Earlier today I jumped out of the Landover. I could not ride in it anymore – while I watched thousands and tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand walking, dragging themselves, being pushed forward, … It blew me out, threw me onto the track. Maybe also because of unconscious aversion towards fat, greasy SPLA commanders, rebels in salamander uniforms that drive me around, showcasing the »humanitarian situation« in Blue Nile. I depend on the SPLA because I need the electric lighters in their Toyotas. The whole area, as large as several Slovenias, has no generator and no solar system to charge my cameras, computer and satellite modem.
They are just people. The most emaciated, hungriest, the most thirsty, most tired people on the planet these days. And trees, mostly thorny acacias, offering no shade yet in this year's rain season. And dry black soil with decimeter wide, meter deep cracks that appears to drain the sweat from us as we march, since you don't see anyone piss. Nor defecate. And the sky, blue as if washed in acid. And the white-hot sun, like the heat and light of arc welding. And vultures in the sky, all the time.
The pace is quick. The women, who shoulder the heaviest burdens, even in this endless caravan, yank themselves forward by their hips. Balancing, with incredible skill, three or four meters long carrying sticks, hung behind their necks, with baskets swinging from each end, containing their last millet porridge, aluminum pots, woven mats, plastic chairs, almost empty fifty liter water canisters … and children. Children in baskets.
Tiny children in baskets are the most characteristic emblem, the logo of the caravan of shame from Blue Nile to South Sudan.
Older children are also carried. Those that should now be in schools. Ever since the war started, all schools are closed in the whole area under SPLA control. Not that there were many schools even before the war. If any, they were qur'anic schools, which mainly altered the identity of indigenous children and taught them to be docile. Last January, half a year before the war started, I visited a few in the Ingassana hills, which are being emptied now by the fear of rockets and bombs and hunger and thirst. They were small mud and straw huts with no teaching aids. They even had no blackboards or chalk. The SPLA, which got to the oil trough in 2005, when they signed a peace treaty with the government of Sudan, under the sponsorship of western war profiteers, and began receiving half of Sudan's oil profits, did not pay even for teachers. Nor did they pay the thirty thousand soldiers of SPLA. Teachers in Blue Nile received their wages from Khartoum. In the six years during which the South was preparing for secession, it was thus clear that Juba had abandoned his freedom fighters in Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains. And that the African inhabitants will sooner or later be exiled from the land in which the bones of their ancestors rest.
I don't remember seeing, anywhere on the planet, more poorly dressed, worn out, more ragged crowds. Boys walk around in flapping pieces of dirty white cloth, probably cut from their fathers' pants. Girls are draped in remnants of colorful rags, probably belonging to their mothers. Who are just skin and bones, old bones tightened with leather-like skin. They are lagging behind. We keep overtaking them. Squatting, silently supporting themselves with sticks. Without any expression on their faces … It is clear that not everyone will reach their destination. It is not clear how they even got this far. The village of Tampona with the last water pump is at least thirty kilometers away. From their villages to Ingassana, it's about three hundred. To the Jamam camp in South Sudan, it's more than eighty. Medicines sans Frontieres will pick them up halfway there and load them onto tractors, but only as many as their daily quota allows. With this excuse, white staffers turned down a mother with a sick child on Friday …
Watching an old man die, abandoned by relatives under a tree because hunger and thirst drove them on, is actually no drama at all in these conditions. It is right for the old to die and leave the food to younger people, especially if they know where they're going. And the natives, who have never been completely scared off, neither by Muslims nor by Christians, know where they're going. But it is bad when young mothers start to cry – when they realize they've lost a child.
I invite all of you who plan a walk this summer around Camino de Compostela to join us. When school vacations begin in Europe, these people will probably still be on the march. For the same price (the cheapest flight to Juba from Venice costs 900 Euros, then Malakal and even Bunch in Upper Nile can be reached for free on flights by numerous humanitarian organizations), better bring your pampered brats here. It will benefit you all on your spiritual journey. Quite possibly, you will never again pay taxes to war profiteers. When you see very little, tiny girls and boys wave to you, striding without any hysteria or neurosis … resigned like donkeys and camels … towards refugee camps in which they – as in Darfur and Gaza and other sacrificial altars of the world, might remain indefinitely, your hearts just might open …
If seeing children dead of sickness and exhaustion does not help, there is always the mortal fear of Antonovs.
