For South Sudanese displaced by war, a peacemaker always ready to helpCorinne Reilly · May 28, 2015
By the time the woman made it to Gatwech Chotlith’s desk, she’d already made up her mind that she was done living.
She’d been staying for months in one of the biggest civilian protection camps in South Sudan, on the outskirts of the capital, Juba, where she’d moved with her husband and child after fleeing their neighborhood amid the civil war that broke out in late 2013. The camp was crowded and dreary, and her relationship with her husband was at its worst. He was hitting her all the time.
Gatwech knew what to do. He counseled the woman, imploring her not to resort to suicide. Then he met with her husband. The abuse of women may be seen by many here as acceptable, Gatwech told him, but it’s not the way.
Suicide counseling and domestic violence intervention may not be jobs you’d expect to fall to a lawyer, but the community Gatwech serves is not typical. He runs Pact’s legal aid desk inside a place known as POC 3, or protection of civilians camp No. 3, a spread of dusty land that is home to more than 20,000 internally displaced South Sudanese.
“People have come to know me as one who can resolve problems peacefully,” says Gatwech, a soft-spoken man in a pink dress shirt and blue tie. “Here, this is badly needed.”
Pact runs 11 legal aid clinics across South Sudan – part of the organization’s Access to Justice program – but Gatwech’s is the only one inside a civilian protection camp. He operates from a small shack made of wood and blue corrugated tin – a temporary structure in a sea of temporary structures.
Like his counterparts at other legal aid offices, he offers free legal advice, representation and dispute-resolution assistance to the poor. He works to educate people about the law, especially women’s rights, and advocates peaceful solutions to disagreements rather than revenge – a vital service in a country where small conflicts often explode into violence.
But he’s taken on much more, too: He helped organize an effort to adopt camp-wide rules aimed at keeping tranquility among residents. He put together a legal rights awareness day. He has trained dozens of volunteers in key positions, such as teachers and heads of sports teams in the camp, to help him spread his messages to the wider community – that women should be treated respectfully, that disputes should be resolved peacefully, that the courts are the way to obtain justice, that he is ready to help.
He monitors customary court proceedings within the camp to make sure punishments honor basic human rights. When it’s needed, he works to transfer cases to statutory courts. He liaises with the camp’s council of elders.
And although his office is closed on weekends, his cell phone is always on. He passes out the number liberally, encouraging people to call anytime he is needed, such as when someone is suicidal or when a dispute over use of the camp’s dirt sports field threatens to turn violent.
“Because the situation inside the camp is difficult,” Gatwech says, “there are many people who need this kind of assistance.”
When Pact opened the office early this year, some people were suspicious of Gatwech’s motives. Slowly and carefully, he won residents’ trust. It has helped that he is one of them; like everyone he serves, Gatwech lives inside POC 3, where he fled last year in fear for his life.
In ways big and small, Gatwech can see the difference that Pact is making. Fights inside the camp are decreasing. More people are coming to him for advice. He has more community volunteers than he can train.
The woman who came to him wanting to die now wants to live.
Case by case, Gatwech says, “I will continue.”
About Access to Justice: With funding from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Pact launched its Access to Justice program in South Sudan in late 2011, shortly after the country’s independence. In addition to legal aid clinics for the poor, the program educates citizens about the law and women’s rights using radio shows, community plays and women’s coffee groups; encourages non-violent dispute resolution; trains community leaders and paralegals to supplement the efforts of the country’s few lawyers; and engages in research that is shared with policy makers and other NGOs. Collectively, these efforts are building the rule of law, stability and peace in South Sudan.
In the past three and a half years, Access to Justice has educated more than 45,000 people about human rights and South Sudan’s laws, and it has provided pro bono legal assistance to more than 900.