South Sudan’s ongoing civil war has left 3.8 million people needing urgent assistance, with more than 1.5 million being displaced. Famine is a real and imminent threat, according to aid agencies in the region.
BY EMMA FLAHERTY
I was working at a plastic table in the temporary warehouse that we use as our office when a colleague rushed in with disturbing news: an aircraft that came in just after her flight landed had been shot down. An agitated discussion swept through the warehouse. Some said they saw smoke plumes rising south of the base.
As the field coordinator for Concern Worldwide in Bentiu, my first priority was to make sure that it was not an aircraft carrying my colleague, who had been earlier planning to head to Pariang [also in Unity State]. Thankfully, he was not on the flight. The crashed aircraft was a cargo helicopter and, tragically ,three of the four people on board were killed.
A month ago, my reaction would have been one of shock. But since then security has deteriorated so recently that my initial reaction is more subdued. Bad news has, in some ways, ceased to be shocking in one of the most contested areas of South Sudan’s civil war.
In August, government and rebel forces clashed just a few kilometres from our base. Then sustained shooting was aimed towards the base, wounding a child who was waiting for medical care, and hitting humanitarian housing and offices. Recently, a helicopter had been downed in what Toby Lanzer, the UN Assistant Secretary-General in South Sudan, called “a hostile act against the United Nations”.
But this is Bentiu. If we stopped every time something bad happened, we would get nothing done. Even just after the crash, we carried on with our work. After all, we are told once every two weeks or so that major fighting is imminent. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. That is the nature of this conflict. It is unpredictable.
As a humanitarian organisation delivering life-saving services in the camp – from clean water and sanitation to nutrition and shelter – we have to plan with this volatility in mind so we can continue to serve the 46,000 people who have found shelter here.
We are spending a lot of time in bunkers on the base, sheltering from the fighting. If people have time to grab their laptops, they pass the time working. Some play cards, but usually we talk and try to figure out where the shooting is coming from. We are released when UN security announces over the radio that it is safe to come outside again.
No two days are the same. Some days I might be wading around in the camp’s drainage channels on a shelter assessment or handing out tokens for a distribution. Other days I might be wading through budget realignments, wishing I was back in the drainage channel.
Until recently, we lived in something of a bubble. We are in a war zone, certainly, but as we are on a UN base, there was a sense of the war being “out there”. In fact, that is the point of this camp, or “protection of civilian” site, as we call them here—to give civilians protection from the conflict and access to life-saving services.
However, events in the past three weeks have changed everything. The shooting incident a few weeks ago has shaken us all. The bullet holes in the office and housing containers are a constant reminder that we have chosen to put ourselves in the middle of a brutal and unpredictable conflict, where respect for humanitarian principles and laws seems to be a lofty aspiration.
However, just a few hundred metres away from where we work and sleep is the reminder why we are and should be here.
There are more than 46,000 people who have fled desperate circumstances only to find themselves in a different kind of hell. Heavy rains have left the base flooded and people are living knee-deep in water – sometimes waist-deep.
It is a terrible and incomprehensible thing that people should be reduced to living like this in order to feel safe from violence and hunger. We have to be here to support them. There is no question of that.
As long as we can be here, we must be here.
> Emma Flaherty from Knocknacarra in Galway City is Area Co-ordinator with Concern in Unity State, South Sudan, based in the city of bentiu.
Anger over sudden arrival of housing agency in Tuam
An agency that provides accommodation for homeless people has been labelled ‘a disaster for tenancy management’ with claims that the people they house are often at the heart of anti-social behaviour.
Tuam Municipal District chairman, Cllr Donagh Killilea, has now demanded a meeting with those involved in the Peter McVerry Trust who are in the process of occupying eleven residential units in the centre of the town.
Cllr Killilea claimed that the same charity was responsible for housing families at two other locations in Tuam – and that these have been regularly visited by the Gardaí on foot of allegations of unruly behaviour.
Cllr Killilea claimed that the charity does not monitor the behaviour of the tenants and added that they do not have an ongoing presence at these locations.
The Peter McVerry Trust is mainly a housing and homeless charity who have secured the eleven vacant units – a mix of recently refurbished one-bedroom and two-bedroom units – just off Shop Street in Tuam.
Trust CEO Pat Doyle said that he was disappointed by Cllr Killilea’s comments and stressed that all nominations for their units in Galway are put forward by Galway County Council.
