Jan 292010

Upper Nile State, March-April 2008

There is something severe about Malakal, in its hardened grey clay earth after many months of no rain.

There is no infrastructure of any kind here, sewage flows freely into make-shift gutters that have been superficially dug along the sides of the unpaved streets.

And it’s hot. The day we arrived it was 55 degrees Celsius (130 Fahrenheit) in the shade by the banks of the Nile. William Deng’s home was in-land, a good 20-minute walk from the river. Malakal’s streets had once been tree-lined, an irrigation system using water from the Nile kept crops and gardens lush and green. But government forces destroyed all that during the civil war, leaving Malakal barren. The few existing trees had no leaves left on them, and anyone who could remotely afford it used corrugated metal sheets for roofing and as fences.

By mid-afternoon the yard was an oven. I could barely breath from the heat, and as we neared April and the oncoming rainy season the air grew increasingly heavy with humidity, trapping the fine clay dust in mid-air. Over the weeks the dust began to settle in my lungs.

Malakal is the capitol of Upper Nile State, lying on the border with North Sudan, with an estimated population of 72,000, which is quickly growing with the many returnees coming home to the South since the end of the civil war.

But despite the promise of peace the area continues to see fighting between Southern Sudanese forces and GoS-backed militia, in violation of the US-brokered peace agreement between the North and the South that ended Africa’s longest running civil war. In November of ‘07 Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, had threatened to send militia forces into Upper Nile province if the government of South Sudan continued to speak of secession. Indeed, militia loyal to the GoS continue to stage attacks in this region in violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), at times forcing international aid agencies to leave.

Control over oil fields and the distribution of oil revenues lies at the heart of this violence – Sudan’s largest oil fields are in Upper Nile State, which produces about 330,000 barrels of oil a day.

The NGO Refugees International reports of continued forced displacement of entire villages as a result of oil development in Upper Nile. And the United Nations Mission to Sudan (UNMIS) is already overstretched. It does not have the mandate, nor the capacity, to monitor and prevent this. Minefields surround Malakal on all sides, but UNMIS doesn’t have the resources to clear them all at the rate that refugees are flooding the area, consequently setting camp on minefields. During the rainy season the mines re-surface in the softened soil. The day I went to interview the Chief of Surgery at Malakal Teaching Hospital, Dr Omar Mamoun, four children were rushed in with severe injuries, mamed, missing fingers, hands, one child lost a leg, from having stepped on mines. And amidst all this the wrangling among tribes for power in the south, over oil in particular, have mounted to threats of violence the likes of which we are witnessing in the Niger Delta.

“There is a hopelessness in this place like I’ve never experienced anywhere else before, not in the Congo, not even in Darfur,” explained a British nurse from the French aid organisation Medecins Du Monde. “It all feels temporary. No-one seems to want to invest themselves in life here. The children don’t go to school regularly. They are up and about at all hours of the night. Everyone looks utterly exhausted. In fact they are all traumatized.”

The trauma, the fear, is palpable on the streets, and around the docks along the Nile. It was practically impossible to shoot in public places. Faces would look up at my camera with fear in their eyes, heads would shake “no”, some pleadingly, others in anger. They did not want to be caught on camera. A few times I was approached by Arab men in civilian clothes demanding who I was, that I put the camera away, and threatening my safety if I were seen with camera in hand again. They did not identify themselves and officially had no authority. South Sudan has no restrictions on the media, on filming or taking photos. But NGO officials explained that Khartoum’s secret service has a presence in Malakal. NGO staff, even uniformed UN officers, have had cameras destroyed, torn from their hands and stomped on in the middle of the street.

And it seems to be an especially grave offence to shoot at the river, around the docks. I was confronted by two Arab men at the banks of the Nile on our way back from a visit with the Shilluk king. I was getting some shots of the steamers on the river before climbing into our little boat, jam-packed with old men, women and children carrying colourful plastic shopping bags. It couldn’t imagine where they were all coming from and how they got there – as far as the eye could see on this side of the river there was nothing but flat savannah and a few grazing cows. Down the dirt road leading away from the docks three large concrete buildings stood against the horizon. It had been a military garrison. During the civil war the GoS military used it as a detention center to interrogate prisoners. “Nobody knows how many people died there. They just disappeared,” Simon Deng explained.

Simon and his brother William Oduok Deng had quickly stepped in to come to my aid as one of the men became more insistent and aggressive with me. The confrontation threatened to turn ugly so I relented and put the camera away, but it did not seem to help. The men shouted at the locals who shared our boat, “Did she ask you, this arrogant American, if she could film you? The Westerners still think they are our masters and can do what they please in our country.” Simon snorted back pointing to his brother, “Do you know who this is? He is the State Secretary of Political Affairs, SPLM. She is his guest. And who are you? Whose authority do you have?” Simon turned to the group of people sitting in the boat and explained to them, “We are returning from a visit with the King. These women are his wives.” Two women had driven with us on the back of our truck. We had not been introduced. The women here are very reserved outside of the family home. The Shilluk king has sixty wives, I was told.

I repeatedly heard the same explanation from locals about why they did not like being photographed or filmed; “Westerners take our photos, especially of the naked bathers by the Nile, and post them on the internet. Like we are objects.”

Dr Omar Mamoun, Malakal Teaching Hospital:

Mamoun is Chief of Surgery at Malakal Teaching Hospital. Word of his skill “with the knife” reached me all the way in New York City from an American surgeon from New Jersey, Dr. Adam Kushner, who worked with Mamoun in Malakal in ’06. Mamoun is an Arab Sudanese from Khartoum originally. He was sent to work in Malakal for a few years just towards the end of the civil war. When the North-South civil war ended he sent for his wife and children to join him but the South Sudanese tried to send him back to Khartoum. Mamoun’s patients and their families protested his dismissal all the way to the steps of the airplane as Mamoun and his family prepared to board. Mamoun did not want to leave and the community did not want to lose a doctor whose tireless dedication and expert skill saved countless lives under sometimes impossible work conditions. The day I went to see Mamoun the hospital, only 20 meters form the Nile, had no running water or electricity. Mamoun has become adept at performing surgery under such conditions. He said he performs an average of 80 surgeries per week. William Deng said that he could count close to 40 relatives who owe their lives to Mamoun alone.