• Young women in a village in South Sudan. (SBS Dateline)
Can one Australian woman make a difference in South Sudan’s brutal civil war? We meet the frontline aid worker who ‘thinks like a General’, in order to save lives.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018 - 21:30

''Machiavellian" is probably not a word many humanitarians would embrace, but Dorsa Nazemi-Salman says she's learnt valuable lessons from the Renaissance diplomat, whose name is a byword for treachery and cunning.

They're lessons she applies every day in her work for the International Committee of the Red Cross in South Sudan, where a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince sits at her bedside.

This 38-year-old humanitarian from Perth isn't plotting any cynical or unscrupulous power plays, but she needs to get inside the heads of those who might be. Otherwise, she says, she can't manoeuvre her team safely around the frontlines of South Sudan's brutal, unpredictable civil war, trying to save lives.

"Machiavelli's insight into how a leader should possess or manage his state is all about the balance of power and influence … And in many ways a humanitarian's world is also about power and influence. I don't have power, but the authorities do. I have influence ... so how do I bring these two together?"

South Sudan is not for the faint-hearted – and neither is the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC. Fortunately for both, as I discovered during the fortnight I spent shadowing her for Dateline, Dorsa is anything but.

Growing up in Iran, she was the only girl playing street soccer in her neighbourhood. She was 17 when she arrived in Australia, speaking no English, but quickly caught up, eventually landing a job with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra.

Six years ago, to her mother's chagrin, she exchanged office finery for the more practical attire of an ICRC field delegate in Uzbekistan - and hasn't looked back since.

One of Dorsa's colleagues told me: "It's in our DNA to go anywhere, any time", and her CV is certainly proof of this. The ICRC operates in 80 different conflict zones around the world, and Dorsa arrived in South Sudan last year after postings that included Afghanistan and Nigeria.

South Sudan was supposed to be a good news story for humanitarians, but that's not how things have worked out. The world's newest nation, in 2011 it celebrated its independence from Khartoum after decades of civil war, thanks in part to a tireless campaign by sympathetic Western activists, including actor George Clooney.

US president George W. Bush had been happy to support the struggle of the beleaguered Christian south against the Muslim north – and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is rarely seen without the stetson he was given by his Texan patron.

At the end of 2013, South Sudan was plunged into its own civil war, after a power struggle between Kiir and his vice-president exploded into a bloody tribal conflict.

Since then, things have gone from terrible to catastrophic. Fighting has engulfed the whole country, and the original battlelines and alliances have splintered, with dozens of armed groups battling one another for power, territory and sometimes just cattle.

United Nations reports on South Sudan are a litany of heart-breaking statistics. A third of the population has been displaced internally or is living in refugee camps outside the country. Forty-five per cent of those who remain need humanitarian assistance; 1.5 million people are on the brink of famine.

This is where Dorsa has chosen to work. It's a decision that weighs heavily on her family, for whom one particularly scary statistic stands out – South Sudan is now the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarian workers. Twenty-eight were killed there last year, including a Red Cross driver.

Dorsa's colleagues planted a guava tree in the driver's memory in the fortified compound that's now her home. She's the Red Cross sub-delegate responsible for what was the state of Jonglei (both the government and the rebels have redrawn state boundaries, so the ICRC work with the old divisions), one of the most volatile regions in South Sudan.

Outside of Jonglei's capital, Bor, there's no phone signal and no roads. Dorsa and her staff travel everywhere by air, and in the wet season they're sometimes stranded at muddy landing strips. In Bor, the Red Cross compound needs to be self-sufficient; there's no mains electricity or running water in town.

"I've been in some remote places but … we're the only four-storey building in town and we're surrounded by mud huts. It's completely dark at night."

Even with an 8pm curfew, barricaded behind walls topped with razor wire, Dorsa knows they're never truly safe. In 2016, aid workers at a residential compound in the capital, Juba, were raped by marauding government soldiers. Last year, three NGO compounds in Bor were attacked and robbed. Dorsa is responsible for the dozen or so staff sleeping under her roof, and she wakes in the middle of every night to check in with the security guards.

"It is a huge burden on your shoulder and it keeps you - well, it certainly keeps me awake at night. I have learned to survive on very little sleep."

