Fear and Madness in South Sudan

To travel through southern Sudan is to witness the ravages of war on the towns and especially on the people. The road from the Kenyan border to the town of Bor is long, slow and treacherous. Running parallel to the hidden Nile River, the landscape is one of man-made destruction set against natural beauty. Bridges have been turned into masses of snarled metal, and the roadside is littered with the remains of dozens of vehicles. Just as one starts feeling the relief of knowing that the hellish twelve-hour ride is near its end, you encounter charred skeletons and the occasional human skull, strewn about on the burnt-out site of some recent, seemingly futile confrontation. We eventually reached Bor, the frontline of rebel resistance located on the banks of the Nile. Only ten days before, mothers had clutched babies to their breasts and fled into the bush, escaping the wrath of powerful airplanes that made life miserable.

My visits to places like Bor are usually brief, two days to a week or so, but the relief workers stationed here bear the brunt of this chaos. Food monitors, nurses and other field workers in places like Bor face constant danger, if not from lawless soldiers then from the mosquitoes. The latter cannot be discounted. The camp for relief workers in Bor is, by SPLA decree, set up in what used to be a Dutch rice project. The swamp conditions dictate that we can't leave our tents after 6:30 p.m., or be set upon by the aggressive malarial creatures, still there in the morning to harass you incessantly until around 10-11am. In the meantime relief workers are being hassled and bullied, and are having a hard time keeping the food inside the storehouses until they can distribute it to needy villagers and displaced people.

The level of dysfunction we found surrounding the United Nations' Operation Lifeline there was disheartening. I faced an ethical dilemma. Our organization is assisting, and I was only allowed access based on that contingency. It would be extremely awkward for me to walk into the office of Lifeline coordinator Rolf Huss in Nairobi, and ask, what happened to that 800 tons of food that was stolen from the storehouses in Torit, or the stolen solar panel found powering the rebels’ radio? Or the missing petrol . . . This could jeopardize our organization's relationship with WFP, which however imperfect, is bringing relief to thousands of people who have been displaced, sickened, made hungry and left disillusioned by the unfulfilled promise of the revolution in southern Sudan. Just as problematic, how do we tell our fundraisers that we are inadvertently supporting the SPLA rebels, who have turned the mosque in Bor into a site for an anti-aircraft machine gun, positioned on the roof, facing north towards Khartoum?

The SRRA (Sudanese Rehabilitation and Relief Association), which serves as the civilian administration for the rebel movement, is desperately trying to prime the country for the day when they finish "liberating the oppressed people” of the south. Unprepared and under-funded for the necessary development, they allow agencies like ours in to help. But they can't keep the lid on their own corruption. There are signs around Kapoeta propagandizing the SPLA/SRRA future for south Sudan, with slogans such as "Unity for the Future." Ian Lunt, our intrepid British engineer brought down from northern Sudan to work on upgrading relief roads, could only comment dryly, "That's a joke."

There wasn’t much funny about Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army Commander Mark, who refers to the conflict as a terrible but inevitable war. "That's Commander Mark, not Deutsch Mark," he boomed inside his Bor office. Laughing heartily in his pressed uniform, he watched through a glassless window as hundreds of poorly dressed, underfed young men carried everything they owned on their heads. They were leaving wives, children and livestock behind for what a strapping Dinka rebel told us was a three-week trek to refugee camps in Ethiopia. We thought it more likely that they were forcing these guys into the army, for the rumored assault on Juba, the central government's last southern stronghold. "They've been given enough food for the 21-day walk, and when they reach Pibor (at the border), the authorities will give them more," another soldier explained. No one wanted to challenge this man, who we knew only as "Dudu." Quick to anger, Dudu shifted his AK-47 ominously when a point needed to be made to a careless relief worker. Our veterinarian friend from Argentina, who staggered around in a malaria-induced fog wearing surfing trunks and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, found this out when he demanded the return of some stolen property. He lost his temper when they laughed at him, but was faced down by Dudu's big gun and red eyes . . .

A group of healthier-looking young men carrying heavy sacks of maize were heading toward the sound of drums beating somewhere in the distance. Our corps of relief workers didn’t get invited to the rebel party that was said to be going on. The mosquito-bitten, skin-headed British food monitor was certain the supplies been misappropriated from Operation Lifeline. The $3,000 good faith donation of medicines made by InterAid to the SRRA upon entering the liberated region was also going directly "to the war machine," it was later confided to me.

