Back to Magazine


The volunteer members of the emergency action team in Aweil, in northern South Sudan, don’t have much in terms of equipment and support. But their energy and commitment is on display every day as volunteers regularly mobilize to care for thousands of people displaced by conflict. Photo: ©Juozas Cernius/IFRC


Making history

In the world’s newest country, the Movement’s newest National Society faces ongoing war, internal strife, displacement and deep-rooted poverty.

From a clearing just outside the camp, people hear the screams. Turning towards the commotion, they see wounded men and women lying in the grass, some wailing in pain as a dozen people wearing South Sudan Red Cross vests move quickly towards the scene.

As two volunteers try to calm a distraught man, two others attend to a young woman lying in the grass, a knife protruding from her stomach. A few metres away, two bodies lie face down, one motionless and the other with a long thin spear piercing her back.

People gather around wearing shocked, worried expressions. Only the occasional nervous smile among the onlookers betrays the fact that they know this is a simulation organized by the emergency action team of the South Sudan Red Cross branch in Wau, a city of roughly 150,000 in the country’s Western Bahr-el-Ghazal state.

The demonstration is a graphic reminder of the violence that swept through Wau in December 2012, when two tribal factions clashed violently over a proposal to move the state’s governmental seat to another town. Many of the volunteers have vivid memories of those clashes, which left 19 people dead. As with many of the emergencies that have hit the city in the last year — floods, fires, political violence, a plane crash — South Sudan Red Cross volunteers played a critical role in treating the wounded and transporting them to local hospitals.

In this new country, which became independent from Sudan in July 2011, many people still do not fully understand what this new National Society is all about. This re-enactment, staged in a field just outside the settlement of Alel Chok, a massive camp for people who have recently returned to from Sudan to South Sudan, aims to raise awareness about the South Sudan Red Cross and its neutral, impartial mission.

“The people will see that if there is some kind of disaster, this is the kind of first aid we can bring,” says volunteer Elia Mohammed. “It is also an opportunity to show how Red Cross volunteers follow the seven Fundamental Principles and help people regardless of their tribes or religions — just like what happened in Wau in December, when we offered first aid without any discrimination.”

Many of the bystanders were visibly moved. “To me, this play shows that it is not human to be attacking each other,” says camp resident Dor Dong Dor. “These kinds of things have to be prevented.”

The volunteers’ activities at the camp on this day go beyond acting. Before the demonstration, they set up a first-aid post, dressing wounds and offering various types of first aid. During the past year, with support from ICRC and IFRC emergency appeals, they have also conducted several distributions of non-food items: tarpaulins, jerrycans, cooking utensils, sleeping mats and other basic household supplies.

Photo: ©Juozas Cernius/IFRC‘We love this work’

To get a sense of the commitment, passion and potential of the South Sudan Red Cross’s volunteer network — as well as the challenges they face — visit the branch of Aweil, a city of roughly 150,000 in Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal state, roughly 100 kilometres from the border with Sudan.

“We love this work of ours because what we are doing is not for one particular person but for all the people in Aweil, in South Sudan and even Africa,” says Mary Achol Athian Athian, one of nearly a dozen volunteers who, on a recent day, walked for several hours to hand out desperately needed household supplies at a camp for people who recently returned to South Sudan.

The Aweil volunteers usually walk, or ride bikes, to their field activities because the branch has only one motorized vehicle. Another volunteer named James (left) often spends days in the bush, riding his bike along bumpy roads and narrow footpaths, in efforts to reconnect separated families or to assess the needs of displaced people. “They are very unlucky,” he says. “They are in need of hospital care, medicine and shelter. So I offer myself to serve them according to the seven Fundamental Principles.”

Often, after setting out early in the morning, volunteers return late, hungry and tired. Like several of the National Society’s newer branches, the Aweil branch has little infrastructure, equipment and support to offer volunteers. Its headquarters has no water point, electricity, computer, internet access or latrine.

“We ourselves are like the beneficiaries… we ourselves are in need,” says branch director Peter Kuot, who is seeking a National Society partner to help build up the branch. This is critical, Kuot says, to improve aid delivery, enhance volunteer capacity and report to donors and partners more efficiently.

Nonetheless, these volunteers (some shown below) have achieved much. North of Aweil, in an area known as Jaas, some 2,600 families have settled after fleeing from fighting in the disputed border zone. “The volunteers have played a tremendous role,” assessing which families are most in need and helping to manage distribution of non-food items, says Olivia Kenna, an ICRC field officer who covers Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal.

In early July, the Aweil volunteers were also the first to welcome and assist 127 women and children who returned to South Sudan as part of an exchange of abductees with Sudan. National Society branches on both sides assisted with food, first aid, hygiene and tracing.

