Restitching the Fabric of a Nation
It wasn’t clear at what point Nyangang believed she really was going to see her mother again. And, as the day’s heat haze relented to a weak sunset, it wasn’t clear that today would be the day.
We were struggling through Friday afternoon traffic in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, our driver doing his heavy-footed best to beat the curfew at the UN-guarded PoC—or Protection of Civilians camp. Unless we made it through the gates by 6pm, she would have to wait another day to be in the arms of her mother.
In 2013, on the night that fighting ripped her village apart, Nyangang had fled in one direction, her mother in another; the dark and confusion obscuring any evidence of the other’s fate. Since then she has boarded with her grandmother in the Bentiu PoC, one thousand kilometers to the north, with no information about the whereabouts, or even survival, of her mother. That was, until seven days ago, when the orange-shirted lady from the clinic said that her mother had been located here in Juba.
We had all just stepped off a small plane from Bentiu and been rushed from the tarmac into a waiting van by Tompe, our driver/fixer/translator, a bullock of man who drove just like he plowed through the crowds at the airport. None of it worried it Alissa or me too much, but our most important cargo was a girl of 15 who had just returned to sea level after her first-ever flight, who was driving in a city for the first time, had just met traffic, and who had been told she may or may not be reunited with her mother tonight.
My wife, photographer Alissa Everett, and I had come to South Sudan for the weeks leading up to the fifth birthday of the world’s youngest nation. Official celebrations, the local papers regretfully informed us, had been indefinitely postponed. Few here in Juba, however, thought the date would pass completely without event. In places I could see the evidence of precautionary sand-bagging, and apparently those who can are leaving town to take well-timed breaks.
Inside the van an anxious silence gripped all passengers. Rising levels of motion sickness ensured all eyes were on the road ahead, which allowed the sight of the Presidential compound to pass unnoticed to our right. It was here, in 2013, that the nation’s last bout of conflict began. After fighting Africa’s longest civil conflict—a twenty-two year “bush war”—the largely-Christian South won its independence in 2011 from the largely-Muslim Republic of Sudan to the north. But before it could celebrate its third birthday it launched in its very own version of civil war: tribe-against-tribe in a fight that started as a gun battle between the rival factions within the President’s security guards.
The conflict rippled outwards across the nation, in waves of attacks and retributions, including the one that flattened Nyangang’s village. In response to the genocidal tendencies of the ensuing inter-tribal war, the UN forces created a network of PoCs across the country. These giant camps were in effect instant townships into which tens-of-thousands of terrified citizens poured. The rapidly erected tent cities were surrounded by wide berms of grey earth, and multi-national peace-keepers were stationed on top of tall towers and inside stationary tanks. The camps kept filling and fillin until they provided the safe haven for over quarter of a million people, including Nyangang and her mother. Only the two were in different camps, half a country apart, and neither had any way of knowing the location of the other.
Our flight with Nyangang that afternoon had taken us from the far North of the country, over the wide expanses of the fertile, mostly low-lying nation. South Sudan is land-locked, and nestled between six neighboring states, none of which you’d call completely stable. Its neighbors are Ethiopia, a relative oasis, Uganda and Kenya, who are both usually under control, the Republic of Sudan, which also is, but only thanks only to the iron grip of its leader, and the DR Congo and Central African Republic who vie for the title of the African nations “least likely to be a holiday destination any time soon.”
South Sudan is about the size of France with a population about that of Paris. GDP per capita, a poor indicator this low to the ground, pegs the people’s living standards one fiftieth of a European’s. School enrollment is one of the lowest in the world, with teenage girls more likely to die in childbirth than graduate high school. Official inflation figures, another measure that doesn’t represent well the life of the world’s poorest, is reported to be about 20% year-on-year, but nothing in the market here is less than double the price it was six months ago.
