The sun is yet to rise above the skyline.
But police officers and military troops are already gathering outside the gates of the Protection of Civilians site next to the United Nations compound in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
A pre-dawn briefing is underway so that everyone understands their role in the surprise search operation that is about to take place.
The officers then head into the camp in a convoy of vehicles to begin the laborious task of searching every shelter in a particular block, looking for illegal and dangerous items.
“We have previously confiscated gun magazines, an AK47 – of course you are not allowed to have weapons in the protection site,” says Kai Zhang, the UN Police Deputy Protection of Civilians’ site coordinator. “We have drugs and machetes – all kinds of blades – these can’t be in the site. Another thing is military uniforms which you are not allowed [to possess].”
The protection site was established to provide sanctuary to people forced to flee for their lives when civil war erupted in South Sudan six years ago. About 30,000 people still live in the camps in Juba, including hundreds of children who have been born here and never experienced life outside.
Having their shelter searched is not a pleasant experience. But it is carried out with the permission and presence of those who live in the white tents scattered across the protection site.
“The search operation is good for us – the community here,” says Protection of Civilians site Chairman, John Chol Yok. “Whatever they find, like weapons or whatever, the UN should remove those people responsible, to keep us safe. We like the searches.”
Twenty-two-year old Peter Machar has lived in the camp for six years. While the conditions are less than ideal, he says he’s got no choice but to live in the camp because the environment outside is still not safe enough, despite the signing of a peace deal last year.
He is grateful that, at least, he has access to basic services.
“It’s very important to us to know the reason why we are here because it’s not our choice to be here. We are here because of the conflict,” says Peter Machar. “But we need to follow the rules of the UN and what they are asking us to do because they are the ones who are saving our lives. They are the ones who are giving us water. They are the ones who are giving us food and education.”
The protection camps are the size of small cities and, therefore, suffer the same risks and incidents of crime. UN police do their best to prevent and respond to these incidents. Today’s search has been triggered by information received from people living in the site about the presence of drugs. During the methodic search, the police team, accompanied by sniffer dogs, come across a marijuana plant as well as a machete and some UN property that has been stolen. These are confiscated and the drugs disposed of.
Throughout the process, residents are also educated by police officers about the need for security so that they understand the searches are just another means of keeping them safe.
For many of those living in the sites, though, they are just looking forward to the day when they feel safe enough to leave the camp behind and return to their own homes as peace descends on South Sudan.