For the next two months, ReadCONTRA founder Rajiv Golla will be living in Juba, South Sudan, working with the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, local journalists, and a number of local politicians, professors, and community leaders to paint a picture of the Third South Sudanese Civil War. This is the third in a series of articles about his travels.
I was told by a veteran reporter based out of Juba that living in South Sudan would be a “baptism by fire.” And nothing could be more apt.
After 38 hours of travel punctuated only by 20-minute naps on the floors of various airports, fleeting Wi-Fi, and scant conversation made over seemingly insurmountable language barriers, I finally arrived in Juba, South Sudan.
But not before meeting Abdallah (name has been changed) in Addis Abba Airport. I was trying to catch one of those aforementioned naps and was blessed to find beach chairs in the waiting of room of Terminal 1. I laid out and wrapped my arms around my bags and was just about to fall asleep when a short, portly, dark, man sat next to me with a sigh to match his chair’s own discomfort. He turned to me, asked me where I was from, what I was doing, and all the other questions that tend to accompany a 19-year-old, scrawny, Indian kid traveling through Africa by himself. As our conversation unfolded, Abdallah revealed to me that he was in fact an arms dealer/ military strategist with a background in civil engineering. He showed me photos of himself with Isais Afwerkie, president of Eritrea, allegedly taken just days before his encounter with me. When he found out I would be in Juba for the next month, he wrote his number down on a piece of paper and demanded I call him the next week—after his meeting with the presidents of Djibouti and Chad— so he could introduce me to President Salva Kiir and “put me up real comfortable”. As he left to catch his flight, he cautioned me to stay safe in Juba.
“It’s a city of dangerous people.”
My attitude to the trip had vacillated over the previous months between excitement and paralyzing fear before finally settling on resignation. His words began stirring up fear once again and when my plane landed in Juba amidst cargo crafts tagged UN, WFP, and ICRC, my heart was racing. Soldiers were swarming the airfield, quite literally a field that had been paved over and managed quite casually with no discernible authority guiding movement or activity. All 6 of my fellow passengers and I disembarked and were quickly ushered through a makeshift tent housing a man armed with nothing more than a thermometer and clipboard in his battle against Ebola. From there we went inside a sweltering brick building staffed by even more soldiers that demanded our passports and stamped our visas in between their personal cell phone chats.
I was supposed to meet Denis Dumo, a stringer for Reuters, at the airport so he could drive me to the Ministry of Information to get my press credentials and then to my apartment downtown. But I had overestimated the facilities that would be available to me in both Addis Ababa and Juba airports. I wasn’t able to get my hands on a SIM or internet for me to notify my only ride from the airport when I would be arriving. I spotted a fellow Indian that seemed much more at home in the bustle than I. We spoke for a bit and when I tried calling some of my contacts with his phone only to be met with voicemail after voicemail, he offered to give me a ride to a nearby hotel where he was doing some business so I could sit down and try to find someone to come get me.
After a few more failed phone calls, he took his phone back and ordered us some tea. It turned out that he had spent the last 12 years in Africa, based out of Kampala, Uganda, running a commodities business supplying restaurants and hotels in major cities in the region with food and drinks. He ordered me some dinner and by this time some more Indians had joined us at the table, all speaking a language other than my own. Some English words slipped out and some members at the table translated for me and as fate had it, I was sitting across from the richest Indian man in Juba in the lounge of his hotel. Before dinner was over they had found me a place to stay downtown with an Indian man that spoke my language in a house that kept 8 UN staffers. But it was too late to get in the car and drive across Juba so he called over one of his employees, whispered in his ear, pointed at me, and now I’m freshly showered lying in a room of one of Juba’s nicest hotels. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be driven over to my new house where I’ll spend the next four weeks.
Juba is a city isolated from the rest of the country, with its own microcosms political and ecological. Situated right on the Nile River, the city is nestled in between several mountains that jut up conspicuously in the otherwise flat and sparse bush, lending the city to its own moderate climate removed from the extremes of the rainy and dry seasons that ebb and flow with the summer and winter months. The city is also located far from any other major city, the closest being Bor, with only one landmine laden highway connecting them. The city is completely removed from the ethnic conflict that has enveloped the rest of the country, not because of any metropolitan diplomatic culture, but because of the ethnic cleansing that took place two years ago that forced any endemic opposition into UN shelters on the outskirts of the city.
I’m not exactly sure what my plan is anymore (which assumes I had a solid plan before I got here) but thus far I’ve been incredibly lucky. Tomorrow evening I’ll be meeting with a local radio journalist that’ll be taking me around the city and having me meet other prominent journalists and the Minister of Information at his home. Though I was planning on filming while I was here, the situation on the ground just seems too tense to be pulling out a camera without making the proper inroads with the community. Some tentative plans right now are to meet with some professors at the University of Juba, feel out the security situation to decide whether or not to attend the independence day rallies next week, and get permissions from the UN to visit the IDP camps with a local reverend. But for tonight I’ll be able to enjoy probably the only peace and quiet I’ll have in this city for the rest of my stay.
(Title image via).