We had gone north with UNICEF to document the conditions within the Bentiu PoC, a camp with a capacity of 120,000 that lies a few kilometers from the town of the same name. What little is left of Bentiu serves as a reminder of some the worse atrocities of the civil war, including particularly brutal night in which when gunmen entered the local mosque and left 150 dead. We had learned that the Government’s army was sporadically releasing child soldiers, and we hoped to tell their stories. At the same time, with thousands of unsolved cases of families separation, we hoped to document the process of a family being reunified. When countries begin to dress the wounds of war, actions like these—releasing and reuniting children—are seen as having a particularly healing benefit.
On landing into Bentiu, we learn that the mother of one very special young girl had just been located. The girl was Nyangang, and the irregularity of the UN-operated flights from this region meant that she would be traveling back to Juba at the end of the week on the same flight we would be taking.
When we first met Nyangang she was seated at the offices of Non-violent Peace Force, the NGO that had worked on her case. We found her sitting alone in an empty clinic, perched on a low wooden bench. We had been told that she had worked her way into their hearts of the staff as they worked on hers and hundreds of other cases. Each morning, for over a year, they would arrive at work and find her already there; eager to check on the status of her case. Hers was the type of case, they said, that reminds you why you are doing this kind of work, in these conditions.
Before I came here, my wife–an experienced conflict zone photographer who has visited 120 plus countries to put the conditions here into context–made sure I knew that South Sudan is one of the toughest places in the world in which to work. It is frequently blisteringly hot by breakfast, the mosquitos carry malaria, the water often a cocktail of things that are harder to treat. The trauma of war is worn across the faces of many, the challenges of malnutrition pains others. As the rains are yet to come the ground in the camp is a rough carpet of cracked mud in every direction and—as we witnessed during a visit to a local primary school—sometimes, out of these cracks, come snakes. Small snakes, yes, but still, snakes. Knowing that serpents periodically sprout from the ground below you is a particularly type of unsettling.
It wasn’t until she stood up, and straightened her back, that we could see just how tall she was. Even though she is just a little under six foot, Nyangang’s height is nothing special for her tribe. The Neur include genetic clusters that benefit from the tallest genetics on the planet, groups with a documented average height in the men of 6’4” and six foot for the women. What is unusual for these parts is the way she will hold your gaze. She’s quick to fix her eyes on her subject and will then maintain it. This is a place where glances are quickly diverted. In her deep brown eyes I could see no anger, maybe there’s a touch of sadness, but mostly a look of youth, of hope, of cautious optimism.
She hadn’t been told anything about us, or what we are doing here, but if there is anything she could do to ensure she gets reunited with her mother, she was going to do it. We explained that we hoped that by telling her story we could get support that would help others find their families. Eight thousand other children await the news she just got, and she nods approval that she will help us if it helps them.
Bending protocol, she began to tell her story before her case worker arrived. Her father had died during the last conflict, but prior to the night her village was ransacked. We learn that he was one of the under-reported fatalities of conflict: people who die from quite treatable diseases because, when war cuts a country into pieces, medical supply lines just don’t operate.
Inside the PoC she has been living with her grandmother for over two years, and she offers to walk with us there. Somewhere between 12 and 20 family members share two huts, or tukils as the reed-sided, canvas-roofed tents are called. There are three beds that are shared, but each night they are reserved for a jigsaw made by the bodies of the very oldest and the very youngest.
In the PoC the UN’s official figures document health conditions, malaria infection rates, percentages of school enrollment, and also include a statistic for the average coverage of canvas roofing per camp resident. Currently there are less than 2 square meters of coverage per person, meaning that Nyangang has slept for the last two-plus years on the ground and with never an arms length of space from another.
We sit on the floor of her tukil and talk to a gathering that starts with about half a dozen girls. Hair is slowly being done, loose cornrows are being unpicked and re-laid. While Alissa slowly makes some portraits, the resistance to talk about the past is understandably strong. I refocus the questions on the now, and on how she will spend her last few days here. Our visit has gathered interest, our sitting on the ground fascination, and when I stop to count the number of people in the room—a space that might disappoint for a highway motel room—I find it has quietly filled to nineteen, plus another five infants.
