The two armies that drove Sudan into the throes of civil war remain camped on opposing sides of the Malakal airport. Their installations are unimpressive, but their implications are daunting. Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which ended more than twenty years of civil war, this desolate town has been a flashpoint between the formerly competing militaries of north and south Sudan. The forces, which were technically combined into so-called Joint Integrated Units, have repeatedly defied their name with violent and costly clashes here. Northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) control one end of Malakal, and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) controls the other. They are divided by makeshift checkpoints manned by soldiers of questionable repute.
As we pass the airport along a battered, unpaved road our United Nations escort explains a recent surge in military interest around this remote landing strip. “The SPLA used to be several clicks (kms) from the airport,” he explains in the clear and confident tones of a career military man. “The SAF were camped very close to the airstrip,” he says. “The SPLA knew that in the event of hostilities, the SAF held a more strategic position and could likely seize and hold the airstrip.” He points out a small cluster of grass thatch huts, explaining that they house SPLA soldiers. To me, the area looks more like a camp for displaced persons than a base for soldiers. It’s a common look of military camps in impoverished African countries. It always strikes me as odd that places with such dependence on the military make so little effort to give the job any appeal.
To me, the repositioning of troops in Malakal is an alarming bellwether. This sweltering and, I’m sorry to say, filthy town is the capital of Upper Nile state, one of the frontline areas along the defacto border between north and south Sudan. As the referendum approaches with little progress made on formal border demarcation, some fear that conflict could erupt in contested areas. While Malakal is clearly within south Sudan, its airstrip would prove critical in any conflict between the armies in areas along Upper Nile’s northern border. That the armies appear to be positioning themselves to gain the upper hand in conflict is a concerning preparation.
Malakal’s unpaved streets bear the damage of unrelenting rains. In a bid to curtail flooding in the roads, the town ordered drainage ditches dug along the side of major thoroughfares. Today, the ditches are filled with stagnant, filmy water that reeks of rotting garbage and proliferating bacteria. Despite reduced rains in recent weeks, seemingly parched earth forms only a thin façade over layers of heavy mud. My boots are caked with it.
Like most places in southern Sudan, taking photos in Malakal is a tremendous challenge. During an afternoon stroll, I stopped to snap a few frames of an interesting building near the banks of the Nile. I took a knee and took only a few snaps before I heard a man’s voice booming behind me. As usual, it came from a man that bore no visible signs of authority. In southern Sudanese Arabic, he demanded to know if I had written permission from the owner of the building. With a language barrier between us, a passerby intervened to explain the man’s growing list of inquires. He was soon joined by a police officer who, despite minimal contributions to the exchange, made me nervous. Many people have been detained in this tense and unfriendly town. I felt inclined to ask interrogator for identification but doing so is a gamble. If he’s bluffing, he’ll leave. If he’s not, well, things can get unpleasant quickly.
I find myself increasingly impatient with these kinds of hostile encounters. While I understand the sensitive nature of south Sudan’s current situation, I can’t help but feel that the aggression is deeply misguided. I am, at times, confounded by the idea that security personnel here seem to believe that Western governments acquire visual intelligence by deploying tall white men with big cameras into photo-averse populations. Do they believe that that’s how it’s done? I’ve never been much a fan of the CIA, but I’d like to think that even that crew might be able to devise a more effective plan.
I sometimes feel that my efforts to illustrate people’s lives and circumstances might be put to better use elsewhere.