Reflections on Cairo’s Weeks of Protest

It’s been some time, I know. I won’t get into explanations now but suffice it to say it’s been a very productive few months during which my energies were focused on issues outside of actual picture taking. I’ve been writing a lot, reflecting on South Sudan and what it meant and focusing on what lies ahead. Perhaps most importantly, I have been reconnecting with my family and friends after several years away. I will soon be settled in Nairobi where I’ll be based for the foreseeable future. I look forward to sharing thoughts and reflections on the issues I intend to explore from there.

For the moment I am in Cairo covering this period of unrest surrounding the draft constitution. Below is a short piece in which I share a few photos and some reflections of what the week has been like. More soon.

Muller/Prime Egypt Protest Soundslide from Pete Muller on Vimeo.

Thoughts on the Genocide Discussion

Insurgencies, and operations to suppress them, are invariably horrific. They are especially so in a rogue state like Sudan where the government thinks little of banning journalists, aid workers and other potentially mitigating watchdogs. The insurgencies underway in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states are fueled, like so many before them, by discrimination, marginalization and intolerance on the part of the government in Khartoum. It has long been a fatal flaw of the Sudanese state that its government, seated in the northern city of Khartoum and ruled by the chauvinistic National Congress Party (NCP), refuses to embrace the country’s vast racial, religious and ethnic diversity. This dynamic was the crux of most Sudanese conflicts throughout the 20th century and underlay the country’s partition in the 21st.

Between 2009 and 2012, I lived in South Sudan where I worked to document the Republic’s tense and precarious transition to independence. During my time there, I made numerous trips to border regions where I observed various aspects of the conflicts in question. As is the case in most insurgencies, there is a notable power disparity between insurgent elements, in this case the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), and their counter-insurgent foes in the Sudan Armed Forces. The latter controls the air space and uses that advantage to carry out wildly inaccurate, albeit regular and frightening, aerial assaults on rebel territory. Through its ability to regulate legal access, the government is also able to severely limit humanitarian assistance. The rebels, who are in and of the people, exploit the asymmetric nature of the fight by controlling the hinterlands, staging hit-and-run ambushes and fighting elusively. In this regard, the dynamics on the ground are typical of insurgencies.

Where things get complicated is the broader context in which these battles occur. Following the secession of the South in 2011, the populations in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, elements of which have been mobilized against Khartoum for decades, found themselves in a precarious and frustrating position: isolated from their former southern allies and under the enduringly harsh rule of the NCP. They fight with the stated hope of toppling the NCP and transforming government institutions in ways that will reflect the country’s diverse population. “We want to build a system in which citizenship, not ethnicity, is the basis for inclusion,” Malik Agar, the SPLA-N commander in Blue Nile State, told me during a tour of the battlefield. To achieve this goal, the rebellions in both Blue Nile and South Kordofan commenced and grew, as did the government’s heavy-handed response. The intensification of fighting led to a mass exodus of civilians and a dire humanitarian emergency in refugee camps along the southern side of the new border.

While Sudanese President Omar Bashir is not a character worthy of sympathy, he too faces a set of challenges. To the chagrin of many hardliners within his party, he accepted the 2011 secession of South Sudan — a bitter and economically devastating blow to northern morale. With the South went 80 percent of Sudan’s oil resources, a vital pillar for the North’s fledgling economy. Despite deadly clashes along the border in April, Sudan has, for the most part, allowed southern secession without initiating a return to large-scale conventional war. In the wake of southern independence, across the border of a vastly truncated Sudan, Bashir and the NCP faced multiple, increasingly coordinated insurgencies South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, all boasting interest in regime change. While decades of oppression motivate the rebellions and garner sympathy from democratic allies, it is unrealistic to think that the regime would allow them to pass unchallenged, particularly during this transitional and uncertain period.

Despite these complex dimensions, there is a growing discussion in which Khatroum’s egregious counter-insurgency measures are presented to the public in a vacuum. In a June 6th, op-ed entitled “We must act now to stop Sudan’s genocide of the Nuba people,” which appeared in the British daily, The Guardian, Dr. Giles Fraser, writes that the “aim [of Khartoum’s current military campaign] is annihilation [of the Nuba people].” Fraser proceeds to vaguely reference the brutality of Khartoum’s actions in South Kordofan without once noting the SPLA-N insurgents, whose operations and intentions constitute the other half of the equation. Such simple and polemical cases, while convenient, not only obfuscate the political complexities of the situation; they disrespect the proud rebels who risk their lives to combat a system of injustice and oppression. The thoughtfulness of their political ideology and the pride with which they navigate the battlefield deserves recognition.

