I can, to a quite amazing degree, dream up worst case scenarios. I imagine being caught up in the cattle wars, being mistaken for being a spy and arrested, lost in the hostile deserts, caught in the crossfire of politics in this embattled country. I think about bribing soldiers with a bottle of whiskey and imagine the deterioration as they polishing it off while I’m still in custody. I ponder the possibility of being caught up in things that are, in fact, much different than they appear. It is this mentality that keeps my impulses at bay and makes me wonder if I’m different than my contemporaries.
In the fall of 2008, I was fortunate to meet and befriend Peter van Agtmael, a world-renowned war photographer. I met Pete in northern Uganda, a former war zone that, by the time we arrived, was quite and relatively stable. During our time together in Uganda, he showed me photos for an upcoming book, 2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die, which was released in fall 2009. The book showcases two years of coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan during which he embedded with US soldiers. It is tour de force of violence, angst, danger, confusion and disillusionment.
Although Pete and I have discussed his experiences at length, I still wonder if he shares some of my imaginative angst about danger. He seems to run headlong into situations of extreme risk. He explains that these wars are monumental experiences for those of our generation and that his seemingly innate fascination with war drives him into positions of great peril. While I share his sentiments, I somehow feel that I have a higher, more selfish threshold of self-preservation.
I consider this as I prepare to embark on a trip to Jonglei, southern Sudan’s most violent and underdeveloped state. In 2009, an estimated 2,500 people were killed here, most of whom died in Jonglei. The fighting, while erratic, continues in 2010. It is largely related to cattle, the currency of pastoralist tribes in the region. Cattle raiding is common among and between tribes and is often accompanied by extreme violence. The killing is unapologetic and targets men, women and children. The raids become circular, with revenge attacks ensuing months after initial bouts.
I am traveling to Jonglei with Mary Boyoi, a 28-year-old musician-turned-politician. While much of her music is political, this is her first foray into Sudanese party politics. She hails from the Murle tribe, a minority group from Jonglei state known for it’s aggressive possession and theft of cattle and, at times, people. She’s running for a parliamentary seat in upcoming April elections on behalf of the South Sudan Democratic Forum, a party outside of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. I’ve decided to join her for a week of campaigning in Jonglei.
My mind has been racing about the trip since I agreed to join her. I’ve consulted with people widely about the potential risks. I’ve done all I can to prepare myself, both mentally and logistically. From a generous friend, I borrowed a satellite phone. I’ve got food, snake bite kits, water purification tablets and escape money. I’ve run down the list of possible scenarios; arrest, harassment, ambushes, car trouble, communal violence and many, many more. I have, however, come up with a rationalization that will allow me to board the car in a few hours time.
I wonder, at times, if I’m alone in my concerns. I watch the journalists and photographers in Helmand, Anbar and elsewhere and wonder how they feel about being there. Do they worry? People talk of adrenaline junkies as though you’ll know one when you meet one. In my experiences in Gaza, Somalia and Sudan, I’ve yet to encounter someone who fits the bill.