So what are they fighting for? The SPLA have legitimate claims. The Arab leaders from the north are imposing their Muslim beliefs on the animist and Christian southerners. Sheria law forbids alcohol (thus bootlegging is big in Sudan), and the hands of thieves are cut off, to mention two common complaints. But look deeper, and it becomes a struggle for control of the natural resources, including oil, and the autonomy and sovereignty of the black, sub-Saharan peoples.

If the politically concerned approach is too complex or depressing, one can indulge himself in the "Goddamnit them Africans is in one hell of a mess!" tact favored by our American pilot. A hell of a job it is, flying the "forklift," as the UN plane that hops from town to town in the south ferrying materials and personnel is called. The forklift is a strictly utilitarian machine, excessively loud, and none too fast. Perhaps out of fear that it won't restart, he never turns his engines off unless it's an absolute necessity. Alas, our friendly pilot cannot see fit to wait even five minutes for a relief worker who for some reason is not at the airstrip at the designated time. "Nope, she's not here. Let's go!" Never mind that it might have been some exhausted relief agency nurse who was finally getting the hell out of a miserable four-month stint in Kapoeta or Torit, and had a ride to Nairobi waiting for her in Lokichogio. Oddly, he didn't seem concerned about any split-second scheduling when we took off from Nimule's heavily fortified grass airstrip. "You want to see some elephants?" His bark was more an insistent plea than invitation. Ignoring our muted response, he shouted, "Well you're going to see plenty! There's a big herd around the Nile." Sure enough, we were treated to a low-flying buzz over the Nile delta, where the forklift's sonic drone terrified the creatures into a mad stampede.

One sweltering morning we visited the Baidit health center, around 20 kilometers from Bor. It is one of the four dispensaries that InterAid is responsible for, placing nurses to supervise and train local staff, schedule and implement immunization and feedings, plan workshops and conduct nutritional surveys.

The atmosphere at the health center was subdued and tense. Because of the recent fighting, the local doctor explained, there were not many people around. So few that the feeding program had come to a complete, temporary halt. Shipments of relief food and medicine had been lost or delayed. The doctor, Paul Maka Makuac, seemed affected by the stress almost to the point of madness. His moods alternated between friendly accommodation and sudden hostility. When he spoke of the plight of his people, and the lack of medicines available to treat even the simplest of illnesses, he would fly into a rage, shaking with frustration and shame at his inability to deal with the crisis. He once berated me for making photographs, shouting angrily, "You see with your own eyes the situation of the people here!"

There weren't many people at the dispensary to receive their immunizations. One nurse explained, "As with the feeding program, the EPI (Extended Program for Immunization) also suffers whenever there is a military maneuver. Only it's worse with the EPI, because it is crucial that we keep track of these children. Most of the injections they receive need to be repeated periodically over a period of a few months. If we immunize a child once for polio, then he disappears into the bush, we can't give him the follow-up injection. But they'll come back," he said optimistically. "Sometimes it takes one or two weeks."

Nevertheless, the mobile immunization team went about their business that day in Baidit, vaccinating perhaps a dozen or so mothers and children in the decrepit, sparse facility. Kuei Malou brought her nine-month-old daughter for immunizations, walking to the dispensary from two miles away. Looking deeply depressed and far older than her twenty years, she proceeded zombie-like through the motions of having her baby Akom orally administered a polio vaccine, and showed little reaction when she herself was injected in the arm with a tetanus toxoid vaccine. When asked, Kuei Malou explained that although she hadn't been turned a Christian by the missionaries, and still followed traditional Dinka beliefs, she was glad for the opportunity to immunize her children from the measles and diphtheria that were killing people. "I was told that this immunization was protecting. I like my children to be immunized," she said without expression, through an interpreter.

Greed, exploitation, power, racism. The world here seems insane, and one can't help but view these events with a jaundiced eye. It is unspeakably sad for the victims: the innocents, the peasants, the children and the elderly; non-political villagers who could care less who their leaders are, as long as they are left in peace to carry on simple lives.