We learn that Nyangang, like 40% of the other children here, doesn’t go to school. Furthermore, she never has. When I ask why, her straight-forward response says more about my ignorance than any tendency for truancy: there simply wasn’t a school in her village.
Since coming into the PoC, school has been an option, but there have been more important things to do—like trying to find her mother—as well as other obligations. We visit her ever day that week and it appears that she undertakes a disproportionate amount of her extended family’s chores. We found her washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, carrying cousins on her back. As I watched her finish the family’s pots and pans, sitting alone, facing the reed fence, I wondered about the years this young Cinderella has spent scrubbing while wondering whether her mother died on the night they fled their village.
“Is she excited?” I ask about the trip to Juba through our translator, and, when I don’t understand her answer, I ask it again a different way. Then another angle. Despite my desire to get her to say something joyous, trepidation and concern is more present. I am looking for a story with a happy ending, or at least an upbeat middle, but she is experiencing this in a very different way. Perhaps it’s impossible for her to explain how she feels about the upcoming plane flight because she’s only ever been in a car a handful of times in her life. Perhaps it is certainty itself that is the hardest thing to grasp, that life has taught her that the future is a place where positive anticipation is unwise speculation.
With so little peace for only a fraction of her life, with so many agreements having been broken by so many people, I have no idea know real she thinks this all is. To be fair, the camp is an imposed reality: a thousand-acres of almost identical huts laid out in a strict grid structure, guarded by troops who couldn’t be further from home—current the major force here is Mongolian, but other nations include Fiji and Papua New Guinea. It is a surreal world, onto which we just dropped out of the sky and are now sitting on her floor. This week is apparently going to include flying, to a city in which she’s never been, to meet a mother she thought, until a few days ago, was most likely dead.
That is if we make it through this traffic on time.
We spent hours in her home that week, sitting with her and her cousins as she prepared to leave. She wasn’t feeling very well and was running a low grade fever. Stress, we guessed. We watched her get hair extensions—a cost of $1.50 and a present from a great aunt—have a new dress fitted, and a delicate, single string of beads tied around her wrist. On her final morning, Alissa went to photograph her pack her bags while I said goodbye to a former boy solider of who had just been released from the army. When Alissa returned, to my surprise, Nyangang was seated in our car. Apparently she refused to leave Alissa’s side.
“Her bags?” I asked.
“Doesn’t have any,” Alissa said with a frown that made it clear I had brought my own assumptions to the question. Everything she owns is on her now. I had made another mistake: thinking she had gone home to pack her bags, plural, only to find that she didn’t even have one.
Nobody here holds inventory. When danger can arrive unannounced, you don’t accumulate stuff. Even if you could. Nor do you plant crops, look after the trees, keep rubbish out the water, or even pick up the engines from the crashed plane that sits at the end of the runway at the Bentiu airstrip. Survival is immediate, it demands you just do what is next. Despite the fog of fever she was now battling, and all that was new around her, Nyangang remained focused on what was in front of her.
The standard pre-flight briefing informed passengers to fasten their seat-belts by inserting the metal plate into the buckle. In the thousand times I’ve heard it, I had never thought there were people for whom the instructions were necessary. Nyangang struggled with hers until Alissa reached across to help. The briefing had been in English, the official language of the new South Sudan, chosen to ensure no one tribe had an advantage. Although Nyangang understood plenty, words like “buckle” and “metal flap” are not familiar to her.
I was still sweating when the plane reached 19,000 feet. Nyangang was too, and was taking only the briefest of glimpses out her window. She was seated next to the only other teenager on the flight, one of the just-released child soldiers. He sat silent and still. His eyes stared forward, an intense glare that sat under the neat scarification that runs four lines across his forehead.
When we touched down we deplane beside three giant World Food Program planes built to drop parachute-loads of food and other relief. Each engine of these whales is about the size of the fuselage we just squeezed out of, and there is no better indication that we have just arrived in a much bigger city. Even before we have escaped the crush of the airport, the boy is gone, we hope to his own family reunification.
