Meet with Justine Muzik Piquemal, fresh back from Sudan

Published on Monday 24 July 2023

For the past 3 months, Sudan has been the scene of a new conflict between the Sudanese armed forces (SAF) and paramilitary forces (RSF). SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, present in the country before the outbreak, was the first international NGO able to return to Darfur, in the west. Thus, being the first to bring aid to the population. Regional Director, Justine Muzik Piquemal, was part of the team that crossed the border for the first time. Meet Justine.

What is the situation in Sudan since the outbreak of the conflict on April 15? 

Today, the country is divided into three parts: Port Sudan to the east on the coast, Khartoum, the capital, and Darfur to the west. Port Sudan, a city that has remained relatively unscathed since the beginning of the conflict, has been Sudan’s new capital for the past month and a half. In Khartoum, chaos reigns between military confrontations and bombardments. And in Darfur, fighting between military forces has been joined by inter-ethnic conflicts.

What are the humanitarian needs?

In the Eastern part of the country, from the border with Ethiopia to the Red Sea, there have been large-scale movements of internally displaced people. They have not directly experienced the conflict but are suffering its consequences. On the other hand, in Khartoum as in Darfur, it’s an open conflict. In Khartoum, the aerial bombardments that took place at the start of the conflict have given way to “city” conflicts. In Darfur, especially in West Darfur, more than 70% of Al-Geneina has been burnt down. There, the needs are considerable: there is no more food, no more drinking water, no more medicine, no more doctors… The commercial service between Chad and West Darfur, which was the economic lung of the town, no longer exists. This is survival.

How has SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL reacted since the start of this new conflict?

Given the scale of the conflict, we had to make decisions quickly. In Gedaref, in the east of Sudan, we didn’t really interrupt our activities since the town had not been evacuated. We quickly carried out needs assessments to understand what the population needed with the arrival of the internally displaced people. We are currently working on food support projects for the population in this area.

In Darfur, the situation is more complicated. Fighting has lasted a very long time in Al-Geneina. An initial lull enabled us to resume access to drinking water and pump repair services. However, once again, the fighting resumed, and we had to suspend our activities. Our Sudanese colleagues have been working on a regular and more “perennial ” basis for the past two weeks.  

Why is SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL one of the only international NGOs present in the country?

Our NGO’s mandate – to go the extra mile to help people in need – is very demanding and very real. It’s not just a “written” mandate!   

Despite the evacuation of international staff, our colleagues on the ground were quickly mobilized. Moreover, we gave ourselves the means to go back! We were genuinely convinced that we had to go back to help the population and protect our teams who had stayed behind. It seemed obvious to us to do everything we could to be there again. 

It took us seven weeks of negotiations… When the humanitarian corridor was accepted by the authorities, we returned to Sudan the very next day. In several villages, we met the population and asked about their needs, while explaining our activities. In the first village, we began distributing food. Step by step, we managed to reach the town of Al-Geneina. Some days we turned back, others we waited 5 hours at the border… but in the end, we got there. We helped the people. Moments like that, are the reason I do what I do.

There are no other humanitarian actors on site, so how can we act in such a context?

We need to talk, talk, and talk. Talk to national NGOs, community leaders, officials. Ask them what they need, what they expect from us. You must respect the people in front of you, their customs, and traditions. It’s a small thing, but it’s a way of earning respect and getting them to accept our help.  

In Sudan, what emerged from the initial discussions was the need for aid to arrive as quickly as possible. The situation is so difficult that the usual assessment stage that precedes every NGO action could not be carried out. We couldn’t come and do assessments and then come back several weeks later to distribute the aid. We listened to the population and arrived right from the start with materials that we distributed the day after the first meeting. In collaboration with the authorities, we drew up a list of people in need and made our first distributions. Keeping your word, being transparent and upright, as well as honest when you are unable to provide something, is what makes humanitarian aid work.   

When confronted with a population in the midst of a major conflict, we have to live up to their expectations. Thankfully, we were able to do so thanks to the mobilization of the entire NGO, our donors, and sponsors.

In practical terms, how have the teams managed to organize the aid?

For the moment, we’re carrying out distributions while assessing the needs. The primary needs are food and access to water and hygiene. However, we must consider the context. We’re in a country at war. We’re not going to install a brand-new water pump that’s likely to be destroyed the next day. We’ll start by distributing hygiene products such as soap and sanitary pads. We know that hand washing is not the first need. While we are distributing these products, part of the team is evaluating the water access equipment that needs to be repaired. We explain to people that repairing pumps, for example, takes time. You have to order the right parts, repair the solar panels, etc. Only once we’ve got the right parts, we can repair them. However, to do so, we must have received the material. In the meantime, we’re carrying on with the distributions.

What are the biggest challenges right now?

The biggest challenge today is security.  There is less violence in Al-Geneina, for example. But what about tomorrow? When there are altercations, we must suspend our activities for a day or two. It’s a day-to-day job, hour after hour: monitoring security day by day, making sure we don’t put anyone in more danger than necessary.   

It’s very difficult to set up an intervention strategy in the country. The situation varies so much from one area to another. As I said, there are three zones in the country today. It’s as if our teams were working in three different countries. The populations have not experienced the same situation, the needs are different, the ways of working are also different… However, I know that we’ll do our best to help the population.

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