“We don’t want to bear any more children because our kids don’t survive.”
The two women leaned against a large, gnarled tree outside the almost-completed clinic in Akon, South Sudan, repeating the statement several times in different ways to ensure there could be no misunderstanding.
“We’d rather die alone, childless, than bury our children.”
I was in South Sudan with three young men–Koor Garang, Garang Mayuol and Gabriel Bol Deng–Sudanese by birth, now US citizens. They had fled their villages in the heart of the Dinka tribal land twenty years ago during the civil war between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, finding safety in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. They came to the US in 2001 with a group of 3,800 other Southern Sudanese minors who were offered resettlement through multiple agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Charities. As they joined communities across America, they came to be known as “the lost boys of Sudan.”
The three young men, accompanied by four “khawajas” (white people), including journalist David Morse and myself, a documentary filmmaker, were returning to their villages for the first time. They hoped to discover the fate of their families, investigate the situation in South Sudan nearly three years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the war, and explore how they could meaningfully contribute to their villages and communities. Gabriel Bol, having completed a bachelor’s degree in education at Syracuse University, had been raising money to build a primary school. Koor, undergoing nursing training in Tucson, had collected funds to bring medical supplies to the clinic, as well as hundreds of treated mosquito nets, still the most cost-effective malaria prevention. Garang, who had just received his associate’s degree in Wheaton, Illinois, wanted to build water pumps.
David and I had just packed up our recording equipment after a morning interview when Gabriel Bol rushed over to us. Two women had arrived in Akon, accompanying a mother with a week-old newborn and a three-year-old daughter who had been bitten on her foot by a snake. Koor was trying to get access to the boxes of medical supplies he had brought. In the meantime, the women described what had happened. “Seven days ago, when she was outside playing, she went under the tree and put her leg in a hole in the roots. A snake was hiding there–that’s how she got bitten. We didn’t know what exactly bit her, what kind of snake. At first, her mother thought she had been stabbed by a thorn. But later that night, she began throwing up. The same night, her mother gave birth to a new baby. We left the house last night, as soon as the mother was able and walked all night long to get to Akon. The child’s leg is getting worse. It’s rotten; there is no flesh–you can only see bone. If there was a closer clinic, she might have been OK. I don’t know whether she will live or die. I’m losing hope.”
I saw the injury up close minutes later as I filmed Koor examining the wound and giving amoxicillin to the child. I didn’t know how Koor was able to administer the care so calmly. I had to restrain a reflex to gag; the smell of gangrene was strong. “Will amoxicillin do anything for an infection this advanced?” I asked. “Not really.” Koor answered. “The only real chance this child has is getting the leg amputated.” Akon didn’t have running water–there hadn’t even been saline solution until Koor brought it with us the week before from Nairobi. The nearest hospital that could possibly perform the surgery was in Wau, a six-hour ride over grueling terrain that would be impassable if it rained–and the beginning of the rainy season was upon us. “You need to get the child to Wau,” Koor told the mother without any confidence that they had the means to pay for the transportation, much less the surgery.
I didn’t ask Koor why he had bothered to give the child amoxicillin, futile as it would be. I understood the need to try to do something–anything. I also understood, without Koor having to tell me, that he would be thinking about this little girl for many late nights to come, plagued by the knowledge that she would likely die, wondering if he could have done more. The guilt at not being able to do enough has been with Koor from the moment we arrived. Every joyous event, like his own homecoming celebration in his clan’s village, Mayen Pajok, was punctuated with that guilt. Broad as Koor’s smile was as he stepped over a bull into the entrance of his village, he was not only counting the celebrating throngs, in amazement at their euphoria–he was also assessing how inadequate was the number of mosquito nets he had brought.
Gabriel Bol expressed a similar sentiment during the homecoming celebration in his village of Ariang. Children met our car a few miles down the road from the village, with an organized procession of marchers bearing spears and black-and-white, fur-covered shields, young men on bikes, a boy with a bullhorn and a girl with a large drum. Gabriel asked the driver to stop. He got out of the car and walked the remaining miles to his village with the children. “The children had no shoes,” Gabriel Bol told me later. “How could I sit in the car and ride when the kids are walking in the sun with no shoes? I had to walk with them.”
