Into the Congo

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As we navigate the battered road between Bukavu and Baraka, I finally realize why Joseph Kony has been so difficult to find. Dense jungle all but swallows the one tarmac road in this deeply conflicted area of eastern DR Congo. A blanket of deep green foliage cloaks the area’s impressive mountain range, which extends to the western horizon. During the six-hour drive between Bukavu and Baraka, I notice an absence of police, soldiers or other visible signs of central authority. Upon first glance, it would appear that this vast region is largely ungoverned.

Wary Pakistani peacekeepers patrol the road with heavy guns. With their long Islamic beards and close-cropped hair, they could not look farther from home. As we overtake their convoy, I wonder why Pakistan, a country with it’s own vicious war, has deployed able-bodied soldiers to this largely forgotten battleground. They seem removed from the environment here, clearly serving a tour rather than engaging in a broader mission. We stark awkwardly at one another as our vehicle speeds past.

I notice an interesting difference between Sudanese and Congolese as our truck speeds through small population centers. In southern Sudan, most people on the roadside glare directly into the eyes of people passing in cars. Here, I notice few people looking at our faces but instead attempting to read the writing printing on the doors of this NGO vehicle. It sounds like a minor issue, but I suspect it speaks to a vast gap in literacy rates between southern Sudan and eastern DR Congo. I believe that if more southern Sudanese could read, fewer would stare so ominously at passersby.

It was not until today that it occurred to that southern Sudan’s nearly 90 percent illiteracy rate might contribute to some of the intense staring for which they are so well known. Many there are incapable of reading writing on teeshirts, trucks and other things that might distract them from staring directly into another person’s eyes.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I think there might be something to it.

Generally speaking, eastern DR Congo feels significantly more developed than southern Sudan. People appear relatively well fed, the road, while in decay, is largely covered in tarmac. Towns between Bukavu and Baraka seem quite vibrant and well stocked with modern goods.

It’s strange to travel to such conflicted and troubled places that still seem like a step up.

Voting Closes

Seven days of polling in south Sudan’s referendum come to a close. The results seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of southern secession. We made it through with no major incidents. Congratulations southern Sudan, you seem to be a rock star at exceeding expectations.

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Voting Commences

Thousands of southerners turned out across Juba this morning to begin voting in a long awaited independence referendum. I am, to some degree, a bit surprised by how calm things have been in recent days. In the months leading up to the vote, pro-separation activists were tremendously active in the capital. I expected the streets to be packed up independence supporters in the days before the referendum. Oddly, this was not the case.

Voting got underway this morning with few reports of disorder or irregularity. The registration issues that plagued last April’s parliamentary, presidential and gubernatorial elections seem to have been adequately addressed.

I am dismayed a recent reports of clashes in Abyei, Unity State and Jonglei. I hope that spoiler groups can be convinced of the importance of a peaceful vote.

I am quite exhausted, having been up early and gone to bed late for many recent nights. There is excitement in the air, however, and that is giving me strength.

Here are some snaps from the last 24 hours in Juba. Sudan South ReferendumSudan South ReferendumSudan South ReferendumSudan South ReferendumSudan South ReferendumSudan South ReferendumSudan South ReferendumSudanern South Referendum

North-South Border Feature Released on Al Jazeera

Check out a new feature that I did with Maggie Fick for Al Jazeera. This multimedia piece explores social, cultural and political issues on the border between north and south Sudan.

View it here on Al Jazeera’s website

Be sure to check out the photo gallery, too, by clicking on the “In Pictures” photo to the right of the text column.

Better late than never…

Despite significant delays, voter registration finally kicked off today throughout the south.

Thousands of southerners braved searing heat and lines in order to register themselves for January’s referendum.

These are remarkably determined people.

Here are some photos from the first day of voter registration in the north-south border area of Melut.

(some images subject to additional copyright)

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Prison in southern Sudan

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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.”

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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.
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South Sudan Border Issues

These images are part of a forthcoming feature on border communities in south Sudan’s Upper Nile state. Upper Nile forms the northern most border of southern Sudan and contains a significant amount of the region’s oil wealth.

These photos were taken in the town of Renk, which sits some 30 kilometers south of the Current Border Line (CBL). Renk is a relatively short jaunt from Khartoum, making it a highly mixed community. It is heavily populated by northern Sudanese traders and is a frequent destination for northerners who want a break from the Islamic laws that govern the north. Renk’s lively streets boast an unusual amount of nightlife, including restaurants, bars and shops.

Given Renk’s proximity to northern Sudan and the presence of multinational oil companies, Renk is significantly more developed than most areas of the south. The streets are lined with lights and residents enjoy 24 hour power, two highly uncommon services throughout the area.

Some fear, however, that the culturally mixed nature of border communities like Renk could make for a combustive atmosphere around the referendum. Furthermore, the region’s oil wealth could be a source of conflict between north and south if southerners do opt for secession.

The full story, done in print (by Maggie Fick), photos and video, is slated to appear on Al Jazeera online in the coming days.

Stay tuned.

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