Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On the milkroute in Sudan

Malakal, South Sudan

We finally left Juba with excruciating hangovers. The UN had a party on Friday night that was dress in your best African finery party. I declined (although I wanted to dress in my white nightie and wave my hair and say I was Karen Blixen in Out of Africa). After much frantic dancing, chugging of scotch with the country director, and talking of politics with the US Embassy rep, I retired to my tent at 3am. We had to arise at 7am to make our flight to Malakal. After eating lots of paracetamol and eating Cliff bars, we boarded the flight to Malakal. Little did we know that the 8am flight to Malakal arrived at 3pm after making approximately 10 stops throughout South Sudan. We flew down to the border with Uganda. We flew up to the Nuba Mountains. We stopped in Rumbek. We unloaded motorcycles and loaded up fax machines. We landed on dusty runways with the remnants of planes lying next to them. Cows crossed the runways. We aborted landings due to dust storms. Finally we landed in Malakal, a small town on the Nile river. After much frantic negotiation, we agreed with OCHA that we would stay with them for $10 a night.

That night, they introduced us to the Seventh Day Adventists’ -- the only organization working out in the countryside. After a delicious meal of tomatoes and rice, we got up early to go to the internal displaced camps.

After a long drive along the flat plains of the river, we crossed over in a small canoe and went to a small place on the Nile called “Canal.” Its name is derived from the canal project that Sudan and Egypt launched in the 1980’s to excavate Jonglei canal to deliver water to Egypt. The project--initiated by the North of Sudan with little regard for the environmental or economic impact on the South--infuriated the SPLA and they kidnapped canal company workers and started fighting around Malakal in 1983. Now it’s a small town filled with IDPs who fled the fighting further inland and have settled by the river. It’s marked by a big rusting crane and a bulldozer beached in the middle of the village. It’s also a big transit point for people returning from Khartoum, Ethiopia, and other places trying to come back to their homes. According to the town officials, there are up to 100 new people passing through and looking for assistance every week. As there is no food assistance provided to returnees, the locals have to share their limited supplies, which is increasing the poverty among the permanent residents. Some returnees don’t move along back to their towns because either their villages don’t exist or it is very difficult to get to them. Because Canal is bordered by a river on one side and a landmine field on the other, it cannot expand, creating overcrowded conditions. The result: growing pressure on the local community. “We are all Sudanese,” the Paramount Chief told us. “We cannot deny them because we are here together to celebrate the peace. But it is getting difficult.”

Malakal, the major town nearest Canal, is filled with and ringed by landmines. The town itself was occupied by the Government of Sudan soldiers (from the north) and was constantly under siege by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) (from the south). Additionally, there was a splinter group that operated here called Southern Sudan Defense Forces (SSDF). Many of the local tribes also have arms. “You say there is peace, “ a displaced man from Canal complained, “but where is the peace? How can there be peace if so many have guns and are allowed to steal my cattle?” We moved closer to town to a settlement called Obel 1. We ventured in to the main compound to talk to a collection of men all sitting under a tree playing dominos. (All of the women were out gathering firewood and grass to sell.) As it turns out, three men there wanted to tell us their story. One was from Khartoum and had just arrived in Obel five days earlier hoping to go to Akobo where his family was living. He had been away from the area for over ten years. Another was a refugee from Ethiopia who had left his family behind in the refugee camp while he tried to visit his mother in Waat to see what the conditions for return were like. The third told us of attempting to go to Waat in the first convoy in many years.

“It’s a long journey – the main road has many landmines on it so we have to make a new road through the forest. Instead of taking 2 hours, it takes us 48 hours. And it’s difficult to get water for that journey. There is no water in Waat. They are drinking out of a small lake from the rainy season and they are sick there. When we were going up that road, two of our trucks broke down. We also saw that many dead bodies along that road. Four had been killed by bullets and three had died from thirst. They died while they were sleeping under a tree and alongside the road with their clothes under their heads as pillows. We just need that road cleared so we can get back to our family and our people. We don’t need much. We just want our government to help us.”

This is what the peace in new Sudan looks like. The disarmament process has barely started so weapons are everywhere. Landmines cover the area. In fact, three children were killed two days ago when they found a landmine and tried to play with it. The Land Mine office told me that new arrivals are building their houses in the mine field because they don’t know. He actually went in someone’s house and pulled a mine out of their floor. The Deputy Governor has denounced the UN de-mining effort as inadequate because it will take years to clear Malakal of mines. The UN would like the forces who laid the mines (both the Government of Sudan and the SPLA) to remove them, or, at the very least, to mark where they are. The immediate priority for the UN is to clear routes for humanitarian purposes because there are few roads that are passable. Because of the lack of adequate clean drinking water, the people have to draw their water from the Nile. Cholera has travelled up the Nile from Yei to Juba to Bor and over 150 people in Malakal fell sick from cholera yesterday. The hospital is so overwhelmed that they have moved the patients to a stadium.

After two days, we felt ready to leave. Sadly, the World Food Programme air flights aren’t as sophisticated as other airlines. We called to see if we were on the manifest and to see when the flight would arrive. “It’s been canceled” they told us. Later, we found out, it hadn’t been canceled and in fact there had been four flights. Our host told us a story. “They told me there were no flights so I frantically booked the UNMIS flight. When I got to the airport to wait for the UNMIS flight, the WFP flight landed. I asked the pilot if I was on the manifest and he showed me that I was. So I called WFP. I said, ‘when is the flight arriving here?’ They said, it’s cancelled for today. So I put the pilot on the phone. They then apologized and said – ‘we didn’t know you were actually at the airport’. “ Such is life in the New Sudan.

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