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

Chinese in Sudan

The Beijing hotel is, without a doubt, the largest “prefab” I’ve ever seen. Its spacious lobby, grandiose theater, connecting hallways and dozens of rooms are constructed solely from plastic slats fastened together in a less than appealing aesthetic. Its entrance is decorated with plastic trees that, at night, glow an array of neon colors.

Last Saturday evening, the Beijing Hotel appropriately hosted the celebration of the 61st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Sponsored by the Chinese National Petroleum Company and organized by the Chinese consulate, the event amounted to one of the strangest, albeit entertaining, that I have ever attended.

It commenced with gorgeous Chinese dancers playing drums on a stage that looked prepared to host the Blue Man Group. Blue, orange, green and yellow lights illuminated the dancers as copious amounts of fake smoke gushed from machines on all corners of the stage. The drummers were followed by a team of predictably underage male gymnasts who, despite frequent mistakes in their act, finished every maneuver with a plastic, ear-to-ear smile. The gymnasts made way for a series of renowned Chinese, pop culture entertainers who performed acts ranging from magic, to brass instruments to comedic routines in Mandarin poking fun at Chinese celebrities that no one outside of China has ever heard of.

In the middle of the event, a man from the consulate took the stage to say a few words about the People’s Republic and led the crowd in the Chinese national anthem. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the other participants spoke a word of English. The presentation’s communication was left to a young, Chinese-American woman who served as the evening’s emcee. With a charming smile, and form fitting black dress she appeared between scenes to explain what would otherwise be lost.

The event was a strong and interesting indication of China’s growing presence in resource-rich areas of Africa. Here in Sudan, China is heavily invested in petro-chemical extraction in the oil rich basins throughout south central areas of the country. When one drives through the oil fields of northern Upper Nile state, it is common to see busloads of Chinese oil workers traveling on out-of-place tarmac roads between processing facilities. There is, in fact, an international airport in the village of Paloich, a tiny speck in the middle of the Melut oil basin. While I do not know for sure, something tells me that the planes that fly in and out are likely destined for China.

I am curious to see how the resource game between east and west unfolds here in Africa. As I watched these Chinese entertainers whose mission, at least in part, is to win popular favor among Sudanese, I could not help but think of the vast cultural gap between China and Africa. Western powers have been involved in Africa for centuries, leaving behind aspects of their customs, practices and languages. While large-scale cultural differences certainly exist between Africans and Westerners, most continental capitals bare the clear marks of past and current relationships with the West. The national powerbrokers in most countries share learned languages and customs with incoming French, Dutch and American investors. Watching a stereotypically Chinese entertainer play a trumpet into the face of a Sudanese parliamentarian seemed like a futile attempt at cultural persuasion.

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Bunker Bugs

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I walk slowly into the steel reinforced, concrete bunker at UNICEF in Malakal. It’s dank and moist with virtually no ventilation. I begin to sweat immediately. I assume it was built in response to fairly serious rounds of fighting in Malakal in recent years, perhaps most notably in 2008 when Joint Integrated Units of northern and southern soldiers split apart and fought heavily throughout the town.

In one corner of the bunker, I notice the largest cockroach I’ve ever seen. I tried my best to scale it with my hand in this photo but it still does not do justice to the creature.

Malakal at this time of year is teaming with all kinds of massive bugs. As I stood in that sweltering bunker, wet, dark and infested, I wondered if I might take brave a few rounds rather than sleep the night inside. Filled with people for days on end, I can imagine few situations that would require more fortitude.

Brutal.

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Referendum: 5 Months Out

Hundreds of activists rallied in Juba today in an expression of support for southern independence. The rally was held exactly five months ahead of a referendum during which southerners will decide whether to secede from the north and form a new, independent country.

Despite torrential rains, spirits ran high among activists. “Even the rain has come to support southern independence,” a female activist told me. “We’ve got God on our side.”

The rally comes amid mounting concerns that administrative and logistical challenges could force the vote to be delayed, a prospect abhorred by southerners. The commission tasked with overseeing the referendum was slated for formation in 2008 but was only put in place one month ago. Among other responsibilities, the commission is tasked with the formal demarcation of the north-south border, a difficult and as-yet unresolved sticking point between the two sides. Owing to heavy rains and impassable roads, on-the-ground demarcation activities were temporarily suspended until conditions improve.

Northern Sudanese officials have been recently clamoring about the border issue. Members of the ruling, northern National Congress Party have warned that a failure to agree on the border could lead to renewed conflict. Some cite border conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea and India and Pakistan as examples of what could occur between north and south Sudan.

When pressed on the issue, organizers of today’s rally insisted that the referendum would be held on time and that border demarcation is not an essential prerequisite for moving forward with the vote. E72S3684_MG_3502E72S3586E72S3825E72S3545E72S3856

Into the Fray

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.