Friday, March 27, 2015

Journal Entry for January 24, 2004: Trip to Juba

Just back from visiting Juba. Juba is the furthest south of Sudan’s Nile cities, about 800 miles as the bird flies and a good distance further as the river flows. Juba is also the edge of the north’s furthest reach. Juba itself is less than 100 years old but each empire that has tried to rule Sudan has put an outpost in the vicinity. The Turks, Arabs and the British have done it. The Juba area sits at the point where the White Nile enters the plains after dropping down from the Mountains of the Moon (the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda). The empires have all wanted to control it in order to control the gateway south and north. But the outposts have always been too far from the north and too difficult to defend. Juba sits well south of the Sud, the great swamp that chokes the White Nile and has always presented an almost impassable barrier to going up river. The border between Arab Sudan and African Sudan is another 300 miles north of Juba but the government and the SPLM have fought most bitterly over this one city and the province – Equatoria – of which it is the capital.

Juba is closer to Uganda and the Congo than to Khartoum. It took our US Air Force C-12 just under three hours to get there. It is dry season but it was clouded most of the time. Rain sprinkled us as we were touring the military hospital. Juba is not really a city but a very humble and over-crowded town. The government has 12,000 troops to control the town and a bit of the surrounding territory. (They seem in no hurry to leave.) About 500,000 people live in government-controlled territory. Most of the 2 million southerners who live in the refugee camps of Khartoum come from Juba. (My cook and houseboy come from there.) Even though with a ceasefire, the countryside – fields for crops, roads – is heavily mined and unusable. In an area that could feed itself, most everything – food and fuel – has to come from Khartoum. The barges can only use the river during the dry season and the town has electricity only for the 3-4 months a year that fuel can reach it by barge. Food costs four times the monthly wage; that means those with jobs can feed themselves from their pay only one week out of the four. Then they “make do.”

The SPLM repeatedly attacked Juba because they wanted to make it their capital. But the government used all of its resources to hold it. They have several towns in the south but the SPLM controls the countryside. This stalemate has made both sides willing to try a peace agreement. The people of Juba have been so brutalized by the war and by oppression by the Arabs that they don’t believe in peace even now. I met with the auxiliary bishops of the Catholic and Episcopal Churches. They have carried alone the weight of helping their faithful survival. One told me that every day that people survived made them thankful but they could never tell about tomorrow. Imagine waking up facing the job of finding work, shelter, the next meal while also being afraid that if you complained or said or did anything that the security people didn’t like that you would disappear and never be found. And the next day, if you survived the night, the same thing all over again for 15 years. The Catholic Bishop spoke of the people having been traumatized and I could see in his eyes what it had done to him. They were glad that the US had not forgotten them. I brought my USAID person with me and we listened to them tell us that they needed help. The people of the US know nothing, nothing about all of these places where other people have nothing, not even hope.

Juba is dusty, dirty – filled with that scourge of mankind, plastic bags – and very poor. But it also is indisputably Africa. The mud huts with straw roofs, the chickens, goats and dogs running loose. The smiling faces, all the children waving and wanting us to take their pictures. That wish to have their picture taken always makes me wonder. They’ll almost certainly never see them. It is that somewhere, somehow they want their lives to be recorded, remembered by someone outside? I always feel at home in Africa. We stayed at the USAID compound, now occupied by the International Red Cross. The ICRC team includes doctors and nurses who run the local hospital. They work 18-hour days, six days a week. The Sudanese staff won’t help them because they don’t care about the local people. The Red Cross people, mostly Europeans, are the most dedicated I’ve ever met. Rough living in Juba but they all can’t stop what they are doing.

I had 15 minutes between meetings – that included with the local army commander, who gave us dinner – and took a swim [in the USAID pool]. Reminded me of Harare. In the evening I sat alone by the pool for a bit and smoked a cigar. I watched the smoke disappear into the night sky and thought of paradise.

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