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Jess Engrebretson is a different kind of humanitarian-aid worker. As an American journalist and Thomas J. Watson Fellow, she has worked with local radio projects in Indonesia, Rwanda and Liberia on post-conflict resolution and human-rights reporting. From 2014 to 2015, Engrebretson helped develop radio infrastructure in a camp for displaced people near Malakal, South Sudan. Engrebretson, 29, trained a team of local reporters to deliver crucial information to the residents in the camp amid a continuing humanitarian crisis.
Malakal is the capital of Upper Nile State, located in the northeast corner of South Sudan. Since the country’s horrific civil war broke out in December 2013, the city has changed hands at least 12 times. Most of its inhabitants have fled to a nearby United Nations base, which is now called the Malakal camp. Currently, the camp has more than 33,000 people living there. Through Internews, a nonprofit site that helps local media, four of six UN “protection of civilian” sites in South Sudan have radio projects.
As the UN Security Council meets this week on South Sudan, where no progress has been made in securing its stability and the government constrains UN peacekeepers, the role of radio can be a small beacon of hope and even save lives.
Engrebretson was interviewed by WFUV News, a public-radio station at Fordham University in the Bronx, on radio’s role in such sites.
Q. How does radio work in a displaced persons camp, also known as protection of civilians (PoC)?
A. When I was working in Malakal, there was no radio station. Now there is Nile FM, but I worked on a precursor project called Boom Box Talk Talk. We produced a half-hour show twice a week and put it on secure digital [SD] cards. Then we had these crank-powered, solar-powered portable radios. We’d put the SD card in the radio, and those radios belonged to listening groups in different parts of the PoC. Then people would gather and listen to the show on their radio, but they weren’t actually getting a broadcast radio station.
We also had a car with a boombox strapped onto the roof. Once we produced a show, we’d drive around the PoC — which was more like a small town — on a set route. People knew, for instance, that on a Saturday around noon the show would be playing at this water pump where people might line up to be getting water. And at 2, it’d be playing outside the Doctors Without Borders clinic. At 4, it’d be playing in the shade of this tree over in the northeast corner. Later, we built an actual radio station. That was Nile FM.
Q. How does radio affect the lives of internally displaced people?
A. The model was “news you can use.” It was supposed to give people basically the information they needed to make wise decisions for themselves and their families. For instance, there were a lot of constraints living in the camp. There are water points where you can go get water, but the water only runs at certain times of day. Sometimes the pipes break, and then the water doesn’t run. So our show included information about changes in the water schedules. Or, if the World Food Program was doing a food distribution, there’s a lot of rules. Sometimes only women can go, and sometimes men can go, and you have to have a certain ID card, so all that information would be included in the show.
We also had fun stuff — we had a radio drama that followed a group of characters who were living in this camp outside of Malakal. They were the same characters from week to week, so people could follow their trials and tribulations, their triumphs and their love stories. I think, especially in difficult conditions, it can be easy to focus on information about food distributions and vaccinations. But we felt it was really important to also include content that was fun and enjoyable, that people could listen to and see themselves in.
Q. In your experience, what is the special effect of radio on conflict areas?
A. It varies widely. I think it is a crucial mode of getting information. This isn’t true of all conflict areas, but in the conflict areas I’ve worked in, they’ve been places with very low levels of literacy; radio is functionally the way people get news. Newspapers exist in the capital, Juba, but aren’t accessible in more remote areas of the country, and most people can’t read anyway. So radio is key. But radio has also been used to stoke conflict. I think the most disturbing example is in the Rwandan genocide. As many people know, RTLM, the hate radio station in Kigali [the capital], was instrumental in driving conflict by reading out lists of names on the radio. So radio is a tool — it’s not inherently good or bad. And it’s a very powerful tool.
Q. What is an example of something you broadcasted that saved lives?
A. I’ll give you two examples. Most of the hazards people faced were sickness and accidents. The people who were dying were mostly from things like cholera. There was a big problem with electrocution when I was there because people would have generators within the camp that they weren’t supposed to have. There were a lot of ditches of water, and kids would be playing and they would end up getting electrocuted. So we did a whole series of programming such as, “What to do if you see a generator” and “If you see wires, don’t touch it, go inform a community elder,” to prevent more children from being accidentally electrocuted. Similarly, with cholera, we did a lot of programming about hand washing, symptoms and where to go to get treatment so the cholera wouldn’t spread.
A slightly more dramatic example has to do with there being people from three different ethnic groups — Shilluk, Nuer and Dinka — displaced in the same camp. Much of the fighting that was going on outside the camp had an ethnic dimension. Sometimes, those tensions would impact people’s relationships within the camp. At one point, there was a level of violence and intimidation happening in the camp that was directed at the Nuer community.
Our team of journalists was a mixed group; some of our staff were Nuer. It got to the point where we couldn’t work in our regular space because Nuer people could no longer go to the area where our tent was located; they’d be attacked by this group of young men from other groups. So we had to move our whole base of operations, and we just worked under a tree for a while. We didn’t even have a tent! We just had our laptops. But during that time, we did a lot of programming about why this community division was happening. We talked to a lot of community elders and people from the women’s council; these were like political bodies within the camp.
I certainly wouldn’t want to say our programming was the reason that that conflict got resolved. But I do think the ability to hear the perspectives of people from other ethnic groups is powerful, particularly when ethnic zones had developed in the camp. I think the ability to talk to each other via radio was one important component of resolving that crisis.
Q. What’s your favorite story from your time working in South Sudan?
A. Our working conditions were really difficult. It was hot, our tent was overcrowded and impossible to stand in, and the mud was so bad it could suck the shoes off your feet. It was Friday, and we were almost done with this show. We were all sitting in this muddy tent, exhausted, to do the final listen before putting the show out into the world. I couldn’t understand what was going on because I don’t speak Arabic, but I was listening for technical stuff. The host that week, Julia, was less good at Arabic than other people. After the listen-through, everybody just decided it wasn’t good enough — it wasn’t clear what she was saying at certain points, and people wouldn’t be able to follow it. Working in the US in radio previously, I can be supernitpicky. But I was exhausted, I was so ready to turn it in and just say, This is good enough. And the whole team said: No, this isn’t good enough. We’re going to do it over. And we did.
Q. You trained the radio team well!
A. Maybe neurotically! But for me, there was a certain sense of, Everybody is going to be listening on terrible speakers anyway, and the equipment isn’t very good, and some of the editing isn’t perfect because I’m working with a group of people who just learned this a month or two ago. But also, this is their community. This is how their voices are being represented to 20,000 people for whom this is the only source of information and news. And that really matters. And it was a good reminder to me that this isn’t a little side project, this is the only way this community knows what’s going on in the middle of, literally, a war zone.