Sunday, March 4, 2012

My Trip to South Sudan, Part 1: "During the war"

Note: The disclaimer to the right applies to this post, only more so. This is my personal blog, and these are my personal reflections on my trip to South Sudan with the organization I work for, Christian Solidarity International, and nothing more.

“You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
“You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
“You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.”

- Psalm 44:10-12

During the war, Akuei says, children had to stop sleeping outside and start sleeping in the tikulas, the huts on stilts that normally serve as storage space. Dead human bodies had become so plentiful that the hyenas had lost their fear of humans, and started trying to eat the children they found sleeping outside. The lions and elephants all left during the war; the hyenas grew in number.

To this day, Akuei says, if you shoot a gun into the air, all the hyenas in the area will come running, eager to feast on the flesh of the person who’s just been killed.

“During the war” is a phrase you will hear over and over again in South Sudan. It is the universal tragedy, twenty-three years of hell that everyone in the country experienced. About ten million people live in South Sudan. Two and a half million South Sudanese were killed in the war.

Gabriel, the young, skinny, overly-cheerful man I sit next to on the tiny Cessna flight from our compound in North Bahr el-Ghazal State back to Juba, tells me he is thirty-two years old. He was three years old when the war started. He was a soldier, he tells me proudly. Everyone fought during the war. If a family had four sons, three of them joined the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Moreover, his father gave his life valiantly on the front lines.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “How is the rest of your family?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are they all safe?”

“No, of course not. My mother was killed as well.”

Sudan’s very name embodies its contradictions. “Al-Sudan” literally means “the land of the blacks.” Of course, it means “land of the blacks” in Arabic, and Arabs do not usually think of themselves as black.

During the period of Islamic expansionism, the region that is now North Sudan became almost completely Islamicized, and, to a lesser degree, Arabized. Nearly all the tribes converted to Islam, and Egyptian Arab settlers ruled from the central city of Khartoum.

South Sudan, on the other hand, remained outside of Islam’s zone of influence. Political structures remained tribal, religion remained animist or Christian, and economics remained cow-centered. (Seriously. The creation story of the southern Dinka tribe revolves around a dispute over a particularly beautiful cow. It’s a big deal.)

The division between Sudan’s two halves is startlingly evident in satellite photographs of the country. North Sudan is almost completely desert. South Sudan is lush and green. This is not one country, but two.

The division was only reinforced during the British colonial period, when North Sudan was administered by Egyptian Arabs (Egypt was itself a British colony at this time), and South Sudan was run by British administrators who deliberately discouraged Islam and Arabic and promoted the spread of Christianity and English, in order to create a Christian buffer region between the Islamic world and British colonies in East Africa.

The British turned this policy of separate development on its head in 1946, when they decided that all of Sudan, north and south, would be turned over to the Arab rulers in Khartoum post-colonization. Whatever the motives for this reversal, it meant that Sudan was a country virtually born into civil war.

The first civil war lasted from Sudan’s independence in 1956 until a peace treaty in 1972 granted the South autonomy in its own affairs while retaining it as part of Sudan as a whole. The man who negotiated the treaty, Sudanese President Jafar Numeiri, quickly became an African folk hero. On visits to South Sudan, he was regularly mobbed by throngs of southern admirers chanting in Arabic, “Who is your father? Numeiri! Who is your brother? Numeiri!”

The dream ended after just eleven years. The Middle East was drifting closer to political Islam. The secular Arab nationalists had failed to liberate Palestine, and when the leading Arab state, Egypt, made peace with Israel, its president was assassinated by Islamic radicals. Islamists came to power in a bloody revolution in Iran, and Numeiri himself was nearly overthrown in an Islamist coup. Faced with this growing pressure, Numeiri decided to become more Muslim than the Islamists. In 1983, Numeiri overturned the peace agreement, ended southern autonomy, and introduced the “September Laws” – the imposition of Islamic sharia law throughout all of Sudan, north and south.

Needless to say, the civil war reignited almost immediately.

On January 30, 2012, I step off the plane into the world’s newest country. I follow my first instinct and whip out my camera to take a picture of Juba International Airport. Immediately, an official approaches me and orders me to put my camera away.

Sometimes, I disobey.

The official justification for the photography ban is, of course, security. I’ve encountered similar bans before in Israel, Syria and Egypt. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure the real reason is to avoid embarrassment. Juba International Airport has one arrivals hall, one departure desk, one departure gate, and that’s it. Security consists of shoving all your bags through a non-functional metal detector at the airport entrance, while young men in blue camouflage uniforms (into what environment they are hoping to disappear, I do not know. Hoth? Atlantis?) with machine guns slung over their shoulders mill around the entrance, drinking juice or smoking, and paying little to no attention to the hundreds of potential terrorists pushing past them into the terminal.

If there is one country in the whole world whose people the South Sudanese government would want to be able to visit easily, it’s the U.S. Right? Superpower and aid supplier and all that? The immigration officials at the airport do not recognize the travel permits the South Sudanese Embassy in Washington DC issues as valid. Thankfully, one of our organization’s old contacts, a man I’ll call Malachi, is in Juba, and comes to talk to the immigration officials. Because of this, we are allowed to buy new visas and enter the country. Otherwise, we would have been stranded.

(By the way: “we” is my boss, Dr. John Eibner, the CEO of the USA branch of Christian Solidarity International, Michele, a human trafficking specialist, and me. Later we will be joined by Dr. Eibner’s German partner Gunnar, a journalist and humanitarian named Ellen, and an American businessman.)

