World view: A foreigner in South Sudan

You don’t immediately feel the fighting..although the open-air bar at the hotel is abuzz with commentary.

Camp in South Sudan (photo credit: LINDA EPSTEIN)
Camp in South Sudan
(photo credit: LINDA EPSTEIN)
You don’t immediately feel the fighting sitting in Juba, although the open-air bar at the hotel is abuzz with commentary. One woman, who is responsible for logistics for a company that provides large trucks and bulldozers for road building and food distribution, complains of how one truck was “commandeered” by rebels in the north and another was straight-out robbed. The hotel owner runs by, yelling that the UN compound in Bor was attacked and UN troops shot and killed a local.
A Lutheran priest who has been in South Sudan for a number of years tells me I have chosen the best place in the bar to sit, since the table is next to a wall I can hide behind should the shooting start in Juba, as it did just weeks before on a bridge easily visible from the hotel’s bar. And a journalist who has just returned from Bor tells me that the fighting has become the “norm,” and that ethnic rivalries are now obvious in every interaction.
Take just a step outside the oasis known as the Beduin Lodge Hotel, and you realize immediately that “luxury” is a relative concept.
On a stroll to the local market, your senses are immediately assaulted by such sights as a goat carcass, half-eaten by dogs and vultures, across the street from a home surrounded by walls and barbed wire with a satellite dish on the roof.
Yet everyone is attired in a manner which makes me wonder how, in 38° heat, they can look so well groomed. Their shirts are pressed. Dresses are well-proportioned and colorful, and without any sign of dirt despite the humidity and the muddy streets (due to a brief tropical downpour).
People in the street are hard at work surviving. One rides a bicycle to a water truck to fill several jerry cans with the precious substance.
Another sells hardwood coal for fire. A third tries to sell me garlic, as several heads are displayed on a dirty cloth on the ground.
At a major junction outside the local market, a pick-up truck with gun-toting military personnel oversees the jumble of traffic, which includes minivans of both left- and right-hand drive, all filled to overflowing. Occasionally a UN jeep goes by carrying one person, almost invariably white.
A middle-aged man walks along carrying two carved wooden AK-47s, one in each hand, a smile on his face as he passes me. In the market itself, a woman carrying a small cross made of bamboo stops to address me, unsolicited, with a big smile, saying “shalom,” and a nanosecond later, “salaam.” As I wander through the market, clearly a visible minority with my white skin, many people smile and say hello. Yet others are clearly suspicious.
This, the newest of nations, has been inundated by some 2,000 international NGOs. Well-meaning people from places as diverse as Britain, China and Bangladesh came to help establish a modern society in the country. Of course, they want to stay in facilities which are “up to scratch,” so places of slightly higher standards are now charging outrageous amounts for a basic apartment (e.g. over $4,000 per month in a country where an average monthly wage is 5 percent of that).
And many of those NGOs’ personnel live in compounds, constrained by self-imposed curfews of 7 p.m., when the government’s curfew is 11. No wonder they get cabin fever.
The purpose of my trip to Juba was to evaluate a program that was instituted by one of those NGOs, albeit one of the very few which actually strives – and succeeds – to empower locals to deal with trauma, particularly as it relates to gender-based violence.
Soaking up the atmosphere and beginning to understand the complexities of the politics were side benefits to me.
Taking photos is forbidden, although it’s possible to sneak a few here and there as one drives around. The city of 300,000 is very spread out – almost a large village – with relatively few paved streets and a limited number of new multi-story buildings. There are still lots of round huts made of mud and sticks with thatched roofs to be seen throughout the municipal area, and it’s not uncommon to see cattle or goats being herded through the streets of this capital city.
And then there are the camps for internally displaced persons – citizens of this newest of nations who are now refugees in their own land due to what seems to be developing into a mini-civil war. The camps consist of dozens of ad hoc huts providing only the most basic of protection and privacy, and after a heavy downpour, many have to be rebuilt. Shade is provided by the one and only tree in the field.
So many people have been forced to leave their homes since internal fighting erupted last December that experts are now predicting a famine as the planting season is being lost. Tragedies abound, at the individual as well as the national level. A child who burned himself in a cooking fire is bundled up and carried off to a priest in hopes of finding medical care. The displaced people themselves are scrawny, clearly not receiving anyone’s recommended number of calories per day.
Yet the resilience of human beings is astounding. The desire to take control of one’s own life outweighs the challenges, as many women meet under that lonely tree at the internally displaced persons’ camp to ask questions on how to identify trauma in themselves and their friends and how best to treat it. This can only bode well for the future.