Sudanese Kids carry bricks to help us build the school base in Padak
There is a feeling that you get, albeit a fleeting one, when you have done a lot of work in another country and you hear about the country in normal conversation somewhere else. The feeling is a nostalgic, un-belonging homesickness for your “adopted” country. For us, this feeling accompanies news of Sudan, a country that our team has poured great time and resources into. The year we were there has remarkably tattooed our hearts with the color of Sudanese earth.
It may sound odd, but I felt like we were a part of helping stitch together broken things while we were there: maybe even the hearts of the people.
It was last January, when I last felt the feeling of missing the Sudan tug at my heart as I saw the reports about a crucial vote that would split the country in two: a referendum where South Sudanese were set to vote on whether or not to break away from the northern Khartoum government and form their own country. It was a risky referendum: it could mean the end to civil war that had lasted more than 50 years. If it failed, it would increase tension between the North and the South. The vote passed, and in July, the Sudan and South Sudan were formed.
Today, in the gym, I saw another report, but this one reminiscent of the civil war in the past. As I stopped what I was doing, I felt like I was seeing the stitches being torn out of the fragile patched peace that had just been made.
Fighting along the north-south border has been near constant over the past two weeks. On Thursday, South Sudan accused Sudan of bombing the capital of their Unity State, Bentiu. Soon after, aircraft belonging to Sudan dropped five bombs on a bridge linking Bentiu to neighboring Rubkotna. The two towns comprise Unity State’s most populated area.
This indiscriminate bombing, reckless by its nature and reaction, killed one civilian and wounded four. The U.N. and the United States called for an end to clashes that threaten to spark a full-blown conflict.
While it is easy to see that the immediate conflict is over oil rights (South Sudan owns the oil fields and refineries, Sudan owns the pipelines that transport them), the Civil War’s groove worn into the back of Sudan seems to pull them back into the old ways of solving conflict. Watching, from a distance it is heartbreakingly easy to say that the dysfunctional way that the North and South are used to solving problems will dishearten and kill more of its people.
We drove up to Sudan from Johannesburg. The journey was unforgettable. It was also unforgettably long. It took us eight days, though Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya (I’ll never forget the night that I saw the Big Dipper in the same sky as the Southern Cross) to get to Lokichokio, on the border of Kenya and Sudan. There, we bathed with hot water, swam in a pool and slept on beds for the last time in a long time.
The day we left Loki, we picked up armed guards (that we were instructed not to call soldiers) and crossed into Sudan.
We noticed something surprisingly unusual as we left Lokichokio. At the north end of Loki, beyond the noted dry river bed, the Kenyan military has set up a border checkpoint. This is considered the "true" border between Kenya and Sudan. Beyond this point lies a road leading to Nadapal, the Sudanese checkpoint which is about thirty km’s away. The area known as "no-man's land" is situated between these two checkpoints. So technically, for thirty km’s we are in between Sudan and Kenya where our “guards” watched the hills for bandits. We crossed during a peaceful time, but were still advised to be on high-alert . The women were not allowed out of the car, and we had to move to back seats, where we were supposed to make no eye contact with anyone outside, once we did get to the Sudan border.
The long road to Juba was not nearly as bad as the road to Padak, where our base was. To reach it, we went through unusual roads, some of which had not yet been swept completely for mines. When we did have to use the toilet, the four “girls” had to find an obliging bush and follow our leader’s footprints to make sure we weren’t stepping on any mines. All the while, we were guarded by our...ahem, bodyguards.
In Sudan the people were tall and lean and dark - gorgeous to look at. At first, they had little of what we call “African friendliness”, but seemed guarded, untrusting, and suspicious. Knowing their background, it was easy to understand why. The children were only allowed to move back into the village about two years before, after the fighting had stopped. We were in the South, and the soldiers (whoops! Bodyguards) seemed at home.
Besides the blazing heat and the biting flies and mosquitoes (we were not far from the banks of the White Nile), the experience was amazing and we had the time of our life.
Grace and I
At camp, a local girl named Grace (the native Southern Sudanese are the Dinga tribe) was especially attached to me and nearly drove me nuts as she followed me around, wanting to help. Because her words didn’t include the “J” sound, she called me “AAA-SSHH-aa-neeess” (my name is Janet). Everyone else’s name she could pronounce properly, but mine... made me nuts when she said it. Even though she was helpful and wonderful and lovely, she stuck to me like glue and always followed me too close. My camera was something she always wanted pointed at her, so that she could see herself (the village had no mirrors). At the end of our trip, I gave her a pair of earrings I had been wearing: small amethyst studs to go in one of her three ear piercings. She smiled shyly, and I almost cried.
There was a group of kids who always were getting into trouble nearby, and knowing they only wanted attention, we decided to have a party and invite them. The only problem was that we didn’t have toys and only had one ball. We decided to pass balloons in a circle using only our elbows. The melancholy left the camp and the kids’ faces were unforgettably filled with smiles. After this, they invited us to dance with them, and as we clapped, we were stunned to see some really suggestive New York style hip-hop dance moves come forth! I didn’t know how to hip-hop so I showed them my robot moves, which they loved and kept asking me to teach them. I could only imagine that a few of our team before me showed them the hip-hop....
So, it is not a nameless, faceless country teetering on the brink of another civil war. It is these, locked into the recesses of my heart that I carry everywhere. Sudan is filled with “children of war” – ones with classic signs of what we call PTSD; they usually do not possess anything that can’t be taken away in a suitcase. They follow people, especially their parents, very closely, because they know the pain of separation.
At the gym, I remembered all of this. I remember Sudan, and hope and pray for peace that will last beyond today.