Malachi is a gruff, stout man dressed in loose black clothing and sandals. He never seems to smile. He peers at me disapprovingly over the tops of his eyeglasses. “You are too young, I think,” he says.

My boss later tells me that in 1998, Malachi’s young wife was captured by northern slave raiders in an attack on the southern city of Nyamlell. This was one of the biggest slave raids in the entire war. Thousands of people were taken.

As a politically well-connected individual, Malachi was able to use his contacts to find his wife and buy her back.

Malachi’s wife was captured with their three-month-old baby. On the forced march north, the captives were given only what water and food they needed to survive. The raiders had to move the group quickly while in southern territory to escape the SPLA. There was no time to wait for the weak. Their baby died of dehydration on the march north.

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan officially seceded from Sudan and became an independent republic.

When President Bush entered office in 2001, he made peace in Sudan one of his foreign policy priorities. During the 1990s, a powerful movement of Jewish and right-wing Christian groups in the United States had sprung up to support the South Sudanese, and in the days before 9/11, these groups held powerful sway with the new born-again president.

President Bush’s initiative culminated in a second peace agreement between North and South in 2005. This Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) provided for a referendum on independence to be held in the South in 2011. During the intervening six years, the Government of Sudan would have the chance to entice Southerners into remaining a part of unified Sudan, through aid and development projects. (One of the few paved roads in the South is called “Unity Road.”)

The referendum was held on January 9, 2011. It passed with 99% support.

A pro-separation poster in South Sudan.
At the time, I was in Damascus, Syria, working as an English tutor at a youth seminary in the Greek Catholic Patriarchate. The groundskeeper of the Patriarchate was a black South Sudanese man. I told him congratulations. He replied, “We’ll see.”

In fifty years of war, the most the South Sudanese had been able to get from the rulers in Khartoum was limited autonomy, and Khartoum had reneged even on that. Arab nationalism holds that all the land “from the gulf to the [Atlantic] Ocean” – including South Sudan – is eternally Arab. After decades of war, millions of casualties, and billions lost to sanctions and international opprobrium, would the Arabs really just let the oil-rich southern half of Sudan go? As the groundskeeper well knew, this was an open question.

On January 14, 2011, after weeks of street protests, Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first Arab ruler to cede power due to popular pressure since approximately forever. The Arab Spring had begun, and Khartoum, facing homegrown protests from Islamists and already engaged in wars with rebels in Darfur, Beja, Kordofan and Blue Nile State, was in no position to ask for favors from the Arab states.

South Sudan is independent. The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, indicted for genocide and war crimes in Darfur, attended the first flag-raising ceremony in Juba. As one of my colleagues told me, “I can’t hardly believe it.”

Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state is a land seemingly devoid of landmarks or reference points. Unlike Juba, where rocky cliffs rise up above the capital, the borderlands are completely flat. In the dry season, there are no rivers and no lakes. Trees are scattered across the land in ones, groves and forests, distributed according to some random fractal algorithm. In no place is it possible to see into the distance – it’s blocked by trees and the curvature of the earth. This is the land of nightmares. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. You know how in the dreams where you’re being chased by monsters, you always seem to be in a place where you have no idea where you’re going, or how far behind you the monsters are? That place is Northern Bahr el-Ghazal.

Warfare here must have been horrifying. Enemy forces, on foot or horseback, could approach through the forests completely undetected. Their targets would have no warning before the assault. There are no ridges or passes to defend, no bridges to control. There are simply the villages. Northern Bahr el-Ghazal is right on the border with Arab Sudan.

We get to NBG (as I’ll call it from now on) the only way we can – by booking flights on UN airplanes that fly to dirt-paved airstrips across Sudan and South Sudan. The first flight we take is on a plane slightly smaller than a standard 747. The second flight is on a Cessna, and we have to spread out so that our body weight isn’t unbalanced. Through the plane windows, I watch the vast, mind-bending expanse of NBG unfold beneath us.

There is no electricity in NBG. There is no running water. There is no internet.  There are no phonelines. The only roads are dirt, and most of them are so serpentine and bumpy that we can only crawl along at 15 mph in our Land Cruisers.

A few years ago, the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) built elevated, level, straight dirt roads across NBG state to connect the main towns. They never got around to paving them, or even sealing them properly. Today, erosion has so badly damaged these roads that they are impassable, and people drive on ad hoc dirt places running alongside them.

What’s more, these roads were built without the necessary drainage systems. In the summer of 2010, the annual rains accumulated on one side of the useless road, resulting in massive flooding that displaced over ten thousand people.

Welcome to free South Sudan.

We stay at the compound of Dr. Luka, a physician who works for Christian Solidarity International and runs a free clinic in NBG – the only such clinic for one hundred and fifty miles. By “compound,” I mean a collection of mud huts with thatched roofs, two latrines, and a well, all surrounded by a fence woven from the dry grasses of NBG. For the duration of our stay, we will sleep in tents and eat one meal a day. (Don’t worry, the meals are very good – rice, a rubbery bread called keeshra, pumpkin sauce, goat meat, Ugandan beer.)

Dr. Luka's compound.

On our first full day in NBG, we pile into a Land Cruiser with our translator, Akuei (one of my new personal heroes) and make the twenty-mile, hour-long trip to Mabok, a tiny village in eastern NBG state.

We park across a large field from a primitive church building and a sprawling fruit tree. Seated under the tree are over two hundred men, women and children, arranged by gender.

Ten days ago, all of these people were in slavery.

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