Aid Worker Who Survived Bombing in Sudan Lends Perspective
Editor’s Note: This is an eyewitness account by Tiffany Ornelas de Tool BA’06, MPA’08 of the November 2011 bombing of the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, 10 miles south of the border with Sudan. The attack was widely reported by international and American news organizations. Initial reports from South Sudanese officials claimed 12 people had been killed and 20 wounded. Aid workers later interviewed in the camp confirmed that four bombs had been dropped but that there were no casualties.
Tiffany Ornelas de Tool credits her campus leadership experiences for preparing her to handle the issues that arise in conflict zones.
Yida Camp, South Sudan, 2:30 p.m., Nov. 10, 2011
The dry season is in full effect in the newly established Republic of South Sudan. Everything in sight is brown, either from the dusty earth or from the smoldering sun.
I have been in the Yida refugee camp as the team leader for the international nongovernmental organization Nonviolent Peaceforce for a month now. Thousands of Sudanese have fled from the fighting to the north (South Sudan gained independence in July under a peace deal that followed decades of north-south conflict), and I now live in the camp situated in Unity State, bordering Sudan.
Our team is focused on providing emergency civilian protection; in other words, attempting to prevent violence within the camp. I spent the previous eight months working to resolve tribal conflict in the state of Western Equatoria in South Sudan.
A fellow international protection officer and I are providing training on community protection to our recently hired national staff teammates (Sudanese refugees and South Sudanese host community members). We are gathered in our compound, which consists of two grass huts and three safari tents surrounded by a grass fence.
One of my Sudanese teammates, Ever (pronounced “Eva”), has stopped paying attention to the training. She has shifted her small handmade wooden bench to be in the sun outside of the grass hut and now sits frozen with fear, staring upward. My colleague and I have no clue what is wrong, until the others run out of the hut, pointing in the direction from which the sounds of an Antonov cargo plane can be heard.
Antonovs are Russian-built cargo planes improvising as bombers for the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). Since June, the SAF has continuously bombed its own states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile that border South Sudan. The bombings are a power tactic designed to remind these two states that they are still a part of Sudan and to demonstrate that the Khartoum government can operate with impunity. In the Yida refugee camp, frequent Antonov flyovers are the Sudanese government’s attempts to show refugees that just because they have fled across an international border, they are still not safe.
But today is different. This isn’t an intimidating flyover. Instead, as watchful Ever exclaims, the Antonov is circling back. Peter, one of our South Sudanese teammates, dismisses Ever’s concern, wanting to ignore the plane and return to training. A child soldier who grew up in conflict, Peter has lived in paranoia. Today, he does not want to be afraid.
By now, the Antonov has circled a third time when we see two tiny dots fall from the plane and feel the ground shake.
I rattle off a series of questions. “Was that close to us or far? Are they dropping bombs? Who are they targeting? Really? Is the Sudanese government confident enough to bomb South Sudan, the newest country in the world? Aren’t they concerned that we [several high-profile international organizations working in this refugee camp] just witnessed that?”
The national staff not only can’t keep up with my questions, but none can answer.
After the bombing on Nov. 10, 2011, digging foxholes became a priority for those at the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan.
Ever is now screaming that the Antonov is circling again. They look to me as team leader, asking, “What do we do?”
Well, what do we do? We have no foxholes for people to take cover in. I can’t stop thinking how ridiculous I have been for not making foxhole digging a priority. Peter steps in, dividing us into pairs, then pointing to places of refuge on the ground near trees. He tells us to stop looking up and to cover our ears with our faces in the dirt. He has been through this many times.
I can hear some of the staff whimpering. Many of them have lived with this type of fear their entire lives. The Antonov has descended, and its belly is directly above us. The entire ground under my body shakes and my ears feel as though they will burst. Am I dead? Hurt? No. No.
None of us move until Peter tells us to get up. The Antonov has finally flown north and is not turning back, but only after dropping two more bombs. One of them detonates a few hundred feet from our compound and the other drops in the middle of the refugee children’s compound, but miraculously does not detonate.
The camp is in utter chaos. Thousands upon thousands of refugees are screaming and running in every direction, not knowing what to do or where to go. Our team needs to maintain a strong presence and make ourselves available to assist the refugees during this time of fear.
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Late into the night, we dig foxholes in our compound. The following day, we rope off the unexploded bomb, erecting warning signs in English and Arabic. We speak to the community to make sure everyone understands that it is still dangerous to go into the children’s area.
The United Nations is evacuating, along with some other organizations. After long and lengthy conversations with my Nonviolence Peaceforce country director, I decide we will stay. There is a lot of urgent work to do. Foxholes are needed throughout the camp.
The community chiefs need training to establish standard operating procedures and contingency plans if Yida is bombed again.
Looking back, I can say that I never learned to dig foxholes or take cover during my years at UTD. But my campus leadership experiences did prepare me in other ways for working on the ground in conflict zones. And it was at UTD, with the guidance of my professors, that I first came to the realization that I wanted to do something to promote humanity as a whole.
When lives are on the line, it isn’t easy to sit back and take a break. But on the flip side, this is the most rewarding work I can imagine.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2014 UT Dallas Magazine.
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