Dorsa and her colleagues need to take risks that others don't, because of the unique mandate of the ICRC – helping victims of armed conflict. It doesn't matter if they're civilians or soldiers, and it certainly doesn't matter what side they're from. The basic template for the ICRC was set during its origin story.

When Swiss businessman Henri Dunant witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1859, he was horrified by the suffering of wounded soldiers left on the battlefield. He organised a massive relief effort by talking the local population into caring for the casualties of both sides, without discrimination.

The book he later wrote about this experience called for the formation of voluntary national relief organisations to nurse wounded soldiers, and advocated international treaties to guarantee the neutrality and protection of both the wounded and medics. Soon after, the ICRC was born – along with its crucial role as guardian of international humanitarian law.

More than 150 years and three Nobel peace prizes later, in a world where warfare between states has largely been supplanted by fighting that involves so-called "non-state actors" (there are 6000 different armed groups in Syria alone), there's never been a greater need for a neutral, independent and impartial player on the frontlines.

In Jonglei, that would be Dorsa - although on a hot, cloudless morning in early December, her own greatest need is caffeine. She's trying to balance two coffee plungers as she gingerly climbs aboard an ICRC boat on the Bahr al-Zaraf, a tributary of the White Nile. It's going to be a three-hour trip downriver to the town of New Fangak, where Dorsa has an appointment with the rebel governor of this region.

Getting to know civilian and military leaders from all sides of the conflict is the groundwork for much of what Dorsa does. As one of her colleagues told me, "we cultivate a relationship with weapon bearers".

Trust is in short supply during a civil war, but nothing here is possible without it – and it's what keeps her safe in a country where, as Dorsa says, "you'd be quite naive to think that danger is not around the corner". In many parts of the world this means dealing with people we might think of as "the bad guys" – al-Qaeda, Islamic State, al-Shabab. But the ICRC doesn't see "bad guys" or "good guys", it sees people with power and influence who control access to people who need help, whether they're wounded, imprisoned, starving or in danger.

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


How an Australian saves lives and influences people in South Sudan
How did a 38-year-old from Perth end up on the frontlines of South Sudan's civil war?
Sudanese youth are frequently maligned by fear-mongering and racism
For young people with South Sudanese heritage, racism is one of the key causes of early school-leaving and dropout.
South Sudan's famine is the fallout from a spiralling ethnic war
The famine is South Sudan is not some random calamity, but the man-made consequences of disastrous internal conflict.
Is the famine in South Sudan man-made?
How South Sudan's warlords triggered extreme hunger in a land of plenty.
How can you solve a problem like South Sudan's civil war?
The South Sudanese conflict is complex, but dialogue between warring parties and the right kind of international intervention would be a step towards resolving it.


Reporter / Camera: Amos Roberts

Story Producer / Second Camera: Calliste Weitenberg

Associate Producer: Hannah Berzins

Editor: Micah McGown


SISTER:  Hi. Hi everyone. Hello dad.

BENHAM NAZEMI:  Hello baba.

In suburban Perth, three generations of the Nazemi family are getting together for a summer barbecue.

BENHAM NAZEMI:  It is hot, I will give it to you.

BROTHER: This dish is called a chicken kebab. It is very native and quite a popular Persian dish.

But not everyone is here today to enjoy the feast. A beloved daughter is missing.

BENHAM NAZEMI:  Dorsa, missed a lot of the time of the family, and she loved my kebabs. Ready.

SISTER:  She misses every day stuff.

They miss her affection and good natured bossiness. And they will never get used to the fact she chooses to work in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

FARAH NAZEMI:  Every night Dorsa comes into my mind. Is she safe, is she okay? It’s not easy, knowing your child is in a war zone.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN, ICRC HEAD OF OPERATIONS - JONGLEI:  My mum would be very happy that even in the middle of the bush I’m applying mascara. It's the only thing she’d be happy about.

MAN:  Anyone who has one or two cards, bring them.

It is a long way from Perth, to this hot and dusty airstrip in South Sudan.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Hi this is Dorsa. You sent an email regarding the evacuations from Motot for tomorrow? OK. One crisis managed.

Dorsa has one of the toughest gigs you can imagine.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Where we going?

Running operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the state of Jonglei…at the heart of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Now I just got approval that we can go to where there was a tribal attack, where people had lost their belongs, people were killed and wounded.