Photo: ©Juozas Cernius/IFRCFacing the challenges

Volunteers in other branches, often with support from other National Societies or the ICRC, are coming up with creative ways to help beneficiaries and generate support for their actions. Volunteers at some branches, such as in Raja, in Western Bahr-el-Ghazal state, cultivate food that benefits beneficiaries and volunteers.

Still, internal conflict and other forms of violence are thwarting volunteer and branch development in some areas. In the city of Bor, in Jonglei state, for example, volunteers had been helping to bring wounded people to the hospital. But insecurity forced many of them to flee.

Even in Wau, with one of the most established branches, volunteers face challenges to their mission. “During the Wau clashes in 2012 we went to distribute non-food items to the most vulnerable,” one volunteer recalls. “But there were people who used their positions to get something. And if you say, ‘no, my target is these people’, they say the South Sudan Red Cross is discriminating and not distributing equally.”

The South Sudan Red Cross plans a nationwide media campaign next year to explain its role in helping the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the volunteers say they also need training to help them develop more skills, as well as ways to support themselves and their activities.

Despite the challenges, Wau branch director Leon Arkangelo (above) says volunteers have gained tremendous respect for their consistent action. “Last year, the volunteers had positioned their truck by the airport to welcome returnees but the plane carrying the returnees crashed,” he recalled. “The only ones able to reach the people were the volunteers.”

Photo: ©Juozas Cernius/IFRCUnder a shady tree

The volunteer efforts are also crucial in non-emergency settings. In the village of Nygoro, just across the Jur River from the city of Wau, a serious lack of basic water, sanitation and health facilities has exacerbated a range of chronic health problems. In response, the South Sudan Red Cross dug two new boreholes and created local health clubs (below right), in which volunteers train residents to take health knowledge back to their communities.

Sitting under the shade of a mahogany tree, which is surrounded by neatly cultivated rows of sorghum and peanuts, Red Cross volunteers pass around paper sheets with illustrations of various health practices, from proper use of a condom to treatment of small wounds. “Before the Red Cross came, people who had a wound wouldn’t know how to wash it out properly,” says one woman. “But now they know how to wash it and how to keep it clean.”

These efforts have had a significant impact, says Lino Madut Dong, the village chief (below). “The number of sick people has been reduced,” he says, adding that the village still needs a health clinic because “when children are sick with malaria or diarrhoea, women must take their children” many kilometres to get care.

Building and improving health facilities, as well as finding and training staff, are some of the key challenges facing Isaac Cleto Rial, minister of health for Western Bahr-el-Ghazal. “This is a very young nation coming out of a long war,” says Rial, a surgeon who himself regularly goes to the operating room during emergencies because there are not enough surgeons to meet the needs.

As auxiliary to the state, he says, the South Sudan Red Cross plays a critical role in both developing healthy communities and responding in emergencies. “They are always the first to be there,” he says. “And of course they, and the ICRC and the other National Societies, have been doing this for a long time… they have been of tremendous assistance to the health of the South Sudanese people.”

Coming home

“Most people in Alel Chok had to leave all their belongings in the north,” explains Santino Manjok Akot, the camp’s chief. “So there are many needs for things inside the house. The majority are sleeping on the ground and they do not even have proper mats.”

As the rainy season begins, they need shelter materials, particularly plastic sheets, he says. While many people, including the chief, express gratitude for the assistance they have received, there is a common refrain: “It’s not enough.”

A few water points, a weekly health clinic and a school have been set up by various agencies in Alel Chok. But the camp continues to grow as more returnees arrive and services are overloaded.

Official United Nations (UN) estimates suggest nearly 400,000 people displaced in Sudan returned to South Sudan between 2010 and 2012, while others put the current number at well over a half million, as people continue to return in the wake of independence. Most settle in camps such as Alel Chok where there are limited health services, no jobs and no land for cultivation.

Many of the camp’s women, widowed during the war of independence, walk several kilometres into town seeking work as domestic labour, which they say gives them just enough to feed their children for a day. “If you don’t go, you just won’t eat,” says one woman.

Members of the South Sudan Red Cross emergency action team in the city of Wau present a simulation of emergency first aid to show how volunteers deliver neutral and impartial humanitarian assistance during times of unrest and conflict. Photo: ©Juozas Cernius/IFRC

State of complex emergency

This camp outside Wau is just one example of the many demands the National Society is facing in a country dealing with multiple, overlapping emergencies: international and internal conflict; tribal and criminal violence; chronic poverty and economic stagnation, as well as intermittent flooding and drought.

