An international conflict and development professional who has worked for the UN, Patrick Orchard has spent a career coming to grips with the darker side of humanity. Now residing in Australia, he recently spent a year living in war-torn South Sudan where bloodshed and barbarism divided people and their humanity.
I am passionate about ending the unnecessary suffering of millions of men, women and children who are victims of armed conflict around the world.
Shooting with a Canon 550D ‘that is slowly falling apart’, Patrick shares with us his best record of a civilisation destroyed, and the strength and bravery required to overcome such adversity
Bentiu, South Sudan, is a town of guns, cows and tens of thousands of people without homes. Destroyed during the South Sudan civil war, this once bustling town in the middle of country’s oil region is now littered with the rusted frames of burnt out cars and shot up houses. The only permanent residents are the South Sudanese Liberation Army (SPLA), a handful of government representatives, and thousands of cows that were taken as the spoils of war. Four kilometres up the road Bentiu’s population live in huts made from sticks and straw under the protection of United Nations Peacekeepers. For 50 years, the people of South Sudan fought a bloody and brutal civil war to secure their independence from Sudan in 2011. Three years later, amidst so much promise, the country imploded and proceeded to tear itself apart in another round of barbaric conflict. Bentiu is witness to that barbarism.
Destroyed during the South Sudan civil war, this once bustling town in the middle of country’s oil region is now littered with the rusted frames of burnt out cars and shot up houses.
I had no idea where Bentiu was when I was offered a job with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). I knew Juba, the capital of South Sudan, was relatively stable at the time (relatively stable for a country at war) but Bentiu was a complete mystery. A quick bit of research showed me what a horrific mystery it was. In 2014 Bentiu witnessed some of the most brutal fighting in the recent South Sudanese conflict with hundreds killed and their bodies left in the streets for the UN to bury. I told my wife we would reassess every three months. If it were too hard I would just pack up and come home. I stayed for a year. It was a year in which I witnessed both the depravity and resilience of which human beings are capable.
One of the key tasks of the United Nations in Bentiu is undertaking protection patrols for the thousands of women and children who leave the camp each day to travel through the surrounding swamps to collect firewood and supplies for their homes. In doing so the women and children risk assault, rape and death at the hands of criminal gangs and armed men. These women must be some of the toughest people in the world. They walk all day in the searing sun, sometimes up to 20 kilometres, to carry their huge heavy loads of firewood and reeds back to the camp. Girls as young as 10 years are joined by their mothers and grandmothers to undertake this arduous work. UN peacekeepers patrol commonly used paths every day to provide protection to these women and children. As part of my job I would often join these protection patrols to gather information about which paths were safe and what issues people were having along the way. I would always bring my camera. For me it was a chance to document the lives of these people and to remember their strength and bravery.
… the women and children risk assault, rape and death at the hands of criminal gangs and armed men. These women must be some of the toughest people in the world.
Outside the camp, armed men roam freely, both from the government and opposition sides. When these opposing groups meet they can result in deadly fire fights that serve little strategic purpose. During the patrols, some of the armed groups, most often the opposition fighters, would stop and update us on the security situation. Some of these fighters were just young boys wearing their favourite football tops while carrying AK-47s. Like young men all over the world they liked to show off and were usually more than happy to pose for a portrait. The soldiers would talk to us about their hopes of peace, but after generations of war it was hard to tell if they even knew what it was they were hoping for.
My year in Bentiu was an incredible experience, some times heartbreaking, sometimes unbelievably rewarding, always challenging. The people of South Sudan deserve peace – now it’s just a matter of their leaders delivering it to them.