He clarified that the Trust has one other property in Tuam, not two, but said that they are aware of concerns in relation to this property and are actively working to find a solution.
Some of new eleven units are overlooking a car park alongside a major supermarket and a number of other business premises.
Cllr Killilea claimed that their other property was regularly visited by members of the Gardaí as a result of disturbances.
“They are a disaster for tenancy management and these eleven units have been sprung on the people of Tuam. There was no consultation with residents or the business community on Shop Street,” he said.
“There are people not happy about this and it is time that we met with the Peter McVerry Trust to see who are being housed there and if they have been vetted,” the Fianna Fail councillor added.
According to Cllr Pete Roche (FG), he was ‘surprised and shocked’ by the move. He appreciated what the Trust does for people on the housing list but asked if they accepted responsibility for the actions of the tenants who occupy these properties.
“If the tenants become unruly, then it comes back to us as a Council. We do have an obligation to those on the housing waiting list but there are some who are there because of their past history.
“Of course, the majority are genuine cases, but there has to be a proper vetting process in place. The last thing we need is for the occupants to become unruly which will have an impact on everyone around them,” Cllr Roche added.
Director of Services, Derek Pender said that he would bring these concerns to the Director of Housing with Galway County Council, Liam Hanrahan.
In a statement to this newspaper, Mr Doyle said that the Trust had worked with Galway County Council since early 2020 to secure housing pathways for people impacted by homelessness.
“We are working extremely hard to secure as many homes as possible to reduce the number of homeless people in the county,” he said.
He said that in November 2020, they made a presentation to Galway County Council’s Strategic Policy Committee.
“At this meeting we set out our plans and listed key target areas for delivery that were identified in consultation with the Council, areas such as Athenry, Loughrea, Ballinasloe, Tuam and so on.
“To that end we are delighted to be able to secure eleven additional units in Tuam this week which will help reduce the homeless numbers in Galway and adds to the homes we have secured to date in Oranmore, Loughrea, Athenry and Ballinasloe.
“Peter McVerry Trust has regular meetings and provides regular updates to the Council executive on our housing pipeline, which are subject to their support and approval, and working in tandem with them to identify areas housing need.
“We were surprised and somewhat disappointed to learn of the comments made by Councillor Killilea, particularly as he had not made direct contact with us make prior to the meeting or his media interviews to discuss any concerns he may have about the tenants we are supporting in Tuam.
“In relation to the specific case he referenced in the media, Peter McVerry Trust cannot comment on individual cases except to say all nominations to units in Galway have previously and in the future are put forward to us by Galway County Council. It is our job to support these individual cases.
“We have been aware of concerns in relation to the property in Tuam and are actively working to find a solution.
“As late as October 8, we met with the Director of Housing in Galway County Council and the first item we raised was the Tuam case. We put forward a proposal for resolution and this was accepted by the Council. That solution will be implemented at the earliest opportunity,” he added.
Turning music into a fine art
A Connemara artist who used her time in lockdown to put her work on social media – in an effort to garner a wider fanbase – has had 25 of her most vibrant pieces put to music…by a virtual band which got together in the pandemic and has only released work online.
The collaboration between Aoife Dowd from Carna and Galway retro-rockers The Opacas has so far garnered 100 views on YouTube. But the band’s Pat Boyle says their sincere hope is that Aoife gets sales from the artistic collusion, which features a piano version of their summer single ‘Outta Time’.
“It’s played by keyboardist Peter Tobin and his laid-back jazz rendition
itself perfectly to showcasing Aoife’s work. We have used piano versions of our songs to showcase other painters and photographers in the past. Peter is a well-known musician in Galway and his piano versions are lovely so we wanted to use them to promote other artists.”
Aoife, who now lives in Oughterard with husband Noel Joyce and children, Cayden (10) and Holly (6), works as an art teacher in Scoil Phobail Mhic Dara Secondary school in Carna.
The 45-year-old paints in her spare time. The daughter of Carna artist Maureen Dowd and local businessman and builder Jackie Dowd, she began her creative studies in The Grennan Mill Craft School, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, later going on to receive am honours degree and Hdip from the Limerick School of Art and Design.
“My artwork would probably be described as vibrant and impressionistic. I paint mostly landscapes in oil, I like to use strong and bright colours said as I love the energy they convey,” she reveals.