I should never have doubted that Tompe was going to make the curfew. Our white UNICEF-embossed minivan went straight and hard, there was no time to avoid the pot holes, many of which were less holes in the road than whole road missing. I had been relegated to the rear bench seat as two case workers and Alissa reassured the bemused 15-year-old. Nyangang was clearing losing her grip with every successive jolt. An airline sickness bag, a souvenir sensibly taken from the flight, was passed to her as we edged closer to the camp.
The Juba PoC sits at the base of an outcrop of dull red rocks that rise a few hundred feet above its heavily guarded front gates. As we pass through the camp’s security checkpoint, military coverage is attached to our convoy, one car in-front and one behind, and then we roll on through another set of gates into the main part of the camp.
Nyangang is now at the center of a cavalcade worthy of a minor dignitary. The closer her reunification comes to reality, the less real her world was becoming. And it was showing on her. She is now visibly swaying, the combination of the fumes, car sickness and a fever, the cause of which was only diagnosed a few days later. Malaria, as it turned out was the cause, is a challenge to the mental clarity of anyone.
Security require that all the cars were parked slightly back from the reunion point, and that only essential personnel were to come out. I am asked to stay in the car, and Alissa is requested to photography from a respectful distance. As Nyangang climbs out, I wish her the best, and am given the responsibility of disposing of the bag of vomit.
Through the back window of our vehicle I can see her family group standing as if for a formal reception, five women dressed in their finest, scarfs and headdresses of complimentary fabric. The woman who is clearly her mother, Mary, is standing proudly at the center.
As Nyangang walks slowly towards the receiving line smiles grow across all faces and silence falls on the growing number of bystanders. Then all order breaks down. Her mother breaks from the line and runs towards her daughter, arriving just as Nyangang’s young legs start to fold. Her long body arches backwards, head falling towards the ground, until she is arrested by the wrap of her mother’s arms. There are screams, shouts of joy from the family, and high pitched yelps that sounds like a harrowing war cry. In her mother’s hand is a large bottle of water and the top flies off and she starts to pour it over her daughter’s head. The scene is a mixes images of rebirth, of a teary baptism, with the celebration of a race car driver spraying champagne.
Even amongst the careful gaze of the military security, there is not a dry eye amongst us. We are all crying. It has taken an extraordinary amount of work to make this single point of happiness occur. Among a people who have seen so much pain, this is just one stitch, one thin thread that is being carefully sewn back into the fabric of a nation as it works to rebuild itself.
We were invited to follow the family back to their tent, and turning into the camp we quickly descend into a very different environment than the wide flat plains of Bentiu. The group strode quickly ahead of us. The elation appears to have sent them up to seven feet tall and its impossible to keep up with the women without jogging. As they sing and chant, we twist and turn through narrow laneways, between tents, small shops, health clinics, more tents, and some sort of early-evening dance club that is pounding out a heavy beat. It is housed in a steel-sided warehouse building and as it rings with calamitously loud music, children of all ages are trying to peak in. They are clinging to the wire mesh walls at each end of the building, sides that have been draped in cardboard and blankets to cover over the openings. Like the fictional Dorothy, I get the feeling Nyangang is not in Kansas anymore.
When we reach her mother’s tent it just just next to the medical clinic for the area. Which is good, I guess. The receiving line is quickly re-formed and we were told that the family would like to formally thank Alissa and me. It was the NGOs who worked for a year on her reunification, but Nyangang has told her mother we are to thank. We try to pass the thanks about, but Mary won’t hear of it, and she is determined we will listen. We are humbled to accept a blessing that is given in broken English, some translation, more of the ear-piercing cries, multiple blessings from God, and their appreciation for the actions of the “international community.”
It’s awkward for us, but it didn’t matter. This was about the family showing their respects, not about us. They could not offer us a meal or drinks, but they gave their dignity in volumes more than enough to impress.
