Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Night laps over Nimule in quiet waves, easing the Southern Sudanese town into a thick darkness penetrated only by flashlights and the occasional motorcycle, with headlights bobbing in and out of perception with each ascent and fall of the road's dusty mounds. The din of the day's commerce fades in the distance and with the quiet comes the tinny sound of pocket radios and quiet dialogue emanating from nearby huts. Enveloped in darkness, I sit in the plastic folds of a green chair, sucking in the dry desert air through my nose, while beads of brown sweat make salty streaks down my sideburns, onto my neck, and into the collar of my button-up shirt. I am intoxicated by Ugandan beer and the recollection of my morning. This is Michael Unzi's home, and I am sitting in front of his brother Lazarus' hut, in a world I can barely fathom I have entered. Michael sits opposite me, slender and tall, with a complexion that could shroud him with the camouflage of the night if it were not belied by the white teeth of his smile. He has three pens in the pocket of his white dress shirt, which is tucked neatly into tan khakis, and fumbles a beaten up Nokia between his palms as he talks to me with urgency.
It is January of 2007, just shy of the two-year anniversary of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the twenty-two year war in the Sudan, one of the longest civil wars in modern world history. I am nineteen-years-old and three months into my trip in East Africa. I am traveling with a Sudanese man I met only weeks before. Nimule is the southernmost town in Sudan and if imagined on a vertical axis, the largest country in Africa would teeter on this small conglomeration of mud huts and single story concrete buildings sitting just north of the Ugandan border.
“The people here are hung over from war,” Michael tells me in English heavily accented with the baritone notes of his Nuer dialect. The buildings here sport shrapnel wounds like old veterans and signs are posted on the fringe of the town, warning those foolish enough to venture from the road of the land mines hiding perniciously beneath the dirt.
Lazarus looks like Michael but with eyes that have seen too much suffering; jaundiced and dull. Lazarus was a teacher before the war ripped his life apart and destroyed his school. He is now an educated man selling plastic buckets and other Ugandan imports from a stall in the Nimule market. Lazarus's two round mud huts have become the beacon of light for his extended family. Michael tells me how Lazarus supports close to a dozen family members.
The Westerners I've met who have traveled to East Africa often speak about the kindness of the people they've encountered. Although there are hundreds of different cultures here, I was rarely met with anything other than a good handshake and a sincere smile. Yet conflict in East Africa is a slow moving river fueled by the struggle between tradition and modernity; a river that cuts through the borders that were sketched by European colonialists. Tribal loyalty clashes with national loyalty. Elections spark wars while corruption and tribal favoritism remain ingrained in tentative democracies. This is Michael's home. I pretend to understand the gravity of his frustration and listen while he tells me how his wife Grace was kidnapped by her family from their home in the middle of the night because Michael was from a tribe abhorred by hers. For Michael, the night is filled with the weight of unknown havoc threatening to jeopardize the fickle balance of his life.
The story of modern Sudan is a history punctuated by colonization and war. In the early 1900s, Sudan was controlled by the Egyptians and the British colonialists as a part of a territory known as The Kingdom of Egypt and Sudan. The kingdom was ruled by the Egyptian sultan and later, following the Egyptian revolution in 1952, the first two successive presidents of Egypt. Sudan was granted independence in 1956 following a surge of Sudanese and Egyptian nationalism, but negligence by the exiting British forces left the equilibrium between Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan severely out of balance. The south had been largely ignored in the process leading up to an independent Sudan, leaving the control of the new country solely in the hands of the Arab-led Khartoum government. The northern government violently crushed any opposition to its subjugation of the mostly Christian and animist South. A mutiny by southern soldiers seeking an autonomous Southern Sudan marked the beginning of a tumultuous period of civil war lasting until 1972.
