Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Few New Developments

Sorry for the delay in posting anything here- it's been a busy couple weeks, and blogging has taken a backseat to work and moving around. To attempt to make up for it- here's a three-part post.

About a week and half ago, I had a chance to visit a refugee camp for about 6,000 Congolese who fled to southern Sudan following an attack by the Lord's Resistance Army in the area. Founded in 1986 under the leadership of former altar-boy Joseph Kony, the LRA has become infamous for widespread atrocities in Northern Uganda, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and southern Sudan, notably the kidnapping of children to use as soldiers. According to the Swiss NGO Trial Watch, more than 85 percent of LRA fighters are children between the ages of 11 and 15, 40 percent of them young women.

Nyori camp, where I visited, is only about 10km from the DRC border. It's run by NGOs, and coordinated by the United Nations’ organization for refugee affairs, the UNHCR. It straddles a small creek. At the bottom of the steep ravine, a newly painted red-and-white wooden bridge connects the two sides of the camp. On either side, the refugees live in small rectangular grass huts, most of which have been reinforced with UNHCR-issued white plastic sheeting.

(By the way, I have photos from the camp, which I'll post as soon as I get the chance.)

I certainly wrote about this plenty while I was in Chad, but seeing the camp made me realize yet again just how incredibly lucky we all are in the developed world. We never think about what would happen if a militia suddenly attacked our community, what we might do if we had a parent, sibling, or child dying from a completely treatable disease, or how we'd manage go half the places we do if we had to use roads that were more crater than gravel, spending four hours to go 30 kilometers. This is southern Sudan, and this is the situation the Congolese refugees are fleeing to. I don't have anything particularly pithy of profound to offer on this, but it's just something to think about the next time you might feel like complaining about your flight being delayed 20 minutes.


Speaking of flights, the travel from Juba to Agok was...exciting, as usual. Flying out of Juba is always a challenge- the airport has one entrance, guarded by SPLM (the southern Sudan military) troops, and always surrounded by a mob of people, every one of whom is trying to get in the same doorway, waving passports and southern Sudan travel permits. I did make it through the door, however, but quickly found myself in the midst of another mob- it so happened that my World Food Program (WFP) flight happens to be checking in at almost the exact same time as one of the regular flights to Nairobi, leading to a huge crush of people trying to check in at the single counter next to me. I'm able to push my way through, however, and hand my agency identity card to a man in a fluorescent green vest at the counter so that he can check my name on the manifest, the only ticket needed for UN travel.

In Juba, you walk behind the counter to deal with your baggage, causing a huge crush as people try to squeeze through. On WFP flights, you can carry a maximum of 15 kilograms, officially- in practice, the number seems to be higher, if you're friendly enough. My bag seems to always be a few kilos over the limit, and again I'm lucky that after throwing it onto the scale, the baggage handler shrugs, and hands it off to me. The next step is security- I lug my bag to another countertop, where an SPLM soldier and airport security officer wait. They gesture for me to open the bag, which they ruffle through, setting aside clothing, multivitamins, and a jar of peanut butter I picked up at the Sri Lankan-owned supermarket in town. Airport security. Over to the side, a new X-ray machine waits, turned off.

Checking my big bag, I squeeze through to the other side of the counter, and make my way to the other half of airport security, the waiting room before the terminal. In another logic-defying move, the entrance to the waiting room is only accessible through a single tiny door, where other security agents wait to search your carry-on bag. A huge line divided in two is parked in front of the door- one for men, one for women- in a huge blow for equality, I guess, the women's line is about 1/8th the length of the men's. Making it to the front, the agent searches through my bag by hand, removing the batteries from my alarm clock- almost as logical as airport security back home. I duck under the fake leather curtain separating the security checkpoint from the waiting room, am quickly frisked by another agent, and waved through. Mission accomplished, much pushing and shoving later.

To get to Agok we fly first to the town of Wau, via another town, Rumbek. We take a small turboprop exactly like the ones you might take in the US between San Francisco and LA, or Miami and Tampa. We arrive in Renk just under an hour later, hitting the dirt runway with a cloud of red dust behind us. After picking up a few passengers, we're on the way again, off to Wau. 30 minutes later we touch down at the airstrip- as we flash past, I can't help but notice the broken fuselages of two large jets. Each is tilted crazily up on their wing and in several pieces- whether it was a poor landing or artillery that brought them down, it's hard to say.

After a two-hour delay that was supposed to be 30 minutes, I head to Agok. We fly on a tiny plane called a Twin Otter, which bounces through the clouds as I hold on, trying not to think about it. On a rational level, I know everything is fine- a pilot friend of mine explained to me recently how they look at turbulence in the air in the same way that the captain of a ship sees waves. Still. I'm close enough to the controls that I can see a GPS unit ticking away the distance- that helps, plus the fact that I see the pilots joking with each other over the headphones. If they were concerned, I'm sure they'd look serious.

We fly past the runway first, in a wide circle. No air-traffic control around here, so this is the only way to make sure that the landing strip is free of children, goats, or anything else that might get in the way. Doubling back, we hit the gravel and bounce along, coming to a stop next to a few parked Land Cruisers. I've arrived- 400 kilometers and six hours later.


So, the village is called Agok, but I think 'surface of the sun' might be a better name. Holy crap, it's hot.

Agok is dry and brown, with a few tough acacia trees hanging on to provide a bit of shade here and there. It reminds me a lot of Chad- same heat, same dust, same goats, same seko grass mats, same women in bright headscarves.

I'll be in Agok and the surrounding towns for about a month, looking at the organization's work in Economic Recovery and Development, writing stories, and taking photos. It's interesting stuff, but still not exactly what I want to do- fortunately it looks like I won't be doing it for much longer... Details to follow.

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