On the road in South Sudan
Written by Andrew We were about an hour south of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, driving on the road towards Uganda when a small explosion jolted us all in our seats. Our van’s smooth progress forward turned into an off-balance grind and Emmanuel, our driver, pulled to the side of the highway.
Only 30 minutes earlier, we’d stopped at an army checkpoint. Thanks to Emmanuel, who’s daytime job is as a traffic policeman, we made it through without a hitch. The army, however, had insisted we take along a new passenger who was to “advise us on the security situation.” Considering there was a civil war happening in the country, this was probably good. The problem was that it brought the number of people in our eight-passenger minivan to nine.
As our two OM leaders, their friend, our driver, the soldier, my three teammates and myself piled out onto the side of the highway, it became apparent that this turn of events had been too much for the rear-left tire. It was now a mess of shredded rubber and broken wires.
We’d spent the week up until then in Juba, working on a film about the bookshop that OM South Sudan runs there. Our South Sudanese hosts, Tony, English and Moses took us to their homes or to the homes of their parents, and we spent time with some of the kindest, strongest people that I’ve ever met anywhere.
The downtown of Juba has the feeling of a small to mid-sized American town, which isn’t strange until you think about the fact that it’s the most developed city in a country of 8 million people. Surrounding the downtown are sprawling communities of mud houses and corrugated metal shanties. Moses, the team’s oldest member, took us to visit his elderly parents in one of these communities. Hearing the story of how they––like much of the city’s population––came down the Nile on boats after the independence from Sudan in 2011 and are now working to build their lives from scratch in this new settlement was one of the most humbling and awe-inspiring things I’ve heard.
This Friday morning, though, Tony and English wanted to take us south to Nimule National Park to see a completely different side of the country. As we traveled up the highway, the steel roofs of Juba gave way to a mist of lush green bush from horizon to horizon. Every few miles, clusters of round mud huts with pointy thatched roofs dotted the landscape and occasional monkeys scurried across the road.
After replacing the tire with a somewhat doubtful looking spare, we got on our way again. The landscape became more mountainous until we crested a ridge and could finally see down to the truck-stop town of Nimule, our destination on the border with Uganda.
The plan was for us to make our excursion into the park that afternoon, spend the night at a hotel in the town, and head back to Juba early the next morning. After making the first inquiries with the local government officials, though, Tony told us it was impossible to get the necessary paperwork done before dark. The park would have to wait till the next day, and the rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, except for a visit to a nearby traditional restaurant where they served what we all agreed was the best fish we’d ever tasted, straight from the Nile outside the park.
The next day we showed up at the government office at 9am, but it was close to noon before all the necessary permits had been issued for us to enter the park. When we did, it was in the back of a Land Cruiser that was even more overloaded than our van, since several more off duty soldiers with AK-47s had been conscripted to provide more security for the adventure, and they were also packed into the vehicle. The local official we’d had to wait so long to get the permits from decided he would come as well.
We drove to a series of rapids along the White Nile which were beautiful. The whole park itself is stunning, really. Grassy emerald green hills speckled with large shade trees dipping down into a plain toward the raging blue and white torrent of the river. Perhaps due to how late in the day it was, we didn’t see much wildlife from the truck or the riverbank.
After lunch, we drove to a boat dock and my team, along with four guards and the official, all boarded a boat that was to take us to a less accessible region on the other side of the Nile. The river here was a maze of different channels with tall reeds on either side and islands of vegetation floating in the water. Some of these turned out to be hippos.
We went ashore on the far side and things got a little exciting when our forward-most guide tripped over a large python. Fortunately, it had just eaten something and reacted only by slowly slinking away into the grass. It may have eaten an antelope, which we now saw dozens of flitting between shrubs and trees, always keeping just a hundred meters or so ahead of our group. By this time the sun was getting lower and the whole scene had a kind of quiet, otherworldly feel as we walked through it.
