Friday, March 30, 2007

Beware of Landmines!

Anytime you leave the compound you have to be aware that there are land mines all around this area (and all of South Sudan). Kapoeta town was fought over heavily by the Northern government and the South, so the SPLA laid down many mines to keep the government in the town during the war and the government did the same to keep the SPLA out. Many roads and villages have been cleared, but there are still some areas where you cannot travel. Doing work sometimes becomes difficult as you must be prepared to not be able to reach certain areas. Aside from the work that we are trying to do, it stops returnees who wish to return to their home free from fear of land mines. Over 80,000 people in this region live in areas that are affected by land mines, and there are casualties every year due to unexploded land mines.

Thank goodness for the de-miners though or else we would not be able to work here at all. And what a job they have too! They move around finding the mines and destroying them. Sometimes you can hear them exploding the mines that they find. At the de-miners compound they have a big collection of bombs that they have found sitting around. The bombs are at least as big as I am, and much heavier... It’s strange to see these bombs and imagine them falling from an airplane onto
someone’s home!

It’s no wonder the de-miners like to come over to our compound to relieve some stress. A nice surprise when they came over to the compound along with other NGO workers for a spontaneous Wednesday night party which includes charades. I figure any ex-pat living in Sudan should be good at charades since sometimes that is the only way to communicate when you don’t know the language. Lots of laughs were had, and as you can see- lots of Tuskers (the Kenyan beer)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Flash Floods

Returning back to Kapoeta following a week in Juba is not an easy task. The drive would not be too long except that the road between Juba and Torit (which you have to take to get anywhere East of Juba) is impassible because of insecurity. The insecurity is caused by the LRA (the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda), or others using the LRA as a scapegoat. So this means taking a flight from Juba to Kenya- only to return back to Sudan. The flight takes us to Loki, Kenya- on the border with Sudan. I won’t talk about the flight now because I don’t want to scare anyone who might fly in Africa, but all I can say is that I will never fly another WFP (World Food Program) flight again- certainly not with a pilot named Chris!

Loki (as it is fondly called) is the hub of ex-pat activity. Or at least it used to be. When the war was going on it was the only way into Sudan and many people just worked from there. Now that access to Southern Sudan has opened up, Loki is not quite what it once was… Lots of NGOs are closing up shop in Kenya altogether and moving on establish themselves entirely in Juba.

To get to the Sudanese border we have to wait for a security escort because there was an incident a few days before we were to travel. I feel a sigh of relief upon crossing back into Sudan and away from Kenya. Who would have thought that Kenya was more of a problem than Sudan?

It was a long rainy night the day before we left Loki. As we set out in the morning the rain was still pouring down. I knew that the road out would be bad, but not quite as bad as this! We just cross the border before encountering our first problem. Three trucks have gotten stuck in the mud and there is nowhere for us to pass. I’m not quite sure how our driver makes it through and around the trucks, but we are able to pass. Thinking that was the end of it we continue only to reach another mess full of trucks stuck in the mud. Thankfully there is a bigger truck busy pulling trucks out of the mud which I'm sure he will be busy doing all day.

The next big roadblock is a river that was bone dry when I drove over it 2 weeks ago and now after one night of rain the river is rushing quickly. Another NGO’s car got swept away as they tried to cross the river during another flood, so I know crossing a river is a challenge. There is nothing to do when we arrive but wait… The river comes and goes and we just have to wait for the right time. As we wait we are surrounded by Toposa people who are also waiting to cross the river on foot. If they can make it we can too! We risk it and manage to get across safely, although I was holding my breath the whole way just in case we got swept away.

Back to Kapoeta at last…. With the rain what should have been a two hour journey took nearly six.

Keeping peace at a peace conference

The Peace conference in Torit begins with the arrival by plane of the Vice President of South Sudan (Riek Machar). Upon his arrival a white bull is slaughtered for him to step over. My first sighting of such a thing, but I manage to hold back my gag as I take this photo… Seeing this reinforces why I’m a vegetarian… (I have already caused a controversy and insulted several people by not eating meat here – but that’s another story for another time...) The Vice President is taken to the conference hall where he is welcomed by traditional Sudanese dancers.

