United Kingdom Engineers Building a Better Future for South Sudan
The team of engineers are working in a smooth rhythm that comes from long hours spent working closely together to build desperately needed infrastructure in war-torn South Sudan.
It is backbreaking work, toiling in scorching 38-degree heat, ankle-deep in mud, as they build new roads, helicopter landing pads, accommodation units and even a hospital.
The 400-strong United Kingdom engineering and medical contingent are mostly based in two locations – Malakal and Bentiu – in one of the most volatile parts of the country which has suffered ongoing violence since the outbreak of civil war in 2013.
The UK troops are led by Lieutenant Colonel Katie Hislop - the first female contingent commander to serve with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
“Coming from the UK, there are quite a few female commanding officers so it wasn’t something that I thought about as being different until I arrived,” she says. “What I’ve noticed though is there are actually very few female peacekeepers over here and I know that it’s really important that we have huge diversity across all of our peacekeepers to fully understand the situation and to be able to add what we can in terms of value.”
“Recognizing that there are very few women in command positions over here if I can be a role model to younger women who want to become commanders in the future then I’d be delighted to do that,” she adds.
Lt Col. Hislop currently oversees the work of about 400 troops in South Sudan while also being responsible for the remainder of 32 Engineer Regiment back in the UK – another 350 troops.
The contingent in South Sudan comprises about 80 medics while the remainder are engineers from all trades, logistics teams and support staff.
As commander, the Lieutenant Colonel is responsible from everything from the safety and wellbeing of her soldiers, to managing their careers, developing their education and training, preparing them for deployment, and delivering on their mandate as part of UNMISS.
A key priority is the design and construction of a new UN hospital in Bentiu. While in Malakal, they are building helicopter landing systems, roads, and other vital infrastructure.
“One of the challenges here that we are enjoying is that we are building accommodation blocks out of recycled material and therefore we are having to use quite a lot of innovation to pull them together,” says Lt Col. Hislop. “But the great thing about that is it’s a really efficient and effective use of resources in a place where it is difficult to access resources because the roads are in a very poor state and there are very few planes to bring things in.”
While the contingent’s primary focus is enabling the UN Mission to function, it is also working on projects that directly benefit local communities, such as repairing a culvert in Malakal town so the community can move around safely.
In Bentiu, their medics are training local doctors, nurses, and health workers to improve their skills.
“With these skills, what we’re hoping is that this increases the confidence of the local population in the Bentiu state hospital so that people feel more confident in potentially moving from the Protection of Civilian site out to Rubkona or Bentiu and the communities there,” says Lt Col. Hislop.
The experience is a life-changing one for the UK troops who have travelled so far to work with the people of South Sudan to protect civilians and build durable peace. They say their reward will be leaving a legacy of having made a real difference to people’s lives.
“If I could genuinely leave any gift whatsoever, I think I would want to leave self-belief that the situation could get better,” says Lt Col. Hislop.
“But, if you’re asking me about something physical and tangible that we could leave here as engineers, then it would be a slight improvement in the infrastructure, making the roads more trafficable, making them safer, and making people more secure, and feel more secure in the POC camps,’ she says.
“Quite frankly, South Sudan is a beautiful country, which should have a bright future, and whatever we can do, whether it be small, just a small step, then we would take real privilege from doing that.”
That privilege, according to Lt Col Hislop and the UK contingent, is serving the United Nations, the people of South Sudan, and making their country proud.