Despite my complaints, the overpacked SUV pulls out of Juba at dusk. We’re headed approximately 100 miles north to Bor, the capitol town of Jongeli state. The issue of night driving is, perhaps, the one element of the trip that draws overwhelming condemnation from my colleagues and friends. The fact that I’m traveling overland, during election season, in one car, with no security, with an non-SPLM political candidate, through southern Sudan’s most violent and underdeveloped state all seemed reluctantly acceptable variables. “You’d be fucking nuts to do it at night, though” a seasoned friend told me the week before. I battle hard but in the end, I am left with little choice. I collect my bags, say a prayer, and become the seventh passenger in this sagging campaign wagon.
On the road, Mary points out the usual spots for ambushes. “They usually hide under these bridges,” she says as we pass one particular spot. “But during elections season, the number of ambushes has gone down.” Her remarks bring me little comfort. As night falls my eyes remain glued to the road ahead. As my companions nod off, I remain poised in my seat, ready to make a run for it at any minute. I clutch a satellite phone in one hand and a camera bag in another. After some time, I realize that I’ve gripped the bag so tightly that impressions remain on my palm.
The driver seems keen on I’m Your Lady, by Celine Dion. The track blares repeatedly as cool evening air rushes through the open windows. Despite the warnings against night driving, the breeze, solitude and familiar tunes give me a modest sense of comfort.
Four hours into the drive, we’re stopped at poorly lit roadblock. Ahead of us, the flashing hazard lights of a truck illuminate an approaching solider. A tattered tank-top dangles from his bony shoulders. He hoists his AK-47 rifle over the back of his neck and I notice a 9mm handgun tucked casually into his front waistband. If it were not for his olive green trousers, I’d assume he were a bandit. He leers into my side of the vehicle and begins to converse with the driver. A few pleasantries and acknowledgment of mutual friends grants us quick, unpaid passage. I’m relieved.
The dark road ahead is congested with cattle. In Jonglei, and several other southern states, cattle form the currency of many tribes. The possession of cattle determines social status, marital standing and the collective wealth of a tribe. For this reason, cattle are an integral part of conflict dynamics in Jonglei state. Wars between tribes are often prompted by the theft of cattle. The raids, known as cattle “rustling,” are often accompanied by extreme violence. In 2010 alone, more than 20,000 people have been displaced in Jonglei due to cattle related fighting.