Amnesty in South Sudan: "You have always been there for us"

As South Sudan marks its third birthday as an independent state, Amnesty is here on 'mission', documenting human rights abuses committed by government and opposition forces in a growing conflict.

I want to share an uplifting "Amnesty moment" amidst two long, hot days of interviews in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps here in Juba; with more to come. These IDP camps are actually within United Nations peacekeeping bases.  The two in Juba hold around 30,000 people. Nationwide, UN soldiers are sheltering about 100,000 people. 

It was an unprecedented decision back in December when people were fleeing widespread massacres. Whereas UN bases have usually been a no-go zone for people fleeing atrocities, this time the UN Mission here made an unparalleled decision to open the gates. It saved thousands of lives at the time, no doubt.

But now it is a full blown human rights and humanitarian crisis. The sites are surrounded by hostile communities; so the UN keeps them firmly locked up. That, and the fact that people are terrified to go outside, means that they have become virtual prison camps.  Many of the sites have also become death traps as cholera and other diseases have taken hold. 

I spent time yesterday afternoon with a 57 year old man who has seen it all. Yet, he is everything you imagine in the quintessential African elder. Every phrase was full of majesty and wisdom. 

He spent many long years fighting for South Sudanese independence and has excruciating pain from a dramatic landmine injury more than 20 years ago. With a sense of both fatalism and grief he noted that his father had fought for independence from the British; he had fought for independence from the Sudanese; and now his sons were fighting just to stay alive.

When we started our interview and I had completed my usual introduction of who we were and why we were there, he had a lovely line back to me.  Not word for word, but close:

"I know Amnesty International very well.  When everyone else has forgotten; Amnesty International is always there.  You have always been there for us. And now here you are today." 

I sputtered a bit to find the right words after that; as you might imagine.

I asked if I could take a photo as we wrapped up.  His leg and right side had been paining him considerably during our interview and he had been slouched across two chairs.  His shirt had been unbuttoned to the navel.  He beamed when I asked about the photo. But no matter how much I protested that he need not move an inch for the picture he insisted that he had to look his very best for Amnesty.  I share that moment with you.

Alex Neve is the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

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