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NZDF Officer Serving in Famine-Hit South Sudan

Major Kevin Williams (second from left) after a meeting with government and military officials in Tonga, a town in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, where people are surviving on fish and whatever wild herbs and leaves they can find.
 Major Kevin Williams (second from left) after a meeting with government and military officials in Tonga, a town in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, where people are surviving on fish and whatever wild herbs and leaves they can find.

25 July 2017

An officer from the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) is working near the epicentre of famine in war-torn South Sudan, helping negotiate with government and rebel forces for humanitarian workers to have unrestricted access to provide aid.

Major Kevin Williams, a Military Liaison Officer for the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), said the delivery of life-saving aid had been hampered by continued fighting and this became even more difficult during the rainy season, which was from late June until October or November.

“Famine had been declared in parts of South Sudan in February, and this could spread across the country unless food and other vital supplies reach those in need,” he said.

More than three years of civil war, compounded by a drought last year, have taken a devastating toll on the world’s youngest nation. The UN estimates that about 100,000 people are starving in the famine’s epicentre in Unity state in the northern-central part of South Sudan, with another 5.5 million in other areas on the brink of famine and more than one million children are acutely malnourished.

The UN has appealed for urgent humanitarian assistance to stem the “escalating catastrophe” because people who are having to move constantly to escape the violence are unable to plant or harvest crops.

Major Williams forms part of a UN liaison team of 29 officers from 20 countries based in Malakal, in Upper Nile state, in the north-eastern part of South Sudan. Malakal is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since South Sudan plunged into civil war in December 2013 and is one of the regions hit by critical food shortages.

During a recent visit to Tonga, a town in the northern Upper Nile state, Major Williams said he saw people surviving on fish and whatever wild herbs and leaves they could find. 

“People’s livelihoods have been destroyed. They’ve got no money and have barely enough to eat,” he said.

“It was the first time UN representatives had been to the village after clashes broke out more than six months ago. Hopefully, humanitarian workers will be able to resume delivering aid now that we have shown that the area is safe to visit.”

More than two million South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries since the civil war erupted, while more than 200,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have sought refuge in the UN’s six protection of civilians (POC) sites across the country.

As part of his role, Major Williams recently escorted UN staff on an investigation outside the POC site on the outskirts of Malakal, which is home to more than 30,000 people.

“The POC sites are crowded and sanitation conditions are poor. But they provide shelter and protection to thousands of IDPs who may otherwise be caught in the crossfire or suffer from famine,” he said.

Growing up in Clevedon in Auckland, Major Williams had set his sights on a military career since he was in primary school.

“The Army has been a constant influence since my childhood,” he said. “One of my Scout leaders was a Vietnam War veteran and I grew up near Papakura Military Camp, so I saw soldiers training or driving around all the time.”

After completing his studies at Auckland Grammar School in 1994, he had planned to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), having been won over by its “the sky is the limit” recruitment campaign.

“However, when I went to the recruiting office the RNZAF recruiter was out for lunch and only the Army recruiter was there.”

He enlisted in the New Zealand Army as a Territorial Force soldier in 1995, and transferred to the Regular Force two years later.

A member of the Royal New Zealand Armoured Corps, he deployed previously to Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and the Sinai Peninsula. He was second in command of the Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles before he was posted to South Sudan in March.

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