Following the 1972 Addis Ababa Accords, a peace deal brokering regional autonomy for Southern Sudan the south saw the first bit of light after years of darkness. The Accords granted control of Southern Sudan to a regional president chosen by the Southern Regional Assembly, a group of elected individuals from the South. Sudan enjoyed eleven years of peace after the Addis Ababa Accords, a length of peacetime that remains the longest the country has seen since its independence.
In 1983, then president Gaafar Nimeiry brought Shari'a law to the Sudan. The Islamization of the penal code threatened the Southern Sudanese and non-muslims living in the North. Nimeiry had succumbed to pressure from his Islamist political opponents and the Muslim Brotherhood of which he had become a follower. Newly discovered oil fields in the border region between North and South Sudan gave the Khartoum government further incentive to oppress the southern people. Although he had signed the Addis Ababa Accords during his first term as president, Nimeiry dissolved the Southern Sudanese government during his second term, sparking Sudan's second civil war.
It was this war that sent more than a quarter million Sudanese refugees south, across the border, and into Northern Uganda, to an area called Kitgum. The Sudanese were welcomed not with open arms but with the guns of the child soldiers and brutal militants of Uganda's home-grown rebel group, The Lord's Resistance Army. In 1991, the Ugandan government, with the support of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), relocated the fleeing Sudanese further south, to Kiryandongo. It was in the refugee camp in Kiryandongo that I met Michael.
My face is blushing. I know because I can feel the blood percolating to my cheeks in embarrassment. A group of young men are sitting, legs dangling from the bed of a lorry, facing me and laughing. I know why they are laughing. There is something comical about a muzungu riding on the back of a boda-boda, bobbing uncontrollably and clinging to the sides of the motorcycle taxi with white knuckles. I'm on my way into the Kiryandongo resettlement camp for my first time, elated with excitable energy, and it's probably showing in the giant grin spread across my face.
I contacted Michael through an organization in Maine. The group, composed of Sudanese refugees from the Acholi tribe, fundraised in Maine and gathered money to build a small elementary school in the camp. Michael had been hired as the headmaster of the school. It was a position he took seriously.
The resettlement camp resembles nothing of the images I had in my mind before arriving. I pictured tents, packed together in tight bunches, and rivers of excrement like I had seen in the slums surrounding Nairobi. Kiryandongo is sprawling and clean, with clusters of mud shelters resembling small neighborhoods. There is a hospital, United Nations buildings, churches, and shops. We pass fields of sugar cane and maize and see people playing traditional instruments made out of bowed wood, string, and goat hide.
The sound of clapping hands and stomping feet find their way to us through the fields of corn. We pull up to the small elementary school and find a group of fifty children waiting to greet us. They wear simple green and brown uniforms and are singing: “we welcome you visitor! We love you oh visitor!” I spend the day with the children and speak with the teachers about curriculums. The children perform a play for me. They use a rock as a prop and place it in the dirt. One boy walks over to the rock, inspects it, then touches it. “Pow!” The child imitates the explosion of a land mine and falls to the ground amidst the chuckles of his classmates. The Sudanese children are being taught the lessons of life and death in the Sudan.
“You! You cannot bring Al-Qaeda into our country!” The man with patterned puncture scars in half circles above his eyes is looking at Michael, clearly angry that he is bringing me into the Sudan. My facial hair has grown and my skin darkened by the Sub Saharan sun so it is not illogical for a stranger to believe I am Arab. In Southern Sudan, however, it is dangerous to be confused with a member of a militant Islamic group. The cacophony of the border seems to stop: diesel belching trucks and buses momentarily cease existing and the chatter of conversing Ugandans and Sudanese goes mute. Michael is the first to speak up.
“He is American, I have his papers here!” Michael has produced papers for me and has had them stamped at the border post. They state that I am visiting Sudan to survey a site for a new school to be built with fundraised money. He is waving them in front of the man irritably. There is sweat pouring down my face. The man with the tribal scars yells in Arabic what I can only imagine to be profanity and leaves us in a huff.
“He is drunk,” says Michael, after dismissing him with a wave of his hand.