In the north, a low-intensity conflict with Sudan continues along contested border areas, causing whole communities to flee. In the eastern state of Jonglei, ongoing inter-communal violence has also led to mass displacement and extensive casualties in areas difficult for humanitarians to access. Clashes between tribes over cattle rustling in Jonglei, Warap, Lakes and Unity states have also turned extremely violent and the ICRC has deployed three mobile surgical teams to treat the wounded in recent months.

“We are operating in a complex emergency,” says John Lobor, deputy secretary general of the South Sudan Red Cross. “The needs are everywhere and this poses a challenge to the National Society. We need to prioritize in terms of what we can do and what we cannot do, keeping in mind the other humanitarian actors within the country.”

Indeed, the South Sudan Red Cross is far from alone. During years of conflict prior to independence that devastated the population and crippled development, a large-scale humanitarian network has grown as part of an international effort to save lives, ease the suffering and stabilize the country. At any of the South Sudan’s airports, the runways are lined with planes and helicopters marked with emblems: ICRC, World Food Programme, UNICEF, Médécins sans Frontières, UN, among others. On the streets of some cities, nearly all the four-wheeled vehicles are white Land Cruisers bearing non-governmental or UN logos.

Meanwhile, the lack of basic infrastructure makes delivering assistance extremely challenging. The country’s roads — long straight ribbons of red gravel cut through kilometres of dense bush and forest — are pockmarked with potholes and often impassable during the rainy season.

“We are operating in a complex emergency.
The needs are everywhere and this poses
a challenge to the National Society.”

John Lobor, deputy secretary general
of the South Sudan Red Cross

There is no countrywide power grid and no municipal water or power systems. Businesses and residences are powered by individually owned, petrol-fuelled generators while water is taken from private wells or public water points. There are no land-based phone lines, cell phone coverage is spotty and reliable internet is rare.

The social and economic indicators are not much better. South Sudan has some of the lowest scores for maternal health and infant mortality, a severe shortage of trained doctors and nurses and one of the highest illiteracy rates among African nations. Some 90 per cent of South Sudanese live on less than US$ 1 per day, according to the UN.

Great expectations

In this environment, the humanitarian sector is playing a critical role and the South Sudan Red Cross, the newest member of the Red Cross Red Crescent family, is making a visible difference (see accompanying article ‘We love this work’).

Already, the National Society has achieved a lot. In only two short years, the National Society has worked with Movement and government officials to convene a General Assembly, enact the National South Sudan Red Cross Act, which establishes its role as auxiliary to the new South Sudan government and launch a major volunteer recruitment drive. And in July last year, with advice and support from the National Society and the Movement, the country became the latest signatory to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.

For Arthur Poole, the secretary general of the South Sudan Red Cross, the rapid evolution of this new National Society is profound. “For me, it is something great in my life after struggling for so long to build up the National Society,” says Poole,  who worked from the early 1970s until independence to help establish the Sudanese Red Crescent in the southern part of the country.

It was often a challenge to operate as a Red Crescent in the predominantly non-Muslim south, Poole says. Nevertheless, with support from the ICRC, the IFRC and other National Societies, Poole and colleagues established the first branches (in Juba, Malaka and Wau, which today still have vibrant volunteer networks) and built up acceptance for the National Society’s neutral humanitarian mission.

Since then, partner National Societies (most of them among the first created in Europe nearly 150 years ago) continue to invest in South Sudan Red Cross operations and the capacity of its branches. The ICRC, for its part, continues to train personnel and pays salaries for 60 of the Society’s 100 employees. Partner National Societies pay for 35 staff salaries and the IFRC pays for five. All these Movement components also provide training, equipment and aid supplies.

Today, the South Sudan Red Cross’s challenges are akin to those facing the country as a whole: how to develop the capacity and resources to eventually be independent from external assistance. “This will take time,” Poole says. “Our country is not fully developed. There is still war going on and we don’t have adequate security or systems in place to invite donors to come and support us.”

There is also still a great need of capacity building and training in key aid delivery areas, from health and first aid to water and sanitation, tracing, communication and dissemination, Poole adds.

In the meantime, expectations are high. As one of the few functioning indigenous civil society organizations in the country, high hopes are being placed on this new National Society — by beneficiaries, partners, government agencies and donors.

“There are quite a lot of expectations based on the enormous needs of the country,” says Lobor. “But we cannot take all initiatives because we have first of all to know our capacity and see what we can and cannot deliver. If we try to do too much, we will be pulled apart.”

