Irish consultant recalls experience of being caught in South Sudan war

Irish engineer was in Africa’s newest country providing logistics training when war broke out. Peter O’Dwyer reports
Irish consultant recalls experience of being caught in South Sudan war

The most arduous part of returning to work for many is trawling through a full inbox. Pat Moriarty, however, had quite a bit more to contend with.

“I was on family holidays in France and I left for South Sudan. It was fine until the fighting started,” he summed up simply.

As a veteran of visits to foreign lands and developing nations, first with the naval service and subsequently with the consultancy business he founded in 1998, the Corkman is no stranger to situations others would wince at the mere thought of.

“I arrived and I started the particular task I’d gone to do,” says Pat.

That task involves providing training, expertise, and mentoring to the UN Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) through CDGA Engineering Consultants, the business he runs from Little Island on the edge of Cork city.

“So I was meeting Unmiss officials working in the supply chain area. So we were reviewing various problems and discussing solutions and what have you over the space of two or three days.

“On the second day there was talk that there had been an incident early in the day involving some South Sudan military personnel; some fighting in the city but there was no concrete news.

Patrick O’Connell, Natalya Summar, and Pat Moriarty of CDGA Engineering Consultants Ltd.
Patrick O’Connell, Natalya Summar, and Pat Moriarty of CDGA Engineering Consultants Ltd.

“The next day there was more chat about it but nothing serious but that evening, very suddenly about 4pm or 5pm in the afternoon, major fighting erupted in Juba,” he says.

The gunfire that echoed through the city walls was a return to hostilities that has plagued the country since December 2013 when tensions erupted into all-out civil war which cost an estimated 50,000 people their lives in the world’s youngest and one of its most impoverished countries.

The bitter, brutal civil war began when South Sudan’s two most senior politicians — from two different ethnic groups — split, pitting tens of thousands of heavily armed young men against each other and tearing at the seams of a nation founded in 2011.

Riek Machar, leader of the opposition, agreed in April 2016 to return to his old position as Salva Kiir’s vice president after a peace agreement was reached.

A matter of months later however, South Sudan was hurtling back towards the civil war it had just emerged from. At first, Pat was a few kilometres from the heat of the battle in July, but quickly found himself engulfed by the vicious fighting that raged across Juba.

“On Friday, it was maybe two miles away. I was on the other side of town; the other side of the River Nile. But on Saturday, my hotel was next to the airport in Juba and also next to the main UN compound, so by Saturday the fighting between the government troops and the opposition troops had moved across town to the vicinity of the airport where they were fighting to take control of the airport.

“On Saturday and Sunday there was major fighting all around the hotel so our hotel was barricaded. We had a couple of army troops stationed inside the hotel and some private security guys were armed.

“We were inside the hotel from then on; doors locked, metal barriers pulled over, mattresses in front of windows on the inside so that gunfire wouldn’t penetrate. We spent Saturday morning until the morning of Thursday incarcerated in the hotel. We couldn’t budge outside. There was nobody on the streets. The soldiers of the opposition were kind of running riot. There was looting and all sorts of atrocities going on,” he says.

For a guy just looking to do a little consultancy work and fresh off a French sun lounger, it was quite the jolt.

Having avoided trouble on his previous six or so visits to the country, the fighting took him by surprise.

And while he says he never felt in immediate danger given the hotel’s high walls and proximity to the main UN compound should “some serious situation arose”, there was no escaping that just a few hundred metres away violent clashes raged for days and threatened to plunge the country into civil war once again.

Pat and his 10 or so comrades holed up in the hotel might not have been too worried but back home in Cork his wife and three children were understandably a little more concerned.

“I was periodically [in touch with home]. I’d say they were more worried than I was because there was quite a lot of coverage in the news. I suppose I’d been in places like Afghanistan over the years so I’ve a certain amount of experience of being in those sort of places from my days in the navy in Lebanon and various other places.”

Pat’s biggest concern was time and the fact the conflict was dragging on without progress. Such a wait depletes resources too.

“As the days went on our food supplies ran low. There was no electricity; there’s no electricity at the best of times in Juba it’s all privately generated and they ran out of oil ... so food and drink and electricity. We’d no internet so we were just waiting. It was a slow five days,” he says.

Two evacuation offers came and went before he finally managed to hitch a ride out of South Sudan. For now, the war-torn African country remains too dangerous to return to with most of the 14,000 or so Unmiss troops having been evacuated too. As soon as things return to some semblance of normality, however, Pat will be back.

“They’re waiting for the situation to stabilise somewhat so I’d anticipate that after two or three months that our support work would have to restart.”

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