from neighboring countries, who are seen as being involved in the conflict. Here, our colleague might be safe, but 20 kilometers from here, he is not safe at all.

Does LWF’s long presence in the country help to navigate those risks?

After a while you begin to understand which time is most critical. The militia do not attack openly, but they corner you in a dark place. So risks are smaller during the dry season, when roads are accessible, the bush is burnt and you can see far. During the rainy season, the security risks are higher, and we adapt our work accordingly. When you see the people in need, you always do what is possible.

Our long presence is an advantage. We have been working in Jonglei since 2004, and are known by everybody in the region. LWF has built schools and dykes against the flooding, we have distributed relief goods and done peace-building activities. This is an invisible protection, which enabled us to continue providing services in areas controlled by both parties even after the fighting had started again.

They know that in the LWF we are a team with people of all ethnic groups. Some of these groups are seen as affiliated with the government, some with the opposition, but the community leaders don’t think of us as members of an ethnic group. They know we are Lutheran, and that we have to help people in need. We are all serving. We uphold the rights of the poor and the oppressed, so that they are able to stand on their own and determine their own lives.

Are there any other ways to increase staff safety?

Our approach, and the reputation of our field staff who live and work in the communities. Their integrity and moral values reflect on all of us. If you stay in a local community and get involved with someone’s daughter or wife, you might put everyone in the organization at risk. Our staff know that and behave accordingly. It’s not just a code of conduct, but inner morality and integrity which makes sure we are accepted.

You yourself come from a military background - you were recruited as a child soldier. How does that influence the work you do?

I did not wish to be a soldier. My parents sent me to Ethiopia when I was 10 years old, because they were told we would be able to go to school. When we arrived, it turned out to be a military training camp. We were told we would be fighting for our country. I was 13 years old when I first went into combat.

The change came with the peace agreement in 2005. That’s when I said: enough is enough. We fought for our own country, and now we have it. God willing, I want to go back to school, and work with local people. I received a scholarship and after my bachelor’s degree started working in a hospital, before I joined LWF in 2013. LWF is advocating against child recruitment, and for education.

What are you telling parents and community leaders, to keep them from sending young boys to the armed forces?

I tell them how senseless this conflict is. It is me fighting you - a war between neighbors. There is no purpose. I ask them: Why do you send your son to kill a tribe member? There is no logic.

Children must go to school, girls and boys, we are talking to community leaders to make sure they understand education is a key to life. You can already see the houses of educated people look different. In 10 years, the children you send to school today could be part of our government. As long as I am with LWF, I will make sure every girl and boy receives education.