It is largely within these circles, where detail and nuance are elusive, that we hear murmurs of genocide. While employed with the best of intentions, the use of the term to describe the present situation in Blue Nile and South Kordofan is unnecessary, inaccurate and admissible only because of Sudan’s political isolation. With few exceptions, we have yet to uncover evidence of widespread, systemic attempts to exterminate the non-Arab populations of South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. While the situation may deteriorate moving forward, what we presently see are the reprehensible hallmarks of unchecked counter-insurgency; namely the bombing of civilian areas in which rebels are thought to operate, the use of violence to extract information on rebel activities, and the collective punishment of civilian elements thought to be providing support to insurgent forces.

All of these actions constitute war crimes and add to the exhaustive list of human rights abuses for which President Omar al-Bashir and his government must account. It is important, however, that observers remain committed to dispassionate analysis and remember that while genocide is always a war crime, not every war crime is genocide. As advocates and communicators, we should aim to enhance our audience’s understanding of and sensitivity to war crimes rather than dubiously applying the ultimate title in order to garner interest and action. Those who have witnessed this war know that its devastation requires no exaggeration.

On the Border

Yida is the Sudan of popular imagination. Small Cessna’s ferrying medicine and other essential supplies land on a tattered airstrip lined with beleaguered faces. The landscape is scorched and unforgiving. Trees and grass have been slashed in order for the camp’s 20,000 inhabitants to build basic structures. Modest huts, made entirely of wood and thatch, dot a landscape that seems wholly unfit for human settlement.

The refugee camp in Yida rests approximately 15 miles south of the new and contested border between north and south Sudan. It borders the embattled state of South Kordofan, where southern-aligned rebels are embroiled in a bitter and protracted insurgency against the northern government. In recent months, northern forces have employed brutal tactics to suppress the rebellion to no avail. Where they succeeded, however, was in creating a mass exodus of Nuban civilians, tens of thousands of whom have taken refugee in camps like Yida.

As fighting in South Kordofan and other adjacent border regions intensified in recent weeks, aid agencies here indicate an sharp rise in the number of new arrivals. Many arrive by foot, having walked for days to reach relative safety. While Yida is not affected by active ground combat, the few aid agencies operating here say they are unable to provide sufficient services for the rapidly swelling population. Food and water are scarce, electricity and phone networks are non-existent and political dynamics within the camp are ominous.

As I strolled through the camp’s dirt roads this afternoon, I passed a large group of armed men crammed into a “technical” (a term referring to a modified pick-up truck or SUV outfitted with a 50 caliber weapon). Draped in ammunition and holding rocket propelled grenade launchers, they donned the signature headdress of Darfuri rebels. They presented a picture I felt might have been unwise to take. As I raised my camera, a stern looking rebel wagged his finger in my direction. It’s known that members of Darfur’s Justice and Equality movement have taken part in recent fighting alongside SPLA and SPLM-N forces. The two factions share a common animosity against the ruling government in Khartoum and have formed an alliance of convenience. It is rumored that JEM fighters played a role in the recent seizure of the Heglig oil field north of the border.

As usual, the situation is tense and complex. With violence between northern and southern forces on the rise and rains predicted in the coming weeks, it seems the situation for refugees here will get worse before it gets better.

Oil Shutdown and Austerity

Malaysian, Sudanese and South Sudanese oil workers stand outside the Paloich Airport.

The oil fields in the Melut Basin were much greener the last time I visited. In September 2010, I drove with a small contingent of UN Military Observers from Melut to Renk, a long and bumpy journey during South Sudan’s rain season. At that time, when rain poured in sheets, I could barely make out the wells scattered along the roadside. They shimmered in the distance like a coins on the ocean floor. In addition to the rains, they were obscured by the thick reeds and monstrous blades of grass that define the season.

When I returned this week, with dust swirling in the heat, it felt like a different world. The contrast between state-of-the-art extraction facilities and the meager homes of local residents seemed even starker in the arid months. Under the midday sun, locals pump much needed water from the few borholes drilled by PETRODAR, the Chinese-Malaysian consortium who manages the Melut concession. Across from clusters of mud huts, hundreds of empty plastic water bottles and other foreign refuse signify the staggering difference between life inside and out of the facility.

Today, extraction from the Basin’s nearly 700 wells is at a complete standstill. Inside the futuristic facilities, closed circuit cameras depict two dozen angles on the absence of activity. Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Sudanese technicians pace idly around the control rooms. The facility halls are lined with posters encouraging safe behavior and cooperative work attitudes that seem oddly placed given the absence of actual work.

