God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
As the MSF compound disappears from sight, I close my eyes and repeat the phrase in my mind. I recite the last line forcefully as if to quell the internal argument about why I’m in this situation. The darkness outside the window is so severe that I have difficulty distinguishing when my eyes are open and closed. My head is light from gasoline fumes emanating from jerry cans in the back. Despite containing seven cramped occupants, the car is quiet. For a moment, I feel out of touch with what is really happening.
The car pulls to a stop at the thatched gate of a compound. I squint out the window and spot a handful of near-naked boys silhouetted by fire. They’ve spotted the car and ceased movement, like a herd of startled deer. I fumble for a headlamp in my pack. “What is this,” I ask Mary. “Ismael’s compound,” she says.
Ismael Kony is, perhaps, the most feared and powerful man in Pibor. During the war, he commanded a vast militia of Murle fighters who received support from the northern Sudanese government. Together with other northern-aligned militias, Kony and his men posed serious challenge to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. While despised by SPLA leaders during the war, the majority of Murle regard him as a hero. “The politics of this war are very complicated,” Mary once told me in response to a question about Ismael. “The SPLA were sometimes very tough on Murle. Ismael protected them.” His partnership with the northern government was one of convenience, not ideological or political support, she said.
We stand in the shadows of Kony’s compound now because Mary is, through rather unnerving circumstances, his sister-in-law. Mary’s father was a Murle chief and, before his death in 1989, served as a military commander in the SPLA. With her father and Ismael on opposing sides of the political divide, fighting raged between them. In the midst of the war, Kony abducted Mary’s older sister and took her as a wife. The practice of abduction is common among Murle and, according to Mary, her sister soon accepted her fate. “She is happy with him,” Mary explains. “Even though going with him at first was not her choice, she would never leave him.” Despite the traumatic origins of the relationship, Mary has also grown close with Kony. In fact, the vehicle in which we arrived is one of Kony’s extensive fleet.
We stream through the gate quietly and single file. My eyes slowly adjust to the darkness and I’m able to make out the general specs of the compound. Its courtyard is wide and long with modest, grass-thatched huts along the near side. Its neatly swept surface indicates the presence of women and children, both of which begin to emerge as we gather outside the huts. I know that Ismael himself is not around, having seen him at his primary residence in Juba last week.
Mary greets an older woman who she later identifies is Kony’s first, and consequently, most important wife. I shake her hand and speak in Arabic, which elicits a minimal response. I wonder, for a moment, if she only speaks Murle or if she’s plainly not interested in chatting with me. Unlike my ordinary life, this self-absorbed, neurotic moment is a welcomed reprieve from worrying about my immediate safety. I rest on a wooden stool in the middle of the courtyard and try, the best I can, I maintain this silly distraction.
The conversation between Mary and the women of the compound is slow and seemingly subdued. I hear nothing but “ooohs” and “ahhhs” between softly spoken Murle. Their exchange is devoid of the laughter and smiles that define conversations between familiar people here. During a long lull, which I wrongly perceive as the end of the talk, I interrupt. “What’s going on,” I blurt out in a tone much too loud for the mood. “We’re still talking,” Mary responds. “Relax.” Her tone that mixes sympathy and irritation and, for a moment, I feel like a scolded child.
Soon one of the women approaches Mary, places her hands on her shoulders, and leans in to speak more softly than before. While I could neither hear nor understand the question, Mary’s answer makes it clear. “SSDF,” Mary shyly responds. “Uh huh,” mumbles the woman as she leans out and moves slowly towards her original seat. She seems troubled by the English letters that formed Mary’s response. While I’m sure she does not speak more than a word of English, she knows what those letter mean or, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t. The South Sudan Democratic Forum. We’re down to brass tax.
We’re shown to an adjacent compound that’s near but not connected to Kony’s. Wedded to the idea of security within his walls, I protest. “This is clearly not Ismael’s compound,” I argue. The defeated look on Mary’s face puts a quick end to my gripes. There’s nothing around for miles. There’s no phone. No planes, trains or buses. It’s the middle of the night. “Accept the things I cannot change,” I tell myself. I readjust my bags and carry on.
A tall, dark-skinned man shows me to a hut with two single beds inside. A generator powered light bulb dangles from a wire in the middle of the roof. I’m pleased to see it. “It’s fifty pounds per night,” he tells me. It could be 1,000, I think, as if I’ll just pop over and check the rates at Motel 6. “Water for bathing,” he says, pointing to a small, pink pitcher near the bed. “Fine,” I respond, dropping my pack to the dirt floor. “I just want to lay down.” He leaves at once and, for the first time in days, I’m alone.
Three pieces of crooked wood comprise the gate of this compound. It rests half open between two huts. I consider closing it and, just as quickly, wonder what difference it would make. I stand in the courtyard wondering what might occur in the coming hours. Mary approaches with a tired sway. “Is this cool,” I ask. “Yes,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll have any problems.” I look at her suspiciously and she looks straight ahead, her face weighted with exhaustion. “I just need to sleep,” she says. I nod. “Try to relax,” she adds before turning towards her hut. “We will find out what’s happening tomorrow. “ The hum of the generator soon comes to tragic end and blackness settles over us once again. Tomorrow seems like decades away.