As I enter this sheet metal cell bloc I am rapidly overwhelmed by the stale smell of tobacco and men. Shackled Nuer tribesmen stare curiously from the shadowy corners of the room. The midday sun beats on the roof; creating heat that brings immediate sweat to my brow. I move cautiously as to not tread on rows of unwashed blankets that signify the nightly sleeping order in this sweltering cage. With no bars between us, the bodies of killers and thieves brush against mine as I move to explore the space. I feel exceptionally foreign, but surprisingly unafraid.
I am reluctant to take pictures of these captive subjects, many of whom seem spiritually defeated. Their situation robs them of any ability to deny my attempts, creating strong pangs of guilt as my hand rests nervously on my camera. I have never worked in a prison before and feel tremendous ethical conflict about doing it now. My work is largely premised on relationships and mutual engagement and the confined status of these men simultaneously repels and attracts me.
“This one is a real killer,” a boyishly young guard explains in broken English. He gestures to half naked man who lays shackled on the floor. While perhaps it shouldn’t, his pointing angers me. Drawing attention to a man and talking about him as though he is not there makes me feel as though I am in a zoo. I contain my frustrations and take a seat on the floor next to the man. I offer him my right hand and touch his shoulder with my left. He seems surprised by my willingness to touch him. I muster a few sentences of Arabic and he seems pleased.
“ I killed a man about six months ago,” he explains through a translator. “He was the husband of a woman that I wanted for myself.” Like the rest of the world, southern Sudan is plagued by adultery and conflict related to it. “The man stabbed me with a spear in the stomach,” he explains, pointing to a gruesome vertical scar that spans the length of his abdomen. “The wound was terrible but I was still had the strength to kill him.”
It is my first known encounter with a killer. Well, perhaps I ought to say a powerless killer. I am sure that I have shaken hands with many powerful politicians in this country and others that have committed crimes of far greater magnitude than this shackled soul. “He is sentenced to death,” one of the guards says. “We are waiting only for the officials orders and then he will be killed.” The guard believes that the orders will arrived in the coming month. Another guard asks the man to confirm that this is true. He affirms with a nod. I feel overwhelming despair.
As I raise my camera to take his picture, he adjusts himself to a more upright position. Like all people, he wants nothing more than to be viewed in a dignified way. He looks directly into the lens and I snap a few frames. It haunts me to know that it will be the last photos anyone every takes of him. I am filled with emotion and naïve compassion for the man but the environment and circumstances prevent me from expressing it. I’ve already taken too long and the guards are anxious to move me away from a crowd growing behind us.
Over an evening beer, I share my thoughts on the encounter with an older Nuer man at a local bar. He explains that killing is not unusual in Nuer culture. “It is something normal for us.”
His remarks leave me thinking about what a strange evolution it must be for Nuer men to face a growing judicial system. Something that was formerly condoned and perhaps even respected is now legal grounds for execution.
The pitfalls of democratization, I suppose.