These fields, which in ordinary times produce some 250,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd), now serve as bargaining chips in a standoff between South Sudan and Sudan. In January, the nascent Southern government daringly ordered the shutdown of all oil extraction in the newly independent state. The 350,000 bpd that sustain the fragile southern economy were tossed on the table in a bold negotiating move.

A member of a high level delegation from the government of South Sudan examines an oil rig maintenance chart in the oil facilities of Paloich

The shutdown came in response to a row with Sudan over oil transit fees, a serious sticking point between the two former civil war foes. South Sudan is landlocked and therefore dependent on a pipeline flowing north, through Sudan, to transport its oil to port at the Red Sea. Knowing the South’s dependence and eager to stave off an growing economic crisis resulting from the loss of oil revenue when the South seceded, the northern Republic is eager to capitalize on its pipeline advantage. Sudan is demanding about 36USD per barrel of oil that passes through the pipeline as well as nearly 1 billion USD in back transit fees for the period starting at the South’s independence in July. These rates are significantly higher than international norms.

In the brinkmanship style that seems to define north-south relations, the South shut off the spigot. In doing so, it effectively relinquished 98 percent of its annual budget. In a nascent economy that provides few revenue alternatives, many experts believe that move will lead to severe economic crisis-if not all out collapse. Already, the southern government has announced austerity measures, a notion that seems difficult to fathom in such an already impoverished and underdeveloped environment. The government is often unable or unwilling to pay salaries even when the oil flows unimpeded. During my time here, I have interviewed health workers and other government employees who claim to have not been paid for many months. What might austerity measures mean for these folks? How will overall stability and security be affected when cuts reach the army, police and other state affiliated armed elements? The southern government has suggested cutting “allowances” for the army-a portion of their pay that accounts for about 40 percent of their total take home.

In the recent weeks in Juba, I have noticed a sharp increase in the amount of uncollected trash throughout the city. Mountains of fly-infested rubbish once again define the main market and the corners of the city’s neighborhoods. Consequently, the number of billowing, black smoke columns on the horizon seems to have tripled. It would seem that sanitation bore the initial brunt of the cuts.

And then they did it.

At the end of May, just weeks ahead of south Sudan’s declaration of independence, the northern Sudanese military made a strategic move to grab the disputed territory of Abyei. I ran ragged trying to cover the extent of human flight from the area. When I look at it retrospectively, I feel so devastated. I was partially shielded by this box I put in front me. On occasions, some of which are captured by these pictures, I was torn to my core. I need to sit down and articulate the human devastation that the offensive caused. The writing is essential but I hope, in the mean time, that the pictures will express the feeling. I’m sorry that this is coming so late.

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Thoughts on the Loss of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros

Just before dawn, I awoke inside my tent to the voice of a BBC broadcaster crackling through a shortwave radio. The initial phrases of her report were lost in my half conscious state. “Those killed were Tim Hetherington, whose recent documentary film about Afghanistan was nominated for an Academy Award and Chris Hondros, an award winning photojournalist,” she announced. Her words seared through my exhausted mind. I scrambled from my tent, wearing only my underwear, and charged toward the guard who held the radio on his lap. He was alarmed by my urgency. While I was sure I’d heard her correctly, I held out hope that I’d misunderstood some critical part of the statement.

By the time I reached the guard, the reporter had moved on to address other developments of the day. I stood in the middle of the county commissioners compound, nearly nude, in a state of shock and frustration. In such a remote area, I had no way of verifying what I thought I heard. No television, internet or phone network exists in this remote part of southern Sudan. At that twilight hour, blurry-eyed southern Sudanese stared at me as they washed their faces and brushed their teeth with the stocks of plants. I scratched my head and looked foolishly around for anything that might provide additional information.

With a knot in my stomach, I collapsed my tent and packed my things. I got into the truck and headed to Mariel Lou, a sandspeck village in Tonj North county. I had planned to meet a fellow photographer, Cedric Gerbehaye, who is also working to document the situation in southern Sudan. When I reached the compound where he’d been staying, I learned that he’d moved into remote field areas and would not return for several days. I left a note, explaining what I thought I’d heard on the radio. “I’m fairly certain that I heard a radio report this morning stating that Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington had been killed. I hope I’m wrong. It’s a terrible loss if so,” I wrote.

It was not until that evening, when I called my fiancée on a satellite phone, that my hopes of misunderstanding the report were put to rest. Tim and Chris and been killed during heavy fighting in the Libyan city of Misrata. “It’s all over the internet,” she said. In pitch darkness, hundreds of miles from anywhere, I stood in disheartened shock.

