Bus trip through madness

During the 10-hour ride between Juba in southern Sudan and Gulu in northern Uganda one sees raw scars of the two wars that recently ended here.

minefield 88 224 (photo credit: Arne Doornebal)
minefield 88 224
(photo credit: Arne Doornebal)
It is still dark when I arrive at the Juba bus park at 6:30 a.m. We pass the Custom market, a giant market mainly run by Ugandan traders. Massive amounts of trash are smoldering as there is a constant burning of debris in the streets. The bus to Uganda will leave at 7; a ticket goes for $30. As the sun rises, we can board the bus. The usual scenes occur - men carry huge loads of luggage, while others want to change money with me. Meanwhile, the bus owners try to sell the last available seats. We depart at 8, only one hour behind schedule. After only a few miles, all passengers are told to leave the vehicle. We have reached the bridge over the Nile. Since almost all goods in southern Sudan are imported from Uganda, the bridge is crucial. It used to have two lanes, but last year a heavy truck crashed through one of them. No risks are taken with the remaining lane. In southern Sudan, an area bigger than France, one can find less than 40 kilometers of asphalt roads and the road to Uganda is a bumpy dirt path. The desolateness of the land is striking as we leave Juba. That is no big surprise: On January 9, 2005, a peace agreement was signed between the rebel SPLM (Sudanese People's Liberation Movement) and the government in Khartoum, after an armed struggle of over 20 years. Except for a brief calm period, southern Sudan had been in a state of war for more than 50 years. Southerners are black Africans, mainly from the Dinka tribe and generally Christians. The north of Sudan is ruled by the Islamic regime of Omar el-Bashir. The war was about cultural and religious differences, but also about money. The south is significantly poorer than the north, and since the peace agreement it is getting 50 percent of the country's oil revenues. Southern Sudan, which has been a semi-autonomous area for the past three years, received $1.4 billion in 2007. In 2011 the inhabitants may vote between becoming a new state or continuing to be part of Sudan. The land is dry, with little vegetation. Next to the road we see many wrecked cars from the frequently raided vehicles. There are few villages in the area, since most of the people who lived here are either dead or on the run. The few people we see survive like refugees. In some cases, nothing more than a piece of plastic provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees serves as their shelter. Most of the structures we see are tukels, traditional Sudanese huts made of loam, with a roof of reeds. The only buildings made of bricks we pass are burned down. The destroyed tanks we see prove how fierce the battles must have been. I am trying to take pictures of the tanks, which is quite hard because of the bumps and the high speed the driver manages to achieve despite the deplorable road. At the next minefield, we have to wait for half an hour, because it is being cleared. SPLM and government forces were sometimes at the same frontline for months planting land mines. Many people have been killed by these invisible murderers. The UN, which has an enormous presence in the area, is dismantling the mines. They are close to the road, and mainly located around the rusty bridges, which are full of holes. After the stop, the journey continues. Destroyed tanks continue to pop up on the side of the road. I count seven of them. Sometimes we drive for miles without seeing a living soul. AFTER SIX HOURS, we reach the border. The fact that I got myself a visa at the southern Sudan embassy, which is valid only in the south, proves how seriously progress is being made toward a separate state of southern Sudan in 2011. The customs officers are very friendly. They complain about the fact that the national soccer team of Sudan, then battling in the Africa Cup of Nations, is dominated by players from the north: "But in the Africa Cup of 2012, the south will play as a separate country." Processing all formalities on the Sudanese side of the border takes an hour, after which we drive some miles through no-man's-land and switch to the left side of the road. On the Ugandan side, it takes us another hour. I am glad that someone is selling goat meat, and there is also a smart ice cream peddler. The impoverished kids, who were surprisingly quiet during the bus ride, come to life. All my somber thoughts about what happened here disappear for the moment. When the peace between northern and southern Sudan, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, was signed, it did not mean the end of suffering for the people in southern Sudan. In the beginning of this century, the conflict in northern Uganda had also crossed the border. There, the so-called Lord's Resistance Army has been fighting the government since 1986. The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, claims it wants to establish a state based on the Ten Commandments, but uses any but Christian methods. The rebel movement attacks villages and kidnaps the children. Boys are used as new recruits, while the girls are given to the much older commanders to serve as sex slaves. For two decades the war raged on in Uganda, where the army was struggling to gain success against the rebels. The child soldiers, some of them as young as 10, moved in small units and were almost invisible in the large areas of northern Uganda, using the low vegetation as a natural cover. When the Ugandan army finally started achieving military successes, the rebels started to cross into Sudan, where they continued kidnapping, murdering and mutilating people. Their trademark became cutting off the ears, noses and lips of those who did not want to obey Kony. In Sudan, the rebels enjoyed relative safety because the government in Khartoum did not attack them. According to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the LRA was actively supported by Khartoum. In turn, the Sudanese government accused Museveni's government of supporting the SPLM. After the peace treaty was signed and the SPLM gained power in southern Sudan, the protection of the LRA came to an end. They moved on toward the Democratic Republic of Congo. In August 2006, the LRA and the Ugandan government signed a cease-fire, which is still in place and which is being renewed, while negotiating a final peace accord. Northern Uganda is more populous than southern Sudan. The conflict here was mainly a guerrilla war. The LRA mainly used ambushes and surprise attacks. We pass huge internally displaced persons camps. Tens of thousands of people live here, and they can only reach some fertile land by foot during the day. The people in the army-protected camps lack almost everything. Although the government urges its citizens to go back to their own, often destroyed villages, many people stay in the camps waiting for the final peace deal. The talks between Uganda and the LRA are held in Juba. By the end of January, both parties were hoping that a final agreement could be reached "within a month." But the day after this hopeful development in the so-called Juba talks, the Sudanese village of Kajo-Keji, close to the Ugandan border, was attacked. The attackers killed and abducted people, typical of the LRA. Later that week another village in the area was attacked, allegedly leaving more than 100 people dead. The LRA peace negotiators denied any involvement, but the talks were delayed again. Still unaware of the attacks around Kajo-Keji, not too far from the road we are using, I wake up because something is touching my leg. I am glad to find out it is not one of the many chickens which are taken as luggage on the bus. A schoolboy on the seat behind me tries to nap on the dirty floor. A woman, who boarded the bus at the border, appears to have entered without enough cash. Mercilessly, the driver kicks her off the bus, after which her luggage is also thrown out, landing in the Ugandan sand. At 6 p.m. we reach Gulu, the city which has been bearing the brunt of the LRA war. We see asphalt for the first time that day. I get my backpack; it is black from the dust and hot from the engine. The bus driver, who saw me taking pictures constantly, asks if I can also take his picture. Proudly he poses in front of his bus, while two men jump under it for some instant repairs. The other passengers remain seated. For them the journey is not over yet. They will continue to Kampala, which they hope to reach before midnight.