The conference lasts a week with lots of logistical chaos and definitely a lack of peace in the planning, but the conference itself was successful. People got together to speak about peace (and sometimes war), and to learn from each other’s experiences. There are some strong personalities at the conference and not many women’s voices are being heard in the government right now. There is so much work to be done to rebuild a country like Sudan, hopefully meetings like this will help in bringing everyone together to talk about their issues and work towards peace.


After the conference, we jump on a plane that looks like it’s from World War II and fly straight to Juba. The flight goes smoothly and the plane is much more solid than I originally thought after seeing the way that it was held together. As I get off the plane we are waiting on the runway for our car. I found this to be a little unsafe so moved inside. A few minutes later I find myself separated from my car which is on the runway and inside by more soldiers than I have ever seen. I run through the middle of them to get to my car not realizing what was going on, but later found out that the President of South Sudan's plane has just landed and is on the runway. He has a huge reception anytime he arrives at the airport, next time I'll be prepared for all the soldiers...

From the airport I make my first foray into Juba- the capital of all of South Sudan. It feels a little like Nairobi, only hotter, dustier, and safer! I felt safe walking around at night alone and leaving the door unlocked. I think because of Sharia law in the country during the war, everyone is so afraid of committing any kind of crime. Also in general Sudanese people are very honest.

I was able to eat good Indian food, great pizza, and some Nile fish (which I’m sure had some kind of toxins considering it came from this polluted part of the Nile). Juba is on the banks of the Nile, but there is no agriculture going on here. One irrigation system from the river is right now being used to wash cars! There is definitely a need for some good agriculture and water people in Juba.

You can buy liquor and other Western delights from the new supermarket in town- all imported from Kenya and Uganda of course. Nothing much is produced in Sudan yet… But, I’ll take what I can get while I’m in Juba. With my new stock of goodies, I head back to the bush of Kapoeta.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

To Torit we go….

Right after arriving in my new home of Kapoeta I’m told that I’ll be leaving in a day to help out with a conference in Torit- the current capital of Eastern Equatoria. I head off with my new Sudanese colleague for a four hour drive on dusty, bumpy roads. On the way we pass through the Kidepo Valley, an area where much fighting has taken place over access to this prime grazing land. We see houses built right on top of the mountains for protection. I have no idea how they leave their homes or have contact with the outside world, but I suppose that all that mattered during the war was safety and seeing your enemy coming.

On the way we pass another car which is broken down. The driver was traveling alone and has been stuck in the bush for five days trying to get someone to help him!! We try to help him but the car is not going anywhere. After trying for a while the commissioner shows up (wearing a leopard print cowboy hat (wish I had a photo of that)), and tries to help. We leave the driver behind knowing that he’s in good hands. We must get to Torit...

When we arrive in Torit it seems like a booming town compared to Kapoeta. It’s also level four security because of the LRA, although there was nothing going on while I was there. The town is full of UN peacekeepers patrolling the peace in the white UN landcruisers. Lots of driving in circles observing... A car full of peacekeepers offered me a ride as I was walking two blocks. I thought you weren’t supposed to give rides to civilians guys??? Or maybe that doesn’t count for females…. Regardless, thanks for keeping the peace- we need you!

As we are sitting outside of the SPLM office waiting for our truck to arrive from Nairobi a huge convoy passes in front of us. It’s the Russians. They are carrying out at least ten tankers full of oil. They won't let any Sudanese drive because of safety, so every car is driven by a Russian with a bunch of angry looking Sudanese men sitting in the vehicle and hanging off the back. It’s quite a sight to watch and everyone seems to be tense watching it go by in case anyone tries to attack them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Welcome to Kapoeta

This is my first blogging experience, but I thought that living in a place where most people only think of the images of war and violence that they see on TV I should try and show another side of Sudan that most people rarely get to see. My goal is to show a little of South Sudan to the outside world. I will be adding stories and photos of the people that I come across, the work that I’m doing, and the small steps of progress (or lack of progress) I see towards peace in South Sudan.

The town I’m living in is called Kapoeta, about two hours from the Kenyan border. It used to be a garrison town, but slowly this is changing. During the war days, it was fought over between the North and the South. You see remnants of war everywhere in the town.

The native inhabitants of the town are called the Toposa people. They are pastoralists and their cattle are everything to them. They are friendly people although many of them have guns as so many weapons flooded the area during the war. There are problems here between tribes stealing each other’s cattle as they are one of the only means of wealth in this area.

Here is my short introduction to Kapoeta town, more stories to come soon. Let me know what you would like to hear about…