Thursday, March 16, 2006

Collapsing tents, mudslides, and missed planes

Juba, South Sudan

Collapsing tents, mud slides, and missed planes. That would summarize up the South of Sudan in a nutshell. After three days in Juba, the “capitol” of South Sudan, we now have a birds eye view of what is going to take to rebuild this country.

First up: Lodging and Accommodations. In order to even work in Juba – one must undertake a very convoluted and treacherous relationship with the “tented camp” purveyors in Juba. There are three that I know of: Mango Tree, AFEX, and R2 or something. We lucked out by befriending a pretty young woman logistician who scored us a tent in the coveted Mango camp. We arrived to a sweltering hot (about 110 degrees) and the city which consists of a collection of huts and dirt roads. Our tented camp reminded me immediately of summer camp. We had a full size tent with two cots in it and a solar shower and camp toilet behind the tent. This costs about $100 per person. Also, everyone who is there has warned us that 50% of the people get malaria. And there is currently a cholera epidemic in Yei, up river from us and they pump Nile river water into our showers.

But the good thing is that they have a bar and at night you sit on the banks of the Blue Nile under the mango trees and drink beers from Uganda. The bad thing is that their main clientale are “security consultants” from Dyncorp and other ‘private military companies’ which means talking to former military men who are threatened that you can talk their language. So after arguing politics with ex military men and former Zimbabwean farmers, we would collapse exhausted in our sweltering tents to try to sleep.

We did get to go see the Dinka Bor women and children. The Dinka are famous for being extremely tall, extremely skinny, and extremely dark skinned. The women are amazing looking. They are preparing to board a barge and go up the Nile to a town called Bor where they will wait for their men who are living in Cattle Camps to retrieve them. Ironically, the UN determined they were not safe commuting back to Bor with the men and the cattle so they set up this way station camp. And then Cholera broke out and 18 people died. We have the opportunity to go up the Nile with them which I am dying to do. The Nile is almost completely undeveloped here and people live as they did hundreds of years ago. The Sudanese in the south are extremely conservative in their culture and continue to wear traditional dress and do scarification on their faces to mark their tribes. I hope we get a chance to go.

Anyway, after two days of running around town and trying to get flights set up, we got booted out of our camp and had to go to AFEX next door. Well it appears that the rains came early this year. After a mighty clap of thunder, the sky opened up and the deluge began around 3am. The tents at AFEX are not as sturdy, I think and my colleague Betsy’s tent collapsed upon her in the night. She had to climb out of the tent and stand under an awning of a neighboring tent trying to find me. She eventually went to the mess hall and sat in the swamp drinking coffee. It was a swamp. The sand is mostly clay and sand. Small rivers run through the camp. Someone said they awoke to their computer floating next to them. All of our stuff was soaked. After slogging out into the mud to try to find our driver, we noticed that the parking lot had turned into a lake and across the river from us, a local village was dealing with a small mudslide. The South African pilots and Zimbabwean de-miners and various security men told us that there was no way the planes would fly today. This was a problem since we had an 8:30am flight to the Upper Nile. Our driver never showed up and we missed the plane.

So: Plan B. Tonight we are sleeping in a UN compound in a ‘container’ which are slightly less leaky than the tents. We scrapped our plans and are now headed to a place called Malakal. Malakal is represented on the map as surrounded by two enormous swamps and located in the oil region of Sudan. There are landmines all over the town and the UN de-miners are uninterested in working there. We don’t have accommodations yet but hope that the Bangladeshi peacekeepers will put us up.

Today, because we had no driver and no one was showing up to work because of the rain, we decided to do a little exploring in the ‘capitol city’ of the New South Sudan. We drove over with a UN woman to see John Garang’s grave. A garish monument covered in neon colored fake flowers, Sudanese flags, and what looks like someone’s laundry sits in the middle of a barren mud field. It is guarded by four heavily armed Sudanese men in full jungle camouflage sitting in the shade. They yell at us to sign their guest book and make us stand in different positions to photograph the grave. My favorite photo is Garang’s photo surrounded by flowers and an AK47. We also went to the “Salvation Automatic” bakery to buy some bread. It’s really pathetic. The streets are avenues of mud, most of the houses are huts or burned out and the number one thing on sale was some sort of blue soap with a pair of scissors embossed in it. You can also buy what looks like used underwear.

So we head off to a different town in South Sudan tomorrow. And we will go and find returning IDPs and refugees who are telling us over and over again that they want clean water and education for their children. And the World Bank economist I met with yesterday tells me that the Government of Sudan is responsible for providing this and they have zero capacity. Most ministries only have two people in them currently. But still the people return with hope and belief that the war is over and the country will be rebuilt. One only hopes that the international community doesn’t renege on its promises and let them down.

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