She draws her inspiration from the ever-changing moods, colours, light and vibrancy of the landscape in Connemara.
“I hope to capture more than just a scene in my work, but to draw the viewer in through a vibrant use of colour and textures. I want to create a sense of wonder, spirit and curiosity.”
She has had some successful exhibitions but this was not possible in the 18 months of lockdown, so she began to make use of Instagram and twitter to share her artwork.
“This led to lots of interest in my work and questions about a website. This is something I have always thought of setting up, so lockdown just motivated me to get it done. It has been going really well so far. Fine art prints and special commissions of portraits and landscapes have been popular.”
The Opacas are Galway musicians Steve Talbot, Peter Tobin and Pat Boyle, joined by Leeds based guitarist Mark Rayner.
“We are dedicated to making fun music and videos which they hope make people smile. The Opacas came about during the first Covid-19 lockdown when all venues for live performance were shut down. We released our first single in September 2020.
“The Opacas collaborate with local artists, theatre groups and musicians in creating music and videos which we publish on YouTube and social media.”
The band have released acoustic piano versions of their previous releases on YouTube and have showcased the work of painters Jin Yong, Patrick Kinneally and Emma Cownie. They have also showcased the work of photographers Chaosheng Zhang and Rebecca Harris.
Their video for ‘Outta Time’ features Lego creations at various Galway landmarks. A previous video was filmed around hotspots of Kinvara.
Connemara roads branded a ‘death trap’
Connemara roads ‘are a death trap’ and a real disincentive for anyone to invest in the region, a local councillor has warned.
Cllr Pádraig Mac an Iomaire (FG) said at a Connemara Area Council meeting that on parts of the main R336 coast road, two trucks couldn’t pass and yet no progress was being made with the upgrade of the route.
“This road is a death trap and is part of a huge problem across Connemara where the roads are in a very bad state.
“We’re being told we have to wait for the decision on the ring road around Galway city but many of us can’t see that happening. In the meantime, our roads are just being left behind.
“The question has to be asked – who will invest in Connemara with the current state of our roads?” said Cllr Mac an Iomaire.
Cllr Eileen Mannion (FG), said that the delay in upgrading the R336 road was causing a lot of hardship and suffering in Connemara.
She appealed to people not to appeal any decision on the R336 when it would eventually get the go-ahead for an upgrade.
Cllr Tom Welby (Ind.) said that ‘something had to happen’ with the R336 in terms of its upgrade.
He said he was aware that there would be a problem in relation to some houses along the route but added: “that you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg.”
According to Cllr Tomás Ó Curraoin, some of the driving on the Connemara roads ‘was suicidal’ with no patience being shown. “Someone will be killed,” he said.
Cllr Daithí Ó Cualáin (FF) said that the R336 was one of the busiest national roads in the region, but its upgrade was continuously being put back until a decision was made on the Galway city ring road.
“We’re ending up losing jobs and industry because we don’t have the roads infrastructure in place. We hear of continuing delays on any decision on the ring road [Galway city] – I would like to hear the view of the Green Party councillor [Alastair McKinstry] on the issue,” said Cllr Ó Cualáin.
Cllr McKinstry said that he agreed with the need for repairs and an upgrade of the R336, but this needed to be done on the basis of long-term planning. “The road is not up to scratch for all users,” he said.
Connemara Area Cathaoirleach, Cllr Seamus Walsh (FF) said that some of the driving on so-called rat-runs on Connemara roads – including the Furbo area – was ‘absolutely crazy’.
“I would advise parents not to let their children on bicycles to and from school. There’s no place to walk on those roads, not to mind cycling – it’s just not safe,” said Cllr Walsh.
Area Engineer, Damien Mitchell, said that the Council staff were as frustrated as the councillors in terms of progress being made on the R336.
He said that a decision from An Bord Pleanála on the Galway City Ring Road was due by November 19 next and while there were frustrations with such delays [ring road], it was important to get it all done properly.
“As regards the R336, we have gone to the Department on a number of occasions on this issue. We’re told that we will be starting from a clean slate so as regards traffic counts there’s no point in doing those until the project moves on,” said Mr Mitchell.
■ The R336 83km (c. 50 miles) road links Galway city to the N59 route at Leenane, via Barna, Spiddal, Inverin, Cashla, Screebe and Maam Cross.