Too many windows

Chloe Sydney is a Reports Officer in UNICEF South Sudan. She joined UNICEF one month ago, but has been working in South Sudan since February 2016.

On 8 July 2016, fighting broke out in South Sudan’s capital, keeping the entire town in fear until a ceasefire was signed on Monday 11th. While hiding in her apartment, Chloe kept a diary that presents a firsthand experience of what it was like to be in the heart of a war-torn South Sudan.   

On 14 July 2016, Chloe along with other UNICEF colleagues were evacuated to Nairobi where they are now, in safety, continuing to work and receiving support from our staff counsellor and other team members.

Friday, 8 July: A surreal Friday

It seems almost surreal now, in retrospect, a couple of hours later.  But it really happened. It was…terrifying. And, to be honest, it’s still not over. And I’m still scared.

Let me backtrack a little. Yesterday, I was having dinner when I heard the first gunshots. It took a few seconds to register: South Sudan may not be the safest place on earth, but in the six months I have spent here, I hadn’t heard any gunshots – until now.

Fast forward to the following morning. The military are everywhere. The situation is, to say the least, tense. I am sent home from work early and told to go on lockdown for three days. Back at my apartment, I pack my ‘go-bag’ – a handy little backpack with essential items (passport, money, and some clothes). Then, I settle down and turn on some music. All of a sudden, all hell breaks loose. Yesterday, in comparison, was easy to cope with. I crawl over to my bathroom, the safest place in my room. Shooting continues. Not just gunfire, but artillery. This is insane.

Eventually, the shooting subsides. My neighbour and another girl join me in the bathroom. We get reports of men searching our building for a journalist who tried to take photos from our roof. A girl comes banging on my door, screaming to be let in. I fear she’s about to be killed, but my hands are shaking so much I can’t find the right key. She explains that she hid in the laundry as the men entered the building. We fear they will find us. So, the four of us, locked up in my small bathroom, huddle together and try to not talk, breathe, or move – for over an hour. After what seems like an eternity, we receive news that the men have gone, that it’s safe to go out.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Will there be more fighting? I hope my friends are safe. Good night Juba.

Saturday, 9 July: A Taste of Things to Come

At least 150 people died last night. I barely slept. Whenever I dozed off, a sporadic round of gunfire would wake me up. There are reports of bodies in the street.

Today was very, very quiet: A few rare gunshots. People are scared. The sofa remains firmly in front of the door. Ironically, today should call for celebrations: Five years ago, South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation. Sadly, there has been little to celebrate.

A picture of a door, blocked by furniture.
UNICEF/Chloe SydneyChloe’s room, with her home made barricade in place.

Sunday, 10 July (morning): Pancakes à la RPG

I slept so well last night: no shelling, no gunfire. I woke up at 8 o’clock: refreshed, optimistic, alive. It’s my cell-buddy’s birthday today, so I skipped back to my lovely room to make birthday pancakes and a big celebratory marble cake – a beautiful sense of normality. Of course, as I was flipping my pancakes, I received a message from a friend reporting fighting in two neighbourhoods of Juba: heavy shelling in Jebel, and shooting in Gudele.

Sunday, 10 July (evening): Rain

I never thought I would be so glad to hear rain. Because of the rain, the fighting has stopped. Soldiers are scared of getting wet. May it keep raining long and hard.

Our temporary baking interlude this morning was followed by a day of intense fighting. The airport is closed. We’ve heard gunfire and shelling. Tanks roll by; helicopters fly overhead.

We’ve tried a couple of different hideout locations in my room, but none was really adequate. When the tanks started shelling down the road, we moved to the building’s inner corridor – more walls for safety.

Now the rain has started, we’re back in our room. Long may it rain…

Monday, 11 July (morning): Spoons

The rain has stopped, but a different kind of rain started this morning, rather louder and more terrifying.

We’re back in the corridor now. I can hear shooting, and helicopters are flying overhead, but the explosions have stopped for now – famous last words. My hands are still shaking. I would very much like to get out of here. But the airport presumably remains closed.

Our bodies are all coping with stress in different ways. One of my friends has a nosebleed. Another has been vomiting. And my stomach is feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Personally, writing this sooths me a little and gives some direction to my shaking hands. Just keep typing.

Tuesday, 12 July  (morning): Dark Thoughts

Last night was the lowest point in a downward spiral of fear. A ceasefire was announced. Theoretically, good news. Except that shooting started – all over the city. This time, it sounded like they were shooting right at our building. For the first time, I really thought I was going to die. I covered my head with my hands and sobbed. I stayed on the floor a long time. But throughout the city, there were reports of lootings and rumors of rape. Fear has settled in to stay.

Tuesday, 12 July (evening): Liquid Stress

I’m too tired to write much. I’ve moved to one of the UNICEF guesthouses, which is safer. It was weird leaving the apartment for the first time in four days. The situation on the streets is quiet but tense.

I sat under the shower in my new room crying. Liquid stress pouring out of my eyes – a normal reaction to stress, I am told. I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.

Most of my friends have already been evacuated and the rest are leaving tomorrow. I will likely follow soon.

I can’t summon the energy to write a longer update tonight. I’m going to bed. Or rather, to floor. Because the bedroom has, for my liking, too many windows.

Chloe Sydney
All photos by Chloe, as well. 

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  1. It’s really amazing to work with Unicef in close affinity.

  2. A horrendous situation, described with the worryingly self-absorbed privilege of an international staff member whose own description asserts that ‘most of my friends have been evacuated’. Humanitarian staff play an important, well-played and celebrated role but it would be valuable to see UNICEF concentrate on the experience of South Sudanese people who are experiencing this conflict in a real, sustained and inescapable way. I don’t dispute the terror of this experience but I would welcome an approach more concerned with that felt by the Juba population unable to enjoy baking interludes.