I never had the good fortune to meet either of these men. I’d always hoped that our paths would cross at a party in Brooklyn or out in some conflicted part of the world. I’d found tremendous inspiration in their respective bodies of work. In fact, Chris’s 2003 photograph of a Liberian rebel leaping though the air after firing an RPG on a bridge in Monrovia was one of the images that inspired me to work as a photojournalist. Tim’s work in Liberia, Afghanistan and elsewhere haunted and inspired me deeply. I remember studying his book on Liberia, Long Story Bit by Bit, at a friend’s apartment in Red Hook last summer, thinking about how high the photographic bar really is and how much devotion is required to aptly tell these stories.

In recent months, I watched and rewatched Tim giving an interview on morning television to a group of rather obnoxious anchors. In the face of their brashness, Tim was so composed, poised and articulate. He explained his intentions when making Restrepo and outlined his view of the experiences of the American soldiers with whom he worked. He was so handsome, confident and modest. As an admitted groupie, I sometimes scoured his photos of Facebook, admiring the caring and intimate relationships he’d cultivated with the soldiers featured in Restrepo. In one particular album, he stood arm in arm with them at some highbrow reception celebrating the launch of the film. The tattooed soldiers looked out of place among the New York art crowd. They donned crooked hats, baggy tee shirts and diamond stud earrings. The handsome and sophisticated Hetherington embraced them and seemed to ease the collision of these two separate worlds.

Tim and Chris’s tragic and untimely deaths gave me great pause. As a photojournalist in a conflicted region, I associate with so many people who travel regularly to the world’s most dangerous areas. It becomes, in a sense, routine. People are constantly coming from, or heading to, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Congo. In this line of work, we accept risk and to a certain degree, become desensitized to danger. Everything becomes a highly specific assessment of risk. Gelkayo is ok. Mogadishu is not. Basra is a doable, Ramadi not so much. We plan trips to war torn areas with remarkable casualness. We book assignments and social engagements for the weeks after we return from deadly regions, fully anticipating our safe escape from danger.

As I stood on the banks of the river, I thought about their homes in New York and how they must be filled with so many things that they planned to undertake upon return from Libya. I thought of their email inboxes, filled with messages that detail plans and projects that they will never get to finish. I thought about them lacing up their boots on Wednesday, having no idea that they were in their final hours. I thought of all their loved ones at home who all believed that they would see and touch and spend time with them again. I thought about their friends and colleagues, all of whom must be reeling. I image the photo community in New York, London, and Paris at a standstill, gasping for its collective breath.

I thought of the legacy they leave behind. The extraordinary documents of human drama, of struggle and war and emotion. I thought of all the places they’d seen, all the people they met during the extraordinary lives they had created. I wondered what else they might have accomplished had they lived through that day in Misrata.

When I was in college, I read a book about an eccentric humanitarian aid worker named Fred Cuny. Cuny traveled to the world’s most conflicted countries, shaking hands and trying to assist beleaguered populations. Upon departing for his final trip to Chechnya, before which he had a premonition of his own death, he left a note for his son. It read, “Don’t cry for me. I’ve lived a life that few men have. Don’t cry for me. Don’t cry for me. Don’t’ cry for me.” Cuny was killed some weeks later.

I must think of the loss of Tim and Chris in Fred Cuny’s terms. They devoted their lives to documenting the plight and suffering of others. The risked everything in order to bring to light stories and images that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. They made the ultimate sacrifice so that others might know the story of oppressed people caught in the throes of violent revolution. They lived the way so few men do. Their memory will live in the exceptional work they created and the change and awareness they helped to foster.

When I ended the call that confirmed the news of their deaths, I was speechless for many hours. My friend and translator, Monywiir, a humble and intelligent young Dinka man, urged me to focus on my work and not allow the news to distract from my immediate pursuits. Having grown up in southern Sudan’s civil war, he is no stranger to death. I decided to accept his advice.

In the evening hours, I commenced a short portrait series of cattle raiders on the banks of a river over which a war is being fought between two pastoral tribes. The following morning, clashes would erupt between the groups leaving at least three people dead and scores more wounded. The photos are shot in the signature style of Jehad Nga, a friend and inspiring photographer who himself was abducted and badly abused by Libyan authorities at the outset of this war that has shaken so many lives.

They are my humble tribute to Chris, Tim and all the brave photographers and journalists who continue to risk their lives so that others might see. They are owed a remarkable debt of gratitude from us all.