Juba - The provision of safe drinking water, access to primary healthcare, provision of food and shelter. These are some of the activities likely to pop up in your mind when you think of operations run by humanitarian agencies for displaced populations.
These are critical humanitarian efforts, no doubt.
But there is other work being done. Essential, but sometimes unseen.
With over 117,000 people living in the UN Protection of Civilians site in Bentiu, in the Unity region of South Sudan, the PoC site is essentially a small city. It was one of the towns most affected by violence during the conflict leading to large-scale displacement. And just like in any community in the world, death is simply inevitable.
As Camp Manager of the UN protection site in Bentiu, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) team assists the community with the safe and dignified burial of internally displaced people (IDPs) who perish in health facilities or other parts of the PoC site.
Forty-nine-year-old Simon Majang joined IOM in 2014. Today, he is one of the seven selfless members of IOM’s burial team. He is also the team leader.
He says that he appreciates the magnitude of his job.
“This is not a job that just anyone can do,” says Simon Majang.
In some communities, only the elders in the community may bury the deceased. However, due to the unstable and unpredictable security environment of the country, families in Bentiu PoC must seek support from the burial team. It can be unsafe to leave the protection site where they have sought sanctuary to go out to the burial grounds.
The IOM team relies on the UN Mission in South Sudan’s Peacekeeping forces to provide an escort for families during burials.
“It is very sad because many times families cannot even attend the burial ceremony of their loved ones because being outside the PoC site exposes them to danger,” said Simon. “However, it is very rewarding, when at the end of the day, a family member of the deceased takes your hand in theirs and simply says thank you.”
“That is enough,” Simon adds after a short pause.
Walking in between heaps of perfectly aligned soil, the improvised cross made from sticks bound together is the only tell-tale sign that this is a graveyard. The graves often do not bear a headstone in remembrance of the deceased. Due to the fragile security environment, family and friends are unable to accompany the team to the burial site and lay a headstone as would have usually been the case.
On most occasions, it is just the burial team and perhaps one family member. It is often a solitary exercise for the team.
With no priest coming along to the burial site, it is usually Simon and his team who lead a short prayer before lowering the body to its final resting place.
“These are people who were forced to flee their homes in search for sanctuary. They did not wish for it to end here; I am sure they had hopes of one day returning to their homes to rebuild their lives,” said Simon Majang.
Simon believes “this is more than just a job” for him and his team.
“It gives me solace to know that we can at least give the deceased a dignified and meaningful burial,” he said.
Since 2016, IOM has administered 2,394 burials, ensuring that they are done in a timely and dignified manner. The land was provided by local authorities and cleared of trees and shrubs to make way for a cemetery.
“A painful reality is that as peace returns and families are confident enough to leave the UN Protection of Civilians site and return to their homes, in these cemeteries, their loved ones will forever remain,” said Simon compassionately.