I am standing on the side of the road with Michael after passing through the border crossing between Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. The two of us are in the shade of a small tree, waiting for Grace to finish at the border office. When she arrives, the three of us cross the sandy road to the awaiting bus, which is rumbling in anticipation of the final leg of its journey. Michael sits next to me and Grace, soft-spoken and shy, sits in the seat behind us. We are waiting for the rest of the passengers to finish at the border and filter back into their seats. Outside the window, the terrain is dry and desert like: a sea of yellow dirt and dead plants.
A man walks onto the bus. He scowls.
“Let me see your passport!” he demands of me. Adrenaline spikes my heart rate and makes my hands start to shake. I pull it out of my pocket and reluctantly hand it over knowing full well that my passport lacks what he is looking for.
I knew I needed a stamp, but Michael had assured me that the papers he had written up and had notarized were enough. The Ugandans had gone to a different office, a foreigners office, Michael had stopped only at the Sudanese checkpoint. I realize in a flash that I have illegally entered Sudan.
Across the isle from me outside the bus window, I see a group of men, huddled, and the man with the tribal scars above his eyes looking frenzied. The man facing me orders me to follow him off the bus. “We are told you are smuggling Al-Qaeda into our country!” says the man to Michael.
I can see the panic in Michael's eyes as he stumbles over his English trying to explain my presence. He still believes his papers are the required documents for entering the country and seems confused. I comply with the man's orders and walk off the bus wholly unsure of my future. In my mind I see long nights in a concrete cell with rusty bars and a gut full of dysentery. I see confusion and frantic phone calls to my family.
The group of us arrives at a dimly lit concrete office. It's hot and stuffy. A man in military fatigues sits in a chair in front of a simple wooden desk. No smiles. No handshakes.
“You have illegally crossed into Sudan,” he tells me. “You could be put in jail.”
The man in fatigues looks at my passport. “You are American?” He is flipping through its pages with an ink-stained thumb.
I want to cry out that I am only a child, but I'm not a child. Instead I respond: “Yes.”
“What business do you have in Southern Sudan?” his face bristles, unshaven and intimidating.
“I'm visiting to survey a site for a school,” I say, unsure of my true reason for entering the Sudan.
He takes my passport, reaches into a drawer and pulls out a worn wooden stamp. He presses it firmly on the last page of my passport, marks the date within the stamps margins, and hands it back to me.
“You are free to go.”
A lone blue lightbulb juts out of a concrete wall and reflects off the melted fat glazing a pile of roasted goat meat. It is midnight in Kampala, Uganda, weeks before my journey into the Sudan. Here, in the back of a labyrinth of densely crowded rooms, sits five Sudanese men. Army buddies. Ex-Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers uniting over rounds of beer and whisky. They are laughing raucously and speaking in Sudanese tinted Arabic.
Ruman Isaac, an old friend of a Sudanese man I went to college with, has brought me here to meet his compatriots. Ruman, pulling hard on a cigarette, was already on his second beer when I first met him on Kampala Road, at a bar in the heart of the Ugandan capital. He had a pocket full of kola nuts, imported from the Congo. Occasionally he would pull one out, mix it with a stick of bubble gum, and toss the combo into his mouth. When offered a kola nut, I gingerly accepted; chewing the mealy berry with a slab of pink gum and quickly feeling the stimulating effects of the narcotic fruit.
Not six hours later I am in the dungeons of Kampala's nightlife with this soft spoken man. I am nursing a Nile Special, a strong Ugandan beer, the color of the first piss after a night of heavy drinking, and already I have three more waiting, opened, for me to move on to and finish; compliments of the Sudanese friends I have recently made. “My friend, you must visit Sudan!” says one man. He explains that he has relatives working in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, and that I am welcome to stay with them there. “Safety is no issue,” he says. The men speak with nostalgia, as if the country of their births was not a place of horrific war.
