[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]
Juba, South Sudan—The soft glow of the dancing white lights is a dead giveaway. It’s Christmas in July at the US Embassy compound. Behind high walls topped with fierce-looking metal impediments meant to discourage climbers, there’s a party under way.
Close your eyes and you could be at a stateside summer barbeque or an office holiday party. Even with them open, the local realities of dirt roads and dirty water, civil war, mass graves and nightly shoot-to-kill curfews seem foreign. These walls, it turns out, are even higher than they look.
Out by the swimming pool and the well-stocked bar, every table is packed with people. Slightly bleary-eyed men and sun-kissed women wear Santa hats and decorations in their hair. One festive fellow is dressed as Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation complete with a white sweater, black dickey and bright white loafers. Another is straddling an inflatable killer whale that he’s borrowed from the collection of playthings around the pool and is using as improvised chair while he stuffs his face from an all-American smorgasbord. We’re all eating well tonight. Mac and cheese, barbequed ribs, beef tenderloin, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and, for desert, peach cobbler. The drinks are flowing, too: wine and whisky and fine Tusker beer.
Yuletide songs drift out into the sultry night in this, the capital of the world’s newest nation. “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime,” croons Paul McCartney.
Just fifteen minutes away, near the airport in an area known as Tongping, things aren’t quite so wonderful. There’s no fried chicken, no ribs, no peach cobbler. At Juba’s United Nations camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), they’re eating sorghum and a crude porridge made from a powdered blend of corn and soy beans provided by the United Nations World Food Program. Children at the camp call it “the yellow food.” “It’s no good,” one of them tells me, with a quick head shake for emphasis.