REPORTER:  Meanwhile in the background?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Meanwhile in the background we are at an airdrop distribution point in the middle of nowhere, where we provide food from the air.

MAN:  To control, I am clearing the aircraft for the first drop? Any issues from this side?

PIOLOT: I think it’s okay.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  You drop a pin anywhere on the map of South Sudan and there are needs. It is a huge burden on your shoulder and it keeps you, certainly keeps me wake at night.

MAN:  Red 917 you’re clear to drop.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Excellent drop, gentlemen. Excellent drop.

REPORTER:  Why are you actually dropping food here?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  This is a country that is currently going through a protracted war, there is civil war, there is communal clashes, people cannot stay in one place to cultivate, so you have humanitarian aid, to try to bridge the gap.

South Sudan's vicious Civil War has driven millions to flee the country. Millions more are at risk of starvation, without foreign aid like this. Not many of us would make the sacrifices necessary to do this job but Dorsa insists she is no hero.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  When they say oh you're a humanitarian and you must be a saint or you are saving people from death, and then, they put you on a pedestal, we're none of that. This is bigger than you, it is much bigger than you.

For the past six months, this has been Dorsa 's home, a fortified compound in the town of Bor. There is a strict 8pm curfew but even here you are not 100% safe. Just a few weeks ago, three other MGO compounds in town were attacked and robbed.

REPORTER:  You do like cooking?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Yes. It's the only time that my brain does not wander off to work.

Their office is in Jonglei, one of the most volatile regions in South Sudan.

MAN: How's it going?

REPORTER:  Good morning.

That makes it one of the most challenging areas for the Red Cross to operate in.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Security checks need to be done on time. We are going to be on the field more often than not now that the dry season is upon us.

At their morning meeting Dorsa warns her team to expect an increase in hostilities.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN: Just the way that we're busy, the two parties to the armed conflict are also going to be busy, that means that it is even more important that you stay alert, and vigilant and have I made myself understood?  Very good. Have a good day, guys.

The main aim of the international committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC is to help victims of armed conflict. To do this Dorsa has to think like a military commander but at the same time act completely neutral. A skill she honed after postings in Nigeria and Afghanistan.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  I just put myself in the minds of the two parties to the conflict, and try to guess where would be the next possible offensive. Where would the population move to? The minute a clash will happen, they just disperse and that's key, because the minute that they move, that's where we move to assist.  Some people would say that this is military strategy, it's survival by default.

Manoeuvring round South Sudan's war safely is incredibly difficult.

NEWS READ:  In South Sudan where hundreds have been killed in fierce fighting, the violence started Thursday in the capital of Juba.

The country is cracking apart, as fighting engulfs new areas, towns have been burned down and civilians raped and massacred.

CROWD:  South Sudan Republic, yeah!

But this wasn't how the story of South Sudan was supposed to go.

SALVAR KIIR, PRESIDENT OF SOUTH SUDAN:  As the President of South Sudan I shall be faithful. We’ll never allow political power to be transferred through violence.

The world's newest nation was born to great fanfare, just eight years ago. After a long, bloody struggle to split from Sudan. But a bitter rivalry quickly developed between the new President, and his Vice President.

VICE PRESIDENT:  We have declared his regime illegitimate.

They splintered the country along ethnic lines, Dinka versus Nuer…

NEWS READER: There are dead bodies on the street. Some of them look like look they have been here for days.

MAN:  They are targeting Nuer… if you are speaking Nuer language you will being targeted….government forces.

REPORTER:  How did it all go so wrong, so fast?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:   When certainly people cannot agree on way forward, it creates doubt, it creates distrust, and when there is no trust, there is no dialogue then things fall apart.

Dorsa is trying to help the people caught up in this war, to do that she has to negotiate with all sides, so local knowledge and connections go a long way.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  In the context of the northern part, what we call the opposition controlled areas it is very useful to have someone who is from that area, because I'm a white girl from Australia, who would not understand the nuances.

Today, as she heads into rebel territory she is taking a trusted guide.

RUACH GATBEL, GUIDE:  You can call me, I’m about to get on the plane.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  We are ready to go.

Ruach Gatbel is Nuer and this war is personal. His mother and daughter live close to the front line. But years of working for the ICRC have taught him to think beyond his tribe.