We returned to Nimule late in the afternoon and got back in the van. Before we’d left for the park we’d given the damaged wheel to a garage to mount a new tire on. Unfortunately they had neglected to do it during the day and now seemed to be having quite a struggle with the process. By the time we got back on the highway the sun was sinking behind the hills we’d spent the day driving around. In the light that was left it was just possible to make out the hundreds and hundreds of little round huts all around the outskirts of the town, just like the huts in thousands of other towns all around the countryside. I remembered Moses’ parents in their own hut back in Juba and how all of the people in all those huts were in the same situation. Living their lives, or at least trying to live their lives in the world’s newest country. Somehow, the thought was really overwhelming right then.
We’d traveled for about an hour and a half in darkness seeing only occasional bonfires off in the bush when the spare tire we’d put on the car the day before became so flat we had to stop, find our flashlights and replace it with the new tire we’d just had repaired. We started off again only to hear a loud hissing noise about five minutes later. Frustrated, everyone got out on the side of the road again.
It was at this point that our attaché from the South Sudanese military got a phone call that the security situation in our area had suddenly deteriorated, and it was best if we kept moving. Joshua, the youngest member of our group who had by now changed three tires, put the flat tire back on since it was at least slightly better than the damaged one, and we drove on slowly for another mile or so until it could go no further. We stopped right in front of roadside hotel with a sign out front that read 'Café Obama' and loud dance music pulsing from within.
At this point everyone got on their cellphones and began calling everyone else they could think of to try and figure out options for getting out of the situation. Then our security advisor got another call, this time that the security situation had really deteriorated. Apparently, there had been a rebel ambush close to where we changed the first tire of the night, just about three miles away. The music from Café Obama stopped, and suddenly everything was eerily quiet.
The advisor said that at this point we should forget making it to Juba that night and needed to get inside as quickly as possible. Tony and English booked my team a room in the hotel, which we were told we needed to all stay inside, together, with the door locked. Then our advisor along with Tony, English, Emmanuel and Joshua backed the van into the hotel courtyard and got ready to stay up all night watching the highway.
Throughout the previous week, everyone had stayed very positive, even when things got rough, and that was no different now. Tony even joked with us as he closed the door to our room: “Don’t worry guys, you just have to make it two more days and then you can go home and leave us here in South Sudan.” He was grinning as he said it, and we all joked back that maybe we would decide to stay.
The next morning we woke to find dozens of soldiers, machine guns slung under their arms, milling around the hotel grounds brushing their teeth or talking with hotel employees in the bright sunshine. Tony took us to get chai (I had the best spiced chai tea of my life in South Sudan) at a little shop across the highway and explained what he’d learned about the situation. There had been an ambush down highway near where we changed the first tire of the night, and twenty government soldiers had been killed while they were sitting around one of the bonfires we’d seen from the road. The survivors had fallen back down the highway to the hotel––which explained their presence right then. Our advisor was talking with a group of soldiers, and within an hour a military vehicle dropped off a new wheel for our van.
Back on the highway again everyone was in a good mood. Somehow, I couldn’t stop thinking about the night before, though. The hundreds of little huts outside of Nimule. The people we couldn’t see sitting around bonfires as we drove past in the dark. The fact that somewhere that morning, twenty families were getting the news that their sons or daughters wouldn’t ever be coming home to them. What Tony had said, jokingly about us being able to go home and leave them there in two days. It was a joke, but it was also the reality of the situation.
I think that last reality is the one that made me the saddest. Strangely, though, I think it’s also the one really hopeful thing from our time in South Sudan. While it’s a place full of so much need and so much uncertainty, there are some truly great people who live there. People like Tony, English, Moses and everyone else we met on the OM team who have lived through so much and are willing to stay and go through so much more. No matter what happens, they will be there, continuing to help people toward the peace that they so desperately need. That’s one certain thing in a place where almost nothing else is certain.
I was jolted out of my thoughts by our van lurching and then skidding to the side of the road. Another tire had blown.
Watch the OM South Sudan Overview video here.
OM Middle East North Africa (MENA) Communications team member Andrew loves going places where he can see the world from a different perspective and telling the stories of people who've found ways of living out God's love in a broken world.