Our cargo plane had arrived, and it was time for action. We had faced some logistical nightmares, not uncommon in South Sudan at the moment, but at last, in the village of Pagak close to the border with Ethiopia, we were fully equipped with life-saving supplies. Volunteers from the community toured dusty streets with megaphones announcing to the thousands of people living in the area that the next day registration and distribution of food would begin.
The next day started early, and at 7 am we were heading towards the site where an expected 9,000 people would show up to get registration cards that would allow them to collect their much-needed supplies later at the same location. Hundreds of mothers had arrived with their children – all of whom would be screened for malnutrition and vaccinated against polio and measles.
In total, during our rapid response mission to Pagak, UNICEF vaccinated 2,167 children under 15 against polio and 1,993 children from six months to 15 years old against measles. (Measles vaccines are not given to babies under six months because their residual immunity from their mothers makes the vaccines less effective.) UNICEF gave 1,204 children from 6 months to five years old vitamin A supplements, and vaccinated 793 women of child bearing age against tetanus.
Despite the challenging conditions – with the logistics constraints and lack of infrastructure – the rapid response team managed to get the job done. We were supported magnificently by Ethiopian humanitarian worker Kassahun Tamirat, who manages the Save the Children office in Pagak. Whenever we had any problems getting around, whether we needed to take our staff to the clinic to monitor the malnutrition treatment or to go in search of drinking of water, Kassahun would appear with his trusty red quad bike.
“I have been in this community for more than a year now so I really know where the main problems are and what some of the best solutions could be. It’s very different to assess problems from a distance than on the ground. Everyone is very happy to have UNICEF here – we have never had a supply distribution like this,” he told me.
Before I left to return to Juba, I had one more request for Kassahun. Would he let me drive his powerful machine through the arid landscape in Pagak? “Of course you can my friend, if you know how to drive! It’s all about solidarity here,” he answered with a warm smile on his face.
Ricardo Pires is a UNICEF Communication Specialist, who was recently in South Sudan and accompanied the joint UNICEF and WHO rapid relief mission in Pagak in April 2014.