Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Lesson in Aweil

The past few days have been mercifully cool (for Sudan); the sun has been blocked by dust, and although it means a fine layer of greyish-brown particles on everything, it still beats the consistent awfulness that is 42º (about 107ºF) without air-conditioning. I'm still in Malualkon, but will be heading back to Juba tomorrow (assuming the plane will land with the dust) for a few days, and then off to Yei.

On Saturday, I take a day trip to the town of Aweil, about a 45-minute drive down the surprisingly good road from Malualkon. Aweil is the state capital of Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, and has things like cell-phone reception, a couple two-and-three story buildings, and a stand in the market that sells oranges, grapefruits, hot peppers, cabbage, and more. I go with Ellie, a British woman working for an NGO affiliated with the organization, and six Dinka and Nuer men. Their NGO does journalism-related work, and the guys are all going to town to cover a rally for the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the dominant political party around here.

When we get to the rally the guys jump out of the Land Cruiser to go and gather stories, leaving Ellie and I to wander around town a bit. We try to see, but the crowd is huge, and short Dinka men are generally at least six feet tall, so it's a pretty hopeless effort. At the podium, the speaker is shouting in either Dinka or Arabic, making the speech completely incomprehensible. Ellie and I try to make our way through, around the rear of the podium stand, so we can get out to the main road. A fleet of Land Cruisers with mirrored windows is parked behind the podium, the getaway cars for all the 'big men' once the rally is over. As we walk along, people stare at us incomprehensibly- the idea of a khawaja walking through this place, two even, including one with bright red hair (not me), is more than a little bizarre.

We escape the rally, and walk through the main street towards the center of town. The road is lined with enormous trees, one of the few remaining vestiges of the colonial era, when Aweil was a British settler town- supposedly a spur of rail line still exists, although it hasn't worked in decades. Within 200 meters though, after passing both SPLM headquarters, and the office for the National Congress Party (President Bashir's) we realize that virtually everything is closed- the rally has shut down almost the entire town. Deciding the best option is simply to wait it out, we make our way to a quiet café where we can relax under the trees. After about 90 minutes we hear the wail of a police siren, an odd noise for this part of the world- the rally is over, and the important people are off to their next destination. Within about 15 minutes, Aweil comes back to life. The shops reopen en masse, and the reporters arrive at the café, where we share a lunch of roasted meat with tomatoes and onions, beans, and chapatis, all surprisingly good.

Now that the markets have reopened, we decide to take a walk through town, with the guys. People stare just as much as before, but having an involuntary escort of six enormous Dinka and Nuer men seems to keep some of the harassment we might otherwise get at bay. We walk past stands filled with Chinese-made purses and backpacks, enormously long colorful dresses for enormously long Dinka women, and the ubiquitous plastic zipper-top storage bags with printed designs of LONDON (featuring a picture of Big Ben), NEW YORK (with the Statue of Liberty), PARIS (the Eiffel Tower), and SEE THE WORLD (with a bald eagle mid-flight).

Continuing through the market, we move into the electronics section, where dozens of cassette player/boomboxes sit, most with styrofoam bracing on each side, wrapped in very dusty plastic. Following that, we come to a long row of spice merchants, selling dried chilies, crystal salt, and other spices and powders I couldn't possibly identify. As the spice sellers come to an end, the dried fish section begins, and the putrid stench almost makes me gag. Strands of semi-cured Nile Perch stand on the table, some braided together into something almost resembling the conical shwarma kebabs you can buy throughout Europe and the Middle East. We walk through as quickly as possible, fortunately before my nausea gets the best of me.

Jacob, Luka, and Nyol, three of the guys, want to go and smoke sheesha, flavored tobacco in hookahs, so we follow them to a coffee shop. Crowds of men sit gathered under the tin pavilion as boys run back and forth carrying fresh pipes, hoses, and more charcoal. Along the side wall a woman is making Nescafé, hibiscus, black, and mint tea in small glasses. Not wanting to smoke, Ellie and I sit at the edge of the café by the door, and order two glasses of mint tea, which arrive a moment later. Fresh mint floats inside the glass, and the first sip brings an intense minty-sugary wave.

As we sit and watch people go by, we both notice perhaps a four-year-old a boy walking across the path from the shop. He's barefoot, and the pants he wears may as well be non-existent; huge gashes have split both the front and back. He stops for a moment, looks at the two of us, and begins to climb a rack of pipes sitting along the path. As he climbs, the non-existent pants begin to slip down, and he quickly jumps off, shoots an embarrassed look at us, and scoots away. We watch for a bit longer as the guys smoke. A kid walks by, carrying an enormous burlap sack on his head.

"These kids work so hard," Ellie says. "Can you imagine? Never a day off."

"No, I couldn't begin to," I answer. "If you ever need any reminder of how good you have it, just look around."

I find myself thinking of a story Ellie tells me earlier in the day about Luka, who is missing three fingers of his right hand, leaving only the index finger and thumb. His left hand is complete, but there are massive stretches of scar tissue along each side of his wrist.

"It's an amazing story, really," Ellie says. "He was hiding with a group of children when the government attacked. Someone threw a hand grenade into the hut, and Luka grabbed it, to protect the kids. He was able to get it out and start to throw it away, but just as he threw, it went off."

"All of these guys," she says, gesturing at the three smoking sheesha, "they were all probably child soldiers."

On some level, I understood that time-wise, that'd make sense, but as I think about it, I realize that I can't begin to imagine. I've been so fortunate to live my life in a developed country, in a place that hasn't seen a military attack in my grandparent's lifetimes. To deal with a war where both sides (the Sudanese government and the SPLM) routinely recruited or conscripted small kids, to have witnessed brutality beyond anything I can comprehend, and to lose everything, in a place where most people have almost nothing to begin with.

I don't know how people do it- I know I couldn't. The fact that they continue to move forward is an incredible testament to the will to live among the people of southern Sudan, and they have my profound respect.

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