South Sudanese man who evacuated compatriots from battle ground

Richard Sultan

Its nearly a year since Akoc Manhiem received an unusual phone call in the wee hours of the morning, on April 16 2023. So unusual that he was hesitant to receive at the first ring, but he cautiously gathered courage to swipe the green yes button when the ringtone persisted…….

“What? A coup? What madness has come over these guys of Khartoum?” he pumps himself with answerless questions.

It’s hard to tell whether it was a coup or not till date as the clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF)and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) aka the brain child of the SAF has already engulfed the whole country, displacing about 8.1 million including about 6.3 million people displaced within Sudan and another 1.8 million people who fled abroad as of March 2024.

In the days after that distractive phone call, Manhiem remained moody, a sign of anxiety on the fate of his friends and countrymates who are in Khartoum.

Akoc during a fund raising event

According to the UNHCR, as of 31 January 2023, there were over 800,000 South Sudanese refugees in Sudan, mostly those who fled the 2013 and 2016 conflicts. They included over 600,000 registered migrants—including students, individuals seeking medical treatment, and business professionals—and over 160,000 unregistered individuals.

Whatever mental and physical burden Manhiem is experiencing after the phone call is a true reflection of what every South Sudanese was and is still going through.

“It’s worth noting that because of our shared history of being one country before our independence in 2011; everything that happens in Sudan has wider ripple effects in South Sudan and vice versa. We still share a lot in terms of (relations) humanity, culture,religion and economy,” the 41-year-old Manhiem later told African Change Narrative Stories.

 Anxiety was nearing boiling point in South Sudan when the West and other countries started evacuating their citizens from Khartoum and other parts of Sudan in the second week of the conflict. With their ears and eyes wide open, South Sudanese waited for any sort of announcement or notice from their government on evacuation of their countrymates; all in vain.

The lack of government action is what forced Manhiem to invite some five friends over to brainstorm on what they can do for their countrymates stuck in Khartoum.

“Hahaha! So, you want to become the government? What can you do that the government cannot……oh you think the government is stupid?” they rained him with questions.

But after a 30-minute lecture on the history of South Sudan’s struggle for independence that was punctuated by countless sacrifices for the greater good of the country, including Dr. John Garang who is generally regarded as the father of the country; they somehow managed to change their mind, reluctantly asking Manhiem what his plan is.

 “Thanks to social media, we were able to pass out word on what we plan to do and how to do it to help our compatriots,” Manhiem said.

Akoc Manhiem among returnees in Juba after giving them some aid from China

The government was also taken by surprise on our initiative as we had no time to consult them since lives were at stake, not just ordinary lives, but lives of fellow South Sudanese, thus we just got down to work.

“We first designed and printed a banner, created a Facebook page and uploaded the banner as our cover photo, and by the time the page was ready, I was done creating a crowdfunding web page on gofundme.org, all connected to an Mgurush account, a local fintech to allow us receive money from within and abroad; thus building trust with the public as accountability becomes so easy—just printing out a transaction statement.

“Thereafter, we were ready to launch our crowdfunding initiative to evacuate our compatriots from Khartoum and other parts of Sudan. We named it the Citizens Call for the Emergency Evacuation of the South Sudanese (CCEESS). Word spread quickly to every South Sudanese through social media within and outside the country about our press conference which also doubles as the official launch of the initiative with the reason clearly indicated.” he explained.

The launch exceeded our expectations by all standards and we were able to raise an equivalent of $800 during the launch.

“We hired a hall of 100 people in capacity, but the people that turned up were nearly 200. Notable among them was South Sudan’s then acting minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Hon. Deng Dau who also queued like others to contribute what he had,” Manhiem said.

Now, with less than two weeks to the first anniversary of the launch of CCEESS, and the conflict in Sudan, the former civil servant turned humanitarian still cuts the same moody look after that distractive phone call.

He recalls how they were able to capitalize on the launch by recruiting volunteers to lead their media campaigns, logistics in Juba and Khartoum, and resource mobilization.

He said the fundraising efforts of the initiative spread far beyond the crowdfunding page, and has seen big donations from South Sudanese business owners, politicians and some government parastatals.

“We raised nearly $550000 by the second month of the initiative from the business community, fundraising events and some government institutions such as the Central Bank, and some in-kind contributions,” he said.

“It is these contributions that we used to pay truck drivers in Khartoum through our volunteer logistic coordinators there, such that they can transport helpless South Sudanese from Khartoum to the nearest border to South Sudan, in the town of Renk which is 500kilometers away. Once safely inside, they become the responsibility of the South Sudan government and humanitarian organizations.”

By the time the government started the onward transportation of returnees from Renk to their places of origin, and the refugees including returnees from communal conflict hotspots to camps in Juba, our initiative was already in full swing working tirelessly.

“As of today, we have transformed into a legitimate civil society organization, and evacuated over 10000 South Sudanese from Khartoum and other parts of Sudan into South Sudan,” he said.

Evacuating over 10000 compatriots from the battle field is no mean achievement. As such it deserves a sense of self satisfaction and appreciation, so why the moody look?

After a forced smile, Manhiem straightened his blue necktie and leans forward, saying brother, “these things never end…. I mean the problems or challenges. Whatever you want to call it.” His honest tone makes one feel the confidence of a man who never gives up despite the overload on his shoulders

“Our mission to evacuate all South Sudanese from Sudan is not over, just that the road has become littered with fighters, making it very risky. Secondly, the government and the humanitarian partners have been overwhelmed by the onward movement of all the returnees from Renk to their places of origin—dragging us in unknowingly,” he said, adding that, “apart from our initiative, majority of the returnees and refugees made it to the border on their own, and thousands of those that were brought to Juba are yet stuck here in the camps with little to no support.”

Apart from occasionally helping to now transport returnees onwards from the border town of Renk, particularly the sick and those with disabilities, Manhiem and his team have to make sure they back-up whatever little the returnees and refugees in Juba get from the humanitarian agencies and the government, which in most cases lasts for a quarter of a month.

“These days we spend most of our time in following-up pledges and mobilizing extra resources for them. Imagine, whenever they are faced with challenges, they come here (our office) instead of going to the government or UN. You won’t believe that one even named her newborn child as citizens call. The pregnant, the hungry, the sick…all come here,” Manhiem explains, with the burden of responsibility and fatigue written all over his face, in sharp contrast to the philosophical words of hope that decorates his semi-permanent office-perhaps its those words of hope that keeps pushing him.

Despite the burden of responsibility that follows his footsteps, Manhiem has become a household name in South Sudan, loved and praised for his selfless efforts by the good, bad, weird, heartless and responsible of the South Sudanese society. He is so revered that even a highly dreaded local tabloid Hot in Juba celebrated him among the top ten South Sudanese of 2023.

Photo credit: facebook

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