The ICRC is also a key provider of humanitarian assistance in areas affected by violence. Here, that usually means inter-communal violence or cattle raids that often leave dozens of people wounded and dead. These ICRC doctors are caring for people in Malaka, near the country’s north-eastern border. Photo: ©Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images/ICRC

Historic lessons

Amid all the talk of building the South Sudan Red Cross’s capacity, it should not be forgotten that this National Society and its volunteers — full of energy yet building on their experience and history under the Sudanese Red Crescent — also have much to teach the Movement as it marks its 150th year. The skills developed while bringing neutral assistance in war-torn communities could help sharpen the capacity and understanding among those in even the most well-established National Societies.

“My dream is that in the next five years the South Sudan Red Cross will first become deeply rooted in communities though its volunteer network, so that people will have no doubts about its capacity to mobilize and deliver services to the people,” says Lobor.

“Next, it will become the partner of choice for the Movement and other international organizations working in South Sudan and be seen nationally and regionally as a key humanitarian player, not only in South Sudan, but also supporting operations of other National Societies in the region.” n

By Malcolm Lucard
Malcolm Lucard is the editor of Red Cross Red Crescent.

National Society timeline

150 years of humanitarian action


Egyptian Red Crescent Society
24 October 1912. Known as United Arab Republic Red Crescent from 29 September 1959 until 2 September 1961.


The Red Cross Society of Bosnia and Herzegovina
1914 as part of the Hungarian Red Cross. Independent since 15 December 2000.


Luxembourg Red Cross
8 August 1914


Australian Red Cross
13 August 1914 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 17 November 1927.


Colombian Red Cross Society
30 January 1915


Malagasy Red Cross Society (Madagascar)
8 August 1915 as part of the French Red Cross. Independent since 19 May 1959. 


New Zealand Red Cross
1915 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 22 December 1931.


Red Cross Society of Panama
13 January 1917 


Bolivian Red Cross
15 May 1917


Ukrainian Red Cross Society
18 April 1918. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1926. Independent since 28 October 1992.


Red Cross Society of Georgia
8 September 1918. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1926. Independent since 26 March 1992.


Latvian Red Cross
20 November 1918. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1940; later became independent.


Lithuanian Red Cross Society

12 January 1919. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1940; later became independent.
Liberian Red Cross Society
22 January 1919


Czech-Slovak Red Cross
6 February 1919;  ceased to exist in 1993.


Estonia Red Cross     
24 February 1919. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1940; later became independent.


Slovak Red Cross
14 February 1919; reformed in 1939 and 1993.


Polish Red Cross
27 April 1919


Formation of The League of Red Cross Societies
5 May 1919, at the Regina Hotel in Paris, the governors of the Red Cross Societies of France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Articles of Association. The League of Red Cross Societies was born. A month later, the Covenant of the League of Nations was signed, with its own historic article containing an undertaking by member states to encourage and promote the formation of and cooperation between Red Cross Societies.


Paraguayan Red Cross
12 November 1919


Myanmar Red Cross Society
1920 as part of the Indian Red Cross Society. Independent since 1 April 1937.


Red Crescent Society of Azerbaijan
10 March 1920. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1923. Independent since 1991.


Armenian Red Cross Society
19 March 1920. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1925. Independent since 26 March 1992.


Indian Red Cross Society
7 June 1920


German Red Cross
25 January 1921 merger of all Red Cross associations to form the German Red Cross.


Albanian Red Cross
4 October 1921


Ecuadorian Red Cross
27 December 1922


Guatemalan Red Cross
22 April 1923 


Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran
3 April 1923 (formerly Persian Red Lion and Sun).


Red Crescent Society of Kyrgyzstan
1 October 1923. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1926. Independent since 26 March 1992.


Red Cross Society of the Republic of Moldova
1924. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1926. Independent since 1 December 1992.


Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa)
19 February 1924 as part of the Belgian Red Cross. Independent since 30 June 1960.


Icelandic Red Cross
12 October 1924


Red Crescent Society of Uzbekistan
3 October 1925. Part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from 1926. Independent since 26 March 1992.


Red Crescent Society of Turkmenistan
26 March 1926 as part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Independent since 26 March 1992.


Dominican Red Cross
16 May 1927


Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan   
23 December 1927 as part of the Soviet Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Independent since 23 March 1992.


Kenya Red Cross Society
1930 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 21 December 1965.


Magen David Adom in Israel
7 June 1930


Zimbabwe Red Cross Society
1930 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 2 October 1981.


Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross Society
1932 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 13 October 1970.


Iraqi Red Crescent Society
1 April 1932


Haiti Red Cross Society
29 May 1932


Malawi Red Cross Society
1933 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since 13 January 1967.


Nicaraguan Red Cross
10 January 1934


Seychelles Red Cross Society
1935 as part of the British Red Cross. Independent since August 1989.


Ethiopian Red Cross Society
8 July 1935

Click here to continue
the timeline


Contact Us