RUACH GATBEL: In the heart of humanitarian, although your family members are affected by war, you need to remain as humanitarian workers, whereby you can be neutral any time.

We are heading to a town where Dorsa and Ruach hope to help people who have lost limbs as a result of the war.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Welcome to Old Fangak. The rainy season, we could not even walk down here because all mud would get stuck to our boots.

They want to bring a mobile prosthetics unit from the capital because in rebel areas like this, amputees are often afraid to travel into enemy territory to get help. But Dorsa will need the local Governor to guarantee the safety of workers from the capital. Trust is in short supply during a Civil War. It won't be easy.  

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  I got coffee! Coffee! If I fall, forget about me, but the coffee cannot be wasted. There we go. Put your camera down I have brought you a little coffee.

Dorsa's job often takes her close to the front lines and when it does, she has to let both sides know what she's doing.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  It is essential because with this context you never know when the first bullet is going to be shot, so you have to make sure that they know we're coming. You would be quite naive to think that the danger is not around the corner.

According to the UN South Sudan is the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers. 28 were killed just last year including an ICRC driver. That is one reason why diplomacy is a big part of Dorsa's job.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Hello. How are you? How are you. Good to see you.

Terrible atrocities have been committed by all sides of this conflict. But she is not here to judge them.

GOVERNOR:  How are you?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Dorsa, pleased to meet you.

There are amputees who may not get the prosthetics they need unless Dorsa can get the Governor Kuol Wai’s cooperation, this is the first time they have met.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  I want to gauge your interest if we were to create a mobile service, in opposition controlled area, such as Old Fangkak, how would the security of these technical staff that work for the authorities on the other side be guaranteed by the authorities on the other side. We need to make sure they are not going to be arrested or harmed, or so on, so forth, if you catch my drift.

GOVERNOR:  It is a good program for us because even in New Fangkak now there are some wounded who are looking for how they can actually manage to get artificial legs. Now bringing technicians from Juba, can we trust them? That will be the question. Yeah. We cannot trust them.

It sounds like a no, but Dorsa's not deterred.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  It's open to discussion. When you drop an idea like this on anybody's table, you need to give them time to digest it.

For now, without trust between the two sides, the rebels can't accept much-needed help for their own people.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Civilians are the number one priority.

It is only the reputation of the ICRC that keeps the option on the table.

REPORTER:  You obviously know that they are sitting down and talking to all sides in this conflict, to people that you consider to be your enemy, why do you trust them?

GOVERNOR: I know ICRC are neutral, they are neutral and they have no problem with anyone in South Sudan. And that's why we trust them.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Thank you so much. It was a pleasure meeting you.

REPORTER:  Is it hard being friendly to people who might be responsible for doing unspeakable things?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  If I let my personal feelings about the person who is sitting in front of me get in the way of me having an objective view of what I'm trying to achieve...

REPORTER:  I am not asking about letting them get in the way, but do you have those feelings?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be human but would I let that cloud my judgment, I cannot afford that because they will sense it. It is, neutrality is not just me or confidentiality is not just the say, Amos, it is living it.

The ICRC's neutrality is key to everything Dorsa does. She might not be publicly critical, the way some other aid workers can be but she is trusted. That is what gives her access and influence. And when the shit hits the fan these are the things that help her save lives.


DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Super tired but satisfied.  Seven people wounded. Where are these wounded?

The next morning several lives hang in the balance.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  OK, do you know if these seven, are their injuries severe or not?

A government offensive has left three dead, and seven wounded. They don't know if the casualties are soldiers or civilians.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Bye, bye. So they moved out of the garrison?

RUACH GATBEL:  This is where my mother is.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  This is where your mum is, and your daughter?


DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  I will send a message now.

Dorsa needs to evacuate the wounded as soon as possible.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  They just arrived. Two wounded.

Which means getting them somewhere safe for a helicopter to pick them up.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Listen, I am going to put my guide on the phone you can explain better. OK.

RUACH GATBEL (Translation):  Where did our families run to? To Motot or somewhere else?

REPORTER:  Has stuff like this happened with you before, where your family has been in danger?


REPORTER:  This is the first time?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Our staff are also victims of this war, and this protracted war, I mean, look at him now. –

RUACH GATBEL (Translation):  The two patients you’ve received… tell me their names and the type of wounds.

