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‘Business is good’: UNMISS presence in Akobo bringing back a sense of hope and peace

Indian peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan are helping to restore peace and security in the Jonglei region town of Akobo, in the north-east of South Sudan.

“Business is good, we are going to Ethiopia by boat to bring in the goods,” said Tharjiath Duel, a local businessman who sells sugar and oil. “We are very happy to see UNMISS here,” he added.

Fighting in 2013 as well as more recent clashes forced innocent civilians to flee their homes and uproot their lives, devastating the local economy. However, the gradual improvement in security since the arrival of the peacekeepers – at the request of the community and local authorities – has seen the local economy slowly begin to pick up in the remote town, located in an opposition strong-hold.

Tharjiath is one of the relieved merchants plying their trade in Akobo, a once thriving market. Then, traders brought in goods from neighbouring Ethiopia, only a stone-throw away.

The presence of UN peacekeepers in Akobo is not an entirely new phenomenon, as there was once a UN Mission base here. The base was closed down, though, after being targeted by an unprovoked attack in December 2013, in which two Indian peacekeepers and 30 civilians who had sought refuge in the premises were killed.

The Head of the UN Mission, David Shearer, sought to reestablish the Mission’s presence there, expressing “a need to reach communities in need in all parts of the country, regardless of their ethnic or political background”.

As a result, a temporary base operated by the Indian battalion was established in February 2018 to help protect civilians and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people, making it the first UN peacekeeping presence in a rebel-held territory in South Sudan.

“The results are visible. When we arrived here in February there was nothing in and around this TOB [Temporary Operating Base],” said Lieutenant Colonel Singh Negi, the Indian battalion Commanding Officer. “Now you can see the construction boom; many settlements have come up. This is a clear indication that the people are feeling safer since UNMISS came.”

Indeed, it is easy to corroborate the commander’s claim. The “light” UN presence and the regular foot patrols around Akobo provided by the peacekeepers are helping build confidence among the local community. People have started to return to Akobo and are rebuilding their homes around the town and near the temporary UN base.

Operating under extreme conditions such as high temperatures reaching well over 40 degrees Celsius, heavy rains, and logistical challenges, the UN peacekeepers remain committed to help protect civilians and build durable peace.

Describing the challenging environment they operate under, Lt. Col. Singh Negi said, “here everything is a luxury – from water to diesel”.

There is an estimated 71,000 displaced people currently living in Akobo and the surrounding area.

The head of the UN Mission has repeatedly said there is an urgent need for durable peace in this young East African nation – a plea that resonates across the international community. As the UN mission continues to support the peace process, there is hope that the much-needed lasting peace in Akobo and all across South Sudan will come.