Dust swirls violently as our helicopter comes to rest on a remote airstrip. After two hours of flying time, I am fidgety and glad to be on the ground. I do a quick check of my equipment and prepare to experience a place that I haven’t before. A young Russian operator cracks the chopper door and a stifling heat floods the cabin. “Welcome to Akobo,” he says in thickly accented English. “Have a nice day.” Travelers navigate a rickety ladder onto cracked soil. The landing strip is crowded with heavily armed soldiers who look worse for the wear.
Akobo is not a place where one typically expects to have a “nice” day. Until about nine months ago, this sand speck of a town was the epicenter of interethnic conflict in southern Sudan. Over the course of several months, a series of massacres took place throughout the county, resulting in death tolls well over 1,000 people. Tens of thousands fled the violence, transforming Akobo town into an overcrowded, makeshift camp for internally displaced persons. Add to the violence an acute food shortage, which prompted some journalists and aid workers to brand Akobo the “hungriest place on earth.” Images of emaciated bodies poured out of Akobo’s antiquated hospital.
As we explore the town, I begin to sense that people here are deeply traumatized. Over the course of a few hours, I pass several people who appear catatonic. A man in his forties stands under a tree while a long line of soldiers, local authorities and foreigners pass only a few meters away. He seems to look directly through us, as though we’re not even there. I greet him in Arabic but receive no response. An elderly woman on the hospital grounds skittishly runs away from me as I cut hastily through the yard. I slow my pace hoping to calm her down but her fear is palpable and she continues to scramble.
Recognizing an unstable, violent and largely uncontrollable environment in Akobo, the international community began targeting considerable funds toward stabilization projects here. “I started throwing every penny I had at Akobo,” explains Leis Grande, the head of the UN’s humanitarian efforts in southern Sudan. “I’ve hauled every news agency and foreign minister I could get my hands on through Akobo. It’s my twelfth visit to the town.” Grande speaks directly and passionately with key figures here. She hugs everyone, an uncommon but highly refreshing gesture. She seems genuinely and deeply concerned about the people she meets.
On a walk back to the helicopter at the end of the day, she describes the process of “flipping” unstable and violent pockets throughout the south. She explains that such areas require tremendous financial investment in an array of sectors including employment, food provision, education and health. “When I first started coming to Akobo, almost none of the kids were in school. Now, we’re got more than 5,000 kids in schools.” She explains that youth employment is critical in conflict areas where teens often comprise large portions of warring forces. Additionally, Grande suggests that the provision of foodstuffs helps reduce conflict in areas where large numbers of people are food insecure.
“I think that Akobo has turned the corner,” she says with cautious optimism. “It takes a lot of intensive effort over the course of at least six months to see serious changes.” She says that the UN, with considerable support form the United States, has targeted fifteen other extreme needs cases throughout southern Sudan. She hopes to “flip” these communities from conflict ridden to stable using a similar model to that employed in Akobo. “We’re up against a lot of challenges. I certainly expect to see some progress in several of those areas but it’s never easy.”
As I take stock of the town, I ponder the prospects for unchecked cruelty in places this remote. Wedged between the border of south Sudan and Ethiopia, Akobo is hundreds of miles from any form of development. During the rain season, it can only be reached by helicopter. I imagine that when people go to war here, few things prevent them from engaging in orgies of violence against their adversaries. There are no intimidating witnesses here, no one to name and shame those responsible for extreme cruelty. With a long history of interethnic violence and such complete isolation, the thought of war here sends chills up my spine.
I hope that Ms. Grande’s feeling that Akobo has turned the corner is correct.