PROFILE-Securing aid access in S.Sudan: "I communicate, negotiate, cajole"

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 11 May 2016 00:01 GMT

John Ayang works for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Malakal, South Sudan. PHOTO/Yamila Castro/ICRC 2016

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John Ayang reunites separated families and works to deliver aid safely in world's youngest but troubled country

DAKAR, May 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - John Ayang is assistant to the head of sub-delegation in Malakal, South Sudan for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), reuniting separated families and negotiating access with warring factions in the world's youngest country.

"Childhood is not supposed to be an apprenticeship for war, but I grew up in what is now South Sudan in the 1980s, a time of bloody conflict.

As a 13-year-old boy, I remember collecting unexploded bombs from the land where I grew up, and putting those tools of war in my pocket to contribute to the independence movement from Sudan.

It was dangerous and foolish, but that's what we boys did at the time to help the cause.

My childhood was interrupted when the fighting reached our home in Tonga, where my tribe, the Shilluk, live. My family and I were uprooted and headed to Malakal.

This was the start of a journey that saw me train as a priest, teach at a primary school, and study philosophy in Sudan, before I ended up in this role - a jack-of-all-trades.


"I communicate, negotiate, and even cajole to ensure our work is accepted and that our teams can work safely, obtaining security guarantees from all sides involved in the conflict.

Exchanges with fighters, authorities and communities are my everyday work. While my work demands that I remain calm and collected, the atmosphere of conflict can be very tense.

My most dangerous moment came two years ago in Malakal.

Six armed men entered our office to loot and kill - they wanted to murder people from certain ethnic groups.

A colleague and I were separated from the others in the office, and the bandits held us for 15 very long minutes with three guns pressed against my forehead and body.

Amidst the vitriol and threats, I was able to persuade the men to leave, talking to them in their own language.

Before leaving, they fired warning shots and said they'd return and kill everyone, regardless of tribe or nationality.


"This low point is an exception among many happier memories.

I have helped many separated families find one another, a necessary and popular part of our work in this land of violence.

It reminds me of when I lost contact with my brother when my family was displaced, and how overjoyed I was to find him again.

My work is powered in part by knowing how difficult a life of conflict can be for families.

I am the father of seven children who live in Uganda since it is not safe for them here. They will remain there until our country can put a stop to this cycle of violence.

I yearn for a day when my country protects medical clinics, hospitals and healthcare workers. Whenever I speak to a person in power, I explain my hope that we will achieve it one day.

I no longer pick up unexploded bombs off the ground. Instead, I meet with community leaders to try to secure access to injured fighters so they may be evacuated for medical care.

These are the kinds of acts that put a smile on my face, persuading someone to make the decision to save a life."

This aid worker profile is one of five commissioned by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the first ever World Humanitarian Summit on the biggest issues affecting the humanitarian response to disasters and conflict.

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(Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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