The Nile waterway: A lifeline for UNMISS operations and humanitarian needs up north
For 15 years now, Captain Yor Oraj has been sailing different boats and barges along the lengths, depths and breadths of the world’s longest river, the Nile, delivering much needed supplies for operations and troops, either northwards or southwards.
Getting essential supplies to their destination has always been a herculean task for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which employs several modes of transportation, including land, air, and waterways.
For Captain Oraj, his are lifeline missions.
“If we did not work like this, there would be difficulties for our brothers on the other side,” says Captain Oraj, who says he loves his job, transporting fuel and food rations for both the UN Mission and humanitarian agencies like the World Food Programme.
His barge, the ‘Nile Princess’, is soon expected to depart from Mangala Port, on yet another riverine trip northward.
Transporting supplies from Mangala Port has not always been easy, as the barge plies the Nile, navigating government and opposition areas.
“We have been working here even during the crisis, because if we stop it is going to affect other people on the other side – that is why we keep on with our job even if there is a crisis,” says Oraj.
Indeed, he recounts some of the difficult moments of his work, including an incident at the height of the conflict in 2014.
“We went from here (Mangala) and when we arrived in Tunja we had an incident – we came under fire on the barge,” he narrates. “This incident happened at the beginning of the crisis in South Sudan. There was heavy firing, which lasted three hours. With us there was UN military who defended us – then we were airlifted up to Malakal. It was a difficult time during our journey, but that did not stop us. We spent three months in Malakal and then returned using the same route,” he says.
Oftentimes, a Bangladeshi riverine protection force crew from UNMISS accompanies the barges back and forth along the Nile.
“Security is always an issue, but security is provided by the Bangladeshi Marine Unit – very brave sailors – who accompany this barge throughout,” says the new UNMISS Force Commander, Lieutenant General Shailesh Tinaikar.
On the eve of a planned barge departure from Mangala Port, he has traveled 80 kilometers from South Sudan’s capital Juba – on a bad dirt road – stopping at several government-manned checkpoints, to see what barge transportation entails.
“It is not so easy to travel on the barge with very minimal facilities for a period of 25 days almost on a stretch,” says the peacekeeping force commander. “Living out in the open for 10 to 15 days is not a comfortable job, but our soldiers do it magnificently, and that is the spirit that is called upon – the spirit of always ensuring that every task that is given to a peacekeeper is accomplished to full satisfaction,” he adds.
South Sudan’s September 2018 peace agreement has meant that there are currently no major problems for the barges, or even the smaller boats plying the depths of the Nile, but the Bangladeshi Navy will still accompany the barges, to guarantee maximum safety.
“It’s very economical and the fastest way we can manage, considering the difficulties of the road and the weather of South Sudan. So, we have a barge that goes once a month and takes about 2,000 – 2,500 metric tons on each trip which includes rations as well as fuel. It is a very important logistical operation for the forces,” says the commander.
The onset of rains in the country that lasts six to eight months makes barge transportation the most reliable and inexpensive mode of transportation compared to unexpectedly long road journeys which can be compromised due to bad and damaged stretches. With the rains, the water on the Nile rises, allowing for better river transportation, while dry seasons between November to January can be difficult.