January, 2011. Nighttime in Juba, Sudan. Daytime in Portland, Maine. I call Ruman from my icy home in Maine on a day when it is too cold to snow, when your nose hairs freeze on the first inhalation. The two weeks of voting have just ended and all of Sudan is holding it's breath, waiting for the results to be declared next month. I haven't talked to Ruman since my visit to Uganda four years earlier.
We talk over a patchy connection that cuts in and out of our conversation making each of us ask repeatedly for repetition. He explains that he moved to Juba in 2009 and now works for Catholic Relief Services, a development organization with a large presence in Southern Sudan.
I am curious to hear his thoughts on the recent referendum in his country. Part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is a January 2011 Southern Sudanese vote deciding whether or not Sudan will be split into two independent nations. It has been anticipated with reserved excitement. Known by its acronym, CPA, the agreement was signed in 2005 by SPLA leader, John Garang, the man who Ruman would have fought under during Sudan's second civil war.
Ruman is hopeful now that the world is behind the South's decision. “The people of Southern Sudan believe that if they separate from the North the world will stand with them to build them up into a nation.... The people will feel their worries and cries have been heard by the entire world.”
My memory of those months in Africa is becoming cloudy like the Bahr al Jabal, the White Nile, milky brown with mud and snaking through the dry brush land of Nimule in January. Some of the blood of the two million Southern Sudanese killed since 1956 has undoubtedly made its unholy way to the river's banks only to flow north, crossing the epic swamp of the Sudd, like an artery flowing past the boundaries of culture, to the heart of Khartoum.
I've lost contact with Michael, whom I last heard was furloughed by the Acholi managed organization he worked for. With his Christian sentiment, Michael had condemned the actions of one of the teacher's in Kiryandongo, an Acholi woman who had been stealing hair from the children and practicing a form of traditional medicine in the perceived safety of her mud hut. He told her that the heads of the organization had sent him a direct order to stop the practice. The leadership in Maine had not sent that decree, and instead told Michael he was no longer the headmaster of the school. While I was with him in Uganda and Sudan, Michael repeatedly addressed his fears that the organization would stop supporting him. He was Nuer, and working for an Acholi managed organization, and in Sudanese culture, tribal loyalty holds sway.
I worry about Michael, and often look to a photograph of him and his wife standing in their one-room home that hangs on my living room wall in Maine. They are both smiling and dignified; Michael's right arm around Grace's shoulder, with his left hand outstretched, laying softly over her abdomen. Without the support of the Sudanese living in Maine, I fear Michael has joined his extended family in the makeshift refugee camp of Lazarus' mud hut in Nimule. I fear Michael has lost Grace to her family's pride in tribal purity.
I look again at the photo and wonder if Michael's hand is laying over something else, something beneath Grace's white cotton shirt. Perhaps they are in Sudan together, nurturing a child who will be part of the first generation in decades of Southern Sudanese history to not know war.
Despite the condemnation of the world, this January's election may awaken Omar al-Bashir's mercenaries, sending them once more to their bloody work in the south, the marauders of the night who have perpetuated Sudan's history of war through genocidal acts in Darfur under the clandestine orders of the Sudanese leader. It has yet to be decided if Khartoum will continue to carry the weight of genocide and civil war on its shoulders. Ruman told me over a cellphone, speaking a world away in the warm evening air in Juba, that the referendum has been one of the events that the Southern Sudanese people have been waiting for, and have been dreaming about for years. Perhaps, if the election brings with it a vote for independence, and a peaceful succession follows, the enduring night of Southern Sudanese colonization will finally give way to the dawn of autonomy. How sweet that morning will be.
I wrote this article in January of 2011. Only a couple months later Ruman Isaac died from Meningitis after being rushed to Nairobi from Juba for treatment. Although I knew him briefly, Ruman left an indelible mark on my life. This article is dedicated to him, and all the other Southern Sudanese trying to make a free and peaceful Sudan a reality.