I had no idea what to expect, and have been surprised for better and for worse. In many ways, Juba embodies the stereotypical perceptions of Africa. Many of the streets are battered and unpaved with piles of burning trash defacing the overall landscape. The days are shrouded in oppressive heat, leaving me exhausted despite minimal exertions. Men in camouflage uniforms move through town in open-back military lorries, clutching AK-47 rifles. Red dust hangs in the air at all times, often coloring the water in the bottom of a shower. I’m usually much dirtier than I think.
Perhaps naïvely, I am surprised by the hard exterior of people here. While I frequently dislike capitol cities for their hardened collective personality, I have yet to encounter one quite like this. I’ve seen little of the overt friendliness that commonly defined my previous experiences in Africa, even in war-torn regions. Facial expressions here are commonly tense; furrowed brows & taught lips. Crime, corruption and violence are pervasive and impact the atmosphere in a palpable way.
I attribute Juba’s coarseness to several basic factors. The war in this region lasted twenty-two years and cost more than two million lives. An additional four million people became displaced, both internally and externally. The brutality and length of the conflict took a ravenous toll on survivors, many of who demonstrate signs of untreated psychological trauma. Additionally, the presence of so many foreigners, both white and non-white, creates tension between Sudanese and those perceived to be encroaching on their authority and sources of income. It seems that among Sudanese, foreigners are sometimes viewed as the beneficiaries of suffering. Finally, in order to make way for “development,” many of Juba’s most impoverished residents have been forcibly relocated to shanties on the outskirts of town. Now, further from work, they must ride overpriced buses, which eats into already meager wages.
All that said, some aspects of Juba that are a pleasant surprise. Many of the main roads leading into and through the central areas of town are newly paved. This is a stark difference from many hubs in the region, including Gulu, in northern Uganda, which has only two or three paved roads. Despite highly inflated prices, many things are available here, including cheese, ground beef, canned tuna and an impressive array of personal hygiene products. It’s typical, however, to pay double the price in the US or Europe. One can of tuna, a tube of Pringles and a pack of eight chicken sausages cost nearly $20. There are restaurants in town that charge $15 for a hamburger.
I move slowly and with caution. I’ve been repeatedly warned against taking indiscriminant photos. “Our people can be very wild,” the Director of Information explains on my fourth attempt to collect a press pass. “You must first obtain permission for any photos you wish to take.” One of his subordinates later tells me that security personnel sometimes detain and beat journalists who disregard this. “If you cross them, they can treat you very harshly,” he says. “By the time we become involved, it is sometimes too late,” he says.
At a recent BBQ gathering, BBC news reporter Will Ross confirms the challenges of working in this region. On a trip to Malakal, northeast of Juba, Ross and two colleagues were detained for the better part of a day. “A guy in plain clothes approached us and asked us to get into a car,” Will says. “When you live in Nairobi, you quickly learn not to go anywhere with people who won’t identify themselves. So I said no.” Ross later learned that the man is in fact the local head of security. He recounts a harrowing day of interrogation & intimidation at the hands of revolving officers. While the team ultimately left unharmed and with all of their gear, it sounds like a very unpleasant experience.
I feel great about my first few weeks in Sudan. I have gained a basic sense of my surroundings, shaken hands with several local officials and laid basic groundwork for an upcoming story. It’s a challenging environment and I therefore feel satisfied with these basic accomplishments.
On Thursday, Jehan and I leave Juba for Kuwait where we will spend one week visiting her parents. The calm environment there will provide an opportunity to unwind and reflect about this new location and the best way to proceed upon return.
The oval shape of a window frames my first views of southern Sudan. Like a kid, I press my forehead against the glass, maneuvering constantly to catch what disappears beyond the edges. As the plane descends, a thread of fire bisects my view from top to bottom. On the arid plains below, flames extend to the horizon, leaving charred ground in their wake. For a moment, the oval window looks like a moon cookie, split evenly between parched soil and singed earth. The view is ominous, fire raging across these expansive plains with no clear end in sight. The landscape seems appropriate for the circumstances.
As the plane door lowers, a rush of sweltering air lays waste to our temperate cabin. The sound of churning propellers and decelerating engines pervades the air. I wrestle madly to dislodge my overstuffed camera backpack from overhead storage. The pack is perhaps the most gratifying thing I own, allowing me to stealthily board planes with some 20 kg of fragile gear that, if the weight were known, would mandate checking. In an era when airlines provide significantly less for significantly more, I revel in small victories.
After wrangling two carry-on bags and three duty-free bottles of Johnny Walker, I head for the door. I reach for glasses to reduce the intensity of a midday sun. The rays warm my face and at once, Sudan is all around me. The smell of dust and soil hangs densely in the air. A stifling, dry heat envelops me and my shirt begins to cling. From the top of the stairs I see a jagged mountain, softened by distance and dust, looming over the far edge of Juba town. It is one of a few exceptions to an otherwise flat landscape. Men in varied camouflage and sunglasses mill about near the airport’s only entrance.