All the locals I interview and record say they usually come flying around ten, eleven at the latest. In Sudanese towns, nobody leaves home before nine. Traditionally, around nine, pilots finish a hearty breakfast, then drink tea, load up cassette bombs and sit into their cabins. From El Obeida, which they also use for air raids on the Nuba in South Kordofan, they need about an hour. Migs arrive in ten minutes. That's why we are more afraid of the Migs. Migs and Antonovs are directed by spies. Satellite phones, both Thuraya and Iridium, are not safe. I'd like to ask Klemen if he made it on the plane, but I'm afraid to call him. Not even when I discover our first camera, one of more than eighty that I left with the locals of the Komo and Ganza tribes in Jabous in November, along with computers and modems. Then, the southern part of Blue Nile was being hit the hardest. At that time, everyone was escaping there. And to Ethiopia.
An SPLA soldier, supporting his mother so she doesn't fall from the donkey, tells me that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for refugees has set up camps on the border with Ethiopia, but that refugees do not want to go there because Ethiopians are even bigger racists than Arabs. They don't consider themselves Africans, believing they are the descendants of the love of the queen of Saba and King Solomon.
I state my theory that different people and societies are like different limbs and fingers of the body of humanity. The body can hardly function if you cut off a leg, the head, any finger or the penis. We must all move and live, not only the index finger that accuses and shoots. Those who understand some English and Arabic nod.
I don't know what they do with dead old men and children, because we drove on, towards the border. Out as soon as possible. Because outside there will be less chance of being attacked by Arab militias. And because Antonovs bomb refugees less often beyond the border with South Sudan.
I realized that an Antonov is nearby today too, in the air somewhere above us, by the panic of the people, without hearing it in the general noise. The natives hear better. And fear more.
Actually, there is no escaping. You can only lie down on the ground, stretch the head sideways and the limbs as far away from the body. Those that run for cover, which is not there anyway, get dismembered. Along the entire track from Tabanja to El Fo on the border, there is not a single dry river bed to shelter in. Cassette bombs, banned by all weapons conventions, bounce up about a meter high before they explode, cutting down everything within a perimeter of three hundred meters.
It is not clear why the government of Sudan is blocking roads leading out of the places it bombards. Everyone confirms that several hundred thousand that would otherwise also escape, but are afraid of systematic rapes and forced recruitment, are still trapped in the Ingassana hills because of road blocks. If all this persecution of the indigenous people aims at getting rid of them and populating their land in Blue Nile with nomadic Arab Felata shepherds and Egyptian and Palestinian peasants, then why are they being kept there? The SPLA supports the exodus, although the fighters for their own land would be abandoning it. I recorded General Ahmed Omda, the second in command of SPLA in Blue Nile, greeting and blessing refugees just beyond the border in South Sudan.
When the refugees returned from the bush to the track, the adrenaline receded, and so did the energy. Around two in the afternoon, the weight on my back began to press down hard. But nobody even thought of a traditional rest. I was lagging behind, with old people and children. My backpack and cameras are not any heavier than the average weight of the clutter my travel companions carry. Only now do I feel how hard it is for them. You don't see and feel this through the windows of the all-terrain vehicles of humanitarian organizations. I'd like to lie down in the shade. But there is no shade. The meager foliage of the dum dum palms is more than five hundred meters away. That's how far on each side those before us plucked the bushes and cut down trees already days and weeks before. For fires in the night, when their strength finally gave out, and they cooked porridge, made light and drove away hyenas. They chewed up all the fruits and most of the leaves, even edible bark.
Only few families made fire tonight. The refugee camp, where they will receive the first millet, beans, rice, tea, milk powder, is three to four days away in Jamam.
We crossed the border under late stars. No barrier, no duty free, only water in a dry river bed. Water. Water. Water.
And a hut with a pair of SPLA soldiers. Who did not let me sleep there for the night with my numerous new friends. I don't understand why, since there is no crime there like in the West.
No one can say what will happen to those we left behind.
Tomo Križnar, May 29th, El Fuj, Upper Nile, South Sudan.