As I listen to the presentation I can’t help but fear for the thousands of other children who have to rely on the continued support of the “international community” to have their day like this. Some of the UN agencies here confess to being funded to only 20% of their budget. Cutbacks are evident everywhere. Across the voting populations of the developed world there is growing isolationism and that comes with rapidly falling support for international aid.
For the developing nations who depend on our economic support to get on their feet it’s a perfect economic storm: a rising tide of indifference, falling commodity prices, narrowing oil margins, the off-shore havening of much of their wealthiest’s tax contribution, and a more than a dash of nationalism.
I am feeling it directly as I let people know by Facebook that I am working here this week. I am reminded that many people think I should be doing work closer to home. “Why do these people persist on breeding” the trolls ask in the comments to my posts. And these are my “friends.”
How quickly we forget that many nations were set up with considerable support from the “international community.” How we forget the French army fought for America’s independence, how the English funded my home of Australia for about century before it stood on its on feet. How Marshall plans restructured European nations until they had the efficient bones for their modern economies. How we forget that we are all the products of a time when the prevalence of disease meant our families were much larger.
We return to the camp a week later to check in on Nyangang. She’s been told we are coming and when we arrive she is again ready for us, only this time she is standing in a knee-length electric-blue dress and almost-matching blue earrings. Her sister then appears in an identical dress. The dresses were bought from money an NGO worker gave out of her own pocket, knowing that Nyangang had arrived without a change of clothes. I am not sure a body-hugging lace dress was what she had in mind for the wardrobe expansion, and I suspect her sister might have done the shopping with her. Her young sister has been in the camp since they fled the village and she has perfected a very urban swagger.
While Alissa photographs the two girls, I talk to Mary, sitting on the bed that Nyangang now shares with her sister. She has been to the nearby clinic and has started her malaria medication. She has registered for school, and will start next week. She does less of the washing up, and it is not always her responsibility.
School will no doubt be a challenge, as starting grade one as a 15-year old is hard in any culture. Then there is the draw of the camp disco, again pounding away within earshot. Plus the attention of boys, and her mother’s very limited resources. She hasn’t got a phone yet, but her sister has. And it comes with unlimited Facebook, which is another new world she is yet to enter.
We all know this will be a challenge, but we also know Nyangang now, and she is the girl with the bright eyes, the one that turned up every morning to check on the status of her case until her mother was found. The one who kept it together through the events of her day of reunification.
Events though, are not always in the control of even the most tenacious.
Barely ten days later, on the evening of the country’s 5thth anniversary, gun fighting once again erupted within the President’s compound and the country was shunted back into war. The fighting spread across the city with the helicopter gunships of the Government firing indiscriminately into the thin metal and canvas rooftops below. The anti-Government forces sought their high ground on the small crust of a hill outside the PoC from which they launched mortar attacks.
Media reports, tweeted from bunkers with mobile phone images, send a stream of chilling news. Scores of civilian deaths across the city raise alarm, including one report that identifies the sites of explosions being the medical center behind Nyangang’s house. Four are dead, we read. When local representatives of UNICEF call, they find Mary’s phone it isn’t answering.
This isn’t the story I came to write.
We’d taken Nyangang from the flats pans of the countryside right into the fire. She may now she share a bed, but its adjacent to where the mortars are landing.
As the fighting continues, the city empties of foreign aid workers, all non-essential personnel are evacuated as soon as the airport is secured. Those that remain are working from underground with intermittent internet connection. I try to get news about the special girl we feel somehow responsible for, bantering across email in the black humor of conflict with a few who remain.
There is no news, which is not good news.
Finally, two weeks later we get an update. “She’s OK.” Shaken, but OK. “Please don’t worry” we are told, and her malaria is well on the retreat. She has even been back to school. Fighting has stopped, things are “back to normal” and fears of an immediate reprisal are dulling with every day that passes. UN troops are being joined by African Union forces. There is quiet in a military sense across the PoC, although the disco continues to pound.
During our time in South Sudan we were taught a local expression that was translated for us as “apart you can be sad, but together you will never be.” We hold our breath every day for Nyangang, and believe she is where she is most happy.