Customs is a melee. I step to the counter and a man behind it points to a battered piece of paper attached to a clipboard in even worse shape. The sheet is the official record of who enters southern Sudan through its sole international airport. As a pen is not provided, I scrounge for my own. I hastily scrawl my information in boxes too small to adequately contain it. Before it’s checked against my passport and travel permit, both are stamped and returned to me. Surprised by the brevity, I leaf through pages to confirm my passage. I briefly recall Palestinian police in Gaza who wait at the end of Erez Crossing with pen and paper. “Welcome to Balestine,” they’d say with a smile. “Blease write your name and bassbort number here.”*
I think now what I thought then. When international arrival is formalized in your own handwriting, tread lightly. Weak states are often hotbeds of corruption and lawlessness.
Luggage arrives quickly and through a window in the side of the airport wall. Men work diligently to unload the bags to impatient travelers. The crowd surges forward irrationally, with few realizing that a tight crowd prohibits anyone from moving their bags out of the area. I hang back and watch for my bags over shoulders. At once, the crowd jeers, “oohhhhhhhh,” and collective laughter erupts. Wanting in, I frantically search of the source of their entertainment. I’m quickly disappointed, however, when I spot my hiking pack, torn asunder, with wires and clothes dangling everywhere. “Oh shit,” I say, prompting another round of laughs from this sardonic group. As I move to collect the entrails, a baggage handler taps me on the back. “Here,” he says, handing me two tee shirts and several pairs of underwear.
Always a gracious entrance.
Jehan and Robert, the ACTED driver, meet me at the airport. Despite their previous concerns, the protests were a wash. The streets of Juba are calmer and more orderly than expected. I am too focused on Jehan to observe much out the windows. I’ve not seen her for nearly two months, and it feels good.
*The Arabic alphabet does not contain the letter P. While many proficient English speakers have overcome the challenge, others have not. The P sound is replaced with a B. For a year in Palestine, I answered to Beter.
The car in front of us has not moved for nearly ten minutes. Well, eight minutes from the time I started paying attention to the clock on the dashboard. At least two must have elapsed before I got frustrated enough to check the time. The air conditioning in this taxi is busted and December in Nairobi can make you dream of frostbite. The lane to our left picks up and a crowded minivan bucks forward, spraying black smoke in my direction. Like magic, a smirking vender emerges from the plume to sell me a flying toy helicopter. I grit my teeth and relinquish hope of catching a breeze. “I guess a fucking traffic light would really break the bank,” I mutter, reaching for the window crank. The driver shoots me a contemptuous look in the rear-view mirror. He didn’t hear my exact words, but he knows I’m whining. Our eyes meet for a moment and I can hear his thoughts, “right, cause I’m just thrilled to be here, dickhead.”
As the car inches forward, the opening notes to Shakira’s “Whenever” twang loudly from his phone. He answers with apparent reservation. I overhear a woman’s voice speaking English quickly and with some concern. “Are you with Pete, an American?” Sensing his confusion, I hastily interject, “Yes, I’m Pete!” He passes the phone over his shoulder, still annoyed about my quip.
“I just wanted to let you know that things are in the wind up here and we might have trouble getting to the airport to meet you,” my girlfriend, Jehan, explains. I am surprised to hear from her. Having arrived only yesterday, and in Kenya for such a short time, I am without a phone. Jehan acquired the driver’s number from her organization, which uses him often. She’s already in Juba, southern Sudan, and we planned to meet at the airport when I arrive there later this afternoon. “What’s going on,” I ask. “There are supposed to be protests today and the driver thinks there could be checkpoints along the airport road,” she explains. “If we’re not there when you arrive, just wait. Don’t take a cab, that will be worse.”
After a bit of back and forth, I end the call and return the driver’s phone. I thank him in my nicest tone, but it’s clear we won’t rebound. I’m too exhausted, hungry and hot to care. I glance at my bag of photo equipment and wonder whether I’ll be the only foreign photographer on the ground if and when the war in southern Sudan resumes. I kick myself for only bringing a helmet and not at vest. I think of people like Samantha Power, who was only 23 when she placed herself in Bosnia as that country descended into chaos, and wonder if I’ll have the courage to stay if it all goes to hell.
I consider a piece of advice that has guided me for several years; “Never do anything that you can’t live with the consequences of.” While perhaps a bit dramatic, it’s had a significant, and arguably positive, effect on my decision-making. I considered it each time I passed checkpoints into Gaza, before entering the fray in Somalia, and before trekking into mine contaminated mountains in northern Uganda. Each time I made mental calculations, assessed odds and concluded that these were acceptable risks. So far, I’ve been alright.
What will Sudan hold for me? What will unfold over the coming year? Will the peace hold or will violence once again prevail? How will I enter this fray? What experiences will I have and how will they affect me? Who will I meet and what will they teach me? What will I create in this volatile environment?
The traffic subsides and we hit open road towards Nairobi airport. The breeze feels cool over the sweat on my face and chest. I toss a handful of sunflower seeds into my mouth, a stand-in vice for the many cigarettes I used to smoke. The stress of missing my flight is replaced by what might await me in Sudan. As we approach the airport, I notice massive UN helicopters on a secluded part of the runway. I wonder if I’ll see them in action soon.
For those of you who don’t know me, I hope that this short piece will give you a sense of my work and why I do it. I look forward to sharing my thoughts, experiences and work with you throughout the coming year.