One of the perks of this job is that I find myself in the strangest places while the rest of my friends and family are enjoying normal, wholesome activities. I've spent Thanksgivings in Ghana, en route to Darfur, and finally now - in the capitol of South Sudan, Juba!
If you remember my previous descriptions of Juba, you'll be amazed to know that in the past 8 months - a lot of things have changed. No, there still aren't roads, the soldiers still haven't been disarmed, the refugees and internally displaced people are still on their own to try to make things work. BUT - there is an ongoing peace process being hosted by the Government of South Sudan (Riek Machar - better known as Mr. Emma's War to some) who is trying to get the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan People's Defense forces to sit down and stop terrorizing people in Uganda and south Sudan. And there are now MANY MANY restaurants and tented camps to chase down potential interviewees in Sudan. The development economy strikes again - gotta feed and get those humanitarian workers drunk!
Much to my chagrin, we only learned that the peace talks had gone into recess the evening before we left for Juba. We had to go anyway because we had spent two whole days plus several hours trying to make it work - get the South Sudan visa, get a place to stay, get a ride to the airport, get the name of the guy in charge. All of that would have been for naught and we had made a promise to our boss that we would do our best.
So we arrived in South Sudan with heavy hearts and visions of the previous visits collapsing tents, mudslides, and strandings vivid in our mind. My friend Melissa, that I met last time, picked us up from the airport and drove us back to the OCHA compound. So far so good - everyhting looked the same except that there were a lot of road construction vehicles around. Got to the OCHA compound and everyone was the same! I saw all the same people. Drove to Mango camp - slightly different but still very familiar. Next day - our car never showed up to pick us up. Same as last time! Went to the OCHA compound and sat around trying to make appointments - same as last time!
So what's different? Well - after wandering around and being told that everyone we had come there to see had gone to Kampala for the weekend (where we had been), we randomly ran into a man looking for directions to UNICEF on thanksgiving day. We gave him a lift over there and when we got there, we asked him what he was doing there. He said - "I'm part of the LRA peace delegation!" Exactly the people we had come to see. We hurriedly made an appointment to meet him back at 5pm at their camp "Juba Bridge".
Kavita and I arrived early to our appoinment and all fo the LRA delegates got up out of their sleep to come sit in plastic chairs near the river Nile to talk to us. Ugandans, particularly Acholi Ugandans, tend to be very soft spoken. Sudan is a loud place. As the first man began to speak, someone walked over to the large television that was perched in a tree (so if you didn't want to gaze at the Nile, you could watch satellite television in front of the nile instead) and switched it on. The familiar opening notes to the intro from "Six Feet Under" banged out. Behind me, a construction worker began to weld something. The flies made a beeline for my eyes and we began the familiar greetings and courtesies for our interview.
Two hours later, we were still talking and trying to get them to admit that the International criminal court wasn't pursuing Joseph Kony (famed abductor of children and mutilator of victims) fo no reason. They insisted over and over again that he was a freedom fighter. What about the children who were abducted from schools and forced to kill their class mates? What about the mutilations of people and the accusations of cannibalism? What about Kony's 'rule by the ten commandments' and previously apolitical stance? All of those abuses? Commited by the UPDF. All those children we interviewed? Brainwashed by the UPDF. But the sad thing was, these guys were the intellectuals, the prized sons of the Acholi people who had been exiled from their land and sent away to the US, to Nairobi, to the UK to make money and send it home to help their brothers and sisters. "We're the ones that pay the school fees." they told us. And they were intelligent. They were well spoken and proud. But I think they made a deal with the devil to represent him while they try to bring peace to Acholiland to let their brothers and sisters leave the horrible displacement camps and go home in peace. I don't think they believed what they were saying to us about Kony. I think they are just desperate for peace.
Kavita and I went back to our little tented camp on the banks of the river Nile - just a few blocks up and sat down to analyze our Thanksgiving. Peace seems possible but noone knows what will happen. The ICC indictments are a stumbling block. I was dying to ask the LRA delegation that why, if Kony was so innocent, he was afraid to face trial in the Hague? If he loved his people so much, wouldn't that be a small price to pay to bring them peace? But we had listened to every conspiracy theory under the sun from them. We had heard all about the agricultural land grab going on (not that I don't believe it) and our throats were parched from the dusty night in Sudan and we didn't feel like we were making any progress. So instead, we went back to Mango camp. Sat under the mango trees looking at the Nile work its way up to Khartoum, and toasted to peace in Uganda and Sudan with a cold Bell lager.