The news just gets worse.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN: The boss is online.

There are children among the casualties.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Number one is ten years old. What is her or he or she?

RUACH GATBEL: It's a he.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Poor little boy, what's his name?


Gatwec has two gunshot wounds to his left leg. Dorsa knows he will be lucky to keep it.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  I was just watching him to see if one of these names was going to create a reaction, and then I would have to step in, so I'm just glad that none of those names matched his family members. So... I am very happy that Ruach’s family is safe and sound.

We had to rush to make our flight back to Bor at the same time Dorsa arranges for the seven wounded to be evacuated. They will be flown to a mobile surgical team for emergency care.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN: I cannot multitask! Alright... Seven weapon wounded arrived in Motot this morning, just about two hours ago, out of the seven, two are children.

With any luck, Ruach and Dorsa will have helped save seven lives today.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN: It's a world of contradictions in South Sudan. One minute you feel peace and beauty and the next minute you have to deal with communities fighting and people dying. If you come to South Sudan, you will not leave South Sudan as the same person.  Namaste.

REPORTER:  Do you tell your parents everything that happens out here?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN: No. I think I tried on my first mission, I was just explaining one of my experiences of a visiting a place of detention. My mum told me no, you need to stop and my dad just looked at me like I was an alien.  Hello!

DAD (Translation): Is it hot over there at the moment?

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  No, it's winter, that's why I'm wearing a shirt like this. Of course it's hot! It's dry and hot!

FARAH NAZEMI:  She never talks about her jobs.

BENHAM NAZEMI:  But we see the news. We know the news. But she never says because she does not want us to get worried.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  The biggest news is that Aria caught a frog in the backyard. You are a very busy family!

Dorsa's has always been good under pressure. Arriving in Australia from Iran at the age of 17 she spoke no English but within a few years landed a top government job.

FARAH NAZEMI:  She was working for the Prime Minister's this and that's a wonderful job. And she came and stayed there and wore a very nice dress, make-up and everything, but she said one day, no, this is not my job. I want to go and help those people who need me. Those people, they don't need me. This is Dorsa.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  OK, I have to go, I will speak to you guys later this week. I love you. I love you. Remember how to do this?

FARAH NAZEMI: I think my god, I did a good job with Dorsa. I'm really proud.

There is no end in sight for this Civil War. A ceasefire agreement was signed in December that was broken less than 48 hours later. In a protracted conflict like this, it's sometimes hard to see how humanitarians can make a difference. But I tag along with Dorsa as she visits a mobile surgical team who'd managed to save at least one young life.

Akobo is a small town on the Ethiopian border and this is where the children Dorsa evacuated were brought just the other day.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  How many patients do we have here now? 55. So this is the child that was brought in from Motot? What happened to him, he got multiple shots, no?

MOTHER (Translation):  He was shot twice in the leg and twice in the arm. When he was wounded he crawled into the house. When I shone a torch on him, I saw he was injured. When I saw his wounds I thought he was already dead. My heart was racing.

They carried him for hours on a makeshift stretcher before reaching help.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  So it was a fracture, no? But he's going to keep his leg, right?


DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  Lyon so I'm really glad that you're alive. Very glad. You will need further surgery.

REPORTER:  I've asked Dorsa to let me know how it all goes.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:  I was really worried because I'd heard he had multiple gunshot wounds and I did not think he was going to make it. So for him to be here safely with his family, with his mother and yes he is in a lot of pain but the fact he's alive it makes all the effort is that we had to put through to put him on a plane and bring them here that little bit, it makes it worthwhile, that's for sure.

The UN says more than 2300 children have been killed or injured since the war began. In total between 50 to 300,000 people have died in this conflict. It could easily be cause for despair but the fact that everyone here will live gives Dorsa hope.

DORSA NAZEMI-SALMAN:   How is your leg? Be nice to the team here, all right? You can see that in the most bleak and sometimes forgotten places in the world that there is a way that you can make a difference. I am critical of many things but at the end of the day I think we make more magic happen than not.  And that's good enough for me.


reporter + camera

amos roberts


story producer + second camera

calliste weitenberg


associate producer

hannah berzins


story editor

micah mcgown



isaac t moses


original music

vicki hansen

27th February 2018