Gabriel Bol’s homecoming was marked with grief as well as guilt. He learned that his parents had died shortly after he fled as a ten-year-old boy. His mother’s brother was the last to greet him, after everyone else in the village had presented themselves. “I could be patient, because I knew you came home,” his uncle said. “The missing piece of my heart has been filled.” Gabriel Bol put his own hand on his uncle’s heart as he recounted the story. “I see you and I no longer have to grieve for my sister, your mother. She is alive in you.”
Elders had informed Gabriel Bol there was a significant tree in the village, but they would not let him approach it. It had to be a separate occasion, they said, accompanied by its own rituals. He was born on the spot marked by that tree and, adhering to Dinka tradition, his placenta is buried there. His mother is buried there as well. A few evenings later, Gabriel Bol, David and I returned to Ariang. First thing in the morning, the elders led us to the tree. Solemn rituals were performed by the spearmen, but we had to move on quickly to be shown the site that the elders had designated for the school Gabriel Bol was planning to build. I asked Gabriel Bol if it would be possible for us to return to the tree alone later that afternoon. I wanted to film him in a solitary moment there.
Gabriel Bol approached the tree slowly. I lingered behind with the camera focused on him. He knelt down, touching the soil, then sat nestled in the roots with his head in his hands. I came closer, hesitantly. I didn’t know if he needed to be left alone or if some comfort and support would be welcomed. He caught my eye. “It’s really very emotional,” he said. I put my hand on his knee. “Your mother would be so proud of you if she were here right now, seeing everything you are doing,” I told him. “She would be so incredibly proud.” Gabriel didn’t respond. He sat in the roots of the tree that grew out of his placenta and his mother’s grave a moment longer, and then straightened up, brushed off his pants and headed to a meeting with the village elders to talk about the school and distribute mosquito nets.
That ability to contain extraordinarily powerful emotions seems to be a Sudanese trait. Garang’s homecoming was another example.
We could hear the ululation, singing and drumming as we approached Lang village, a short drive from Akon. The villagers were expecting the return of their lost son and they all turned out. Garang climbed down from the car and was immediately surrounded by a swarm of people who wanted to touch him, hug him, kiss him, confirm he was real. A black cowboy hat with a long feather was ceremoniously placed on Garang’s head by one elder, where it perched atop his New York Yankees baseball hat. A yellow-and-green cape with “Play Together” written on it was tied around his neck by another elder. Then, accompanied by singing and dancing and drumming, Garang was led to a small river, which he crossed along with the rest of the villagers and our unique party of returning Sudanese and khawajas. A bull was held down on its back, its legs held straight up, for Garang to step over, followed by the rest of our party, and sacrificed immediately thereafter by a village spearman. Spears were placed on the ground for Garang to step over. Water was poured from a gourd onto his shoes in a purification ritual and an elderly woman spat lovingly in his face.
Garang was solemn and his eyes were red. Several times he wiped them with the corner of his cape, but he never allowed tears to slide down his cheeks. Embraced tightly by elders on either side, he was taken to a tukul (hut), where a woman ran out to greet him in ecstasy. “Jen, this is my mother,” he told me.
Garang was led to a seat under a large tree with ample shade to hold court. His mother followed. Garang pulled her, a little woman, onto his lap. She grabbed his face with her hands and, sitting on the lap of the twenty-four-year-old son she hadn’t seen since he was five years old, kissed him, laughed, hugged his head tightly, ran the palm of her hand down his face and kissed him again.
Days later, I interviewed Garang and his mother together. I asked Garang’s mother if she had seen any changes since the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) signed the peace agreement with Khartoum. “The peace is meaningless,” she answered. “If you’re trying to cultivate, there’s still no rain. We don’t have enough cows, we don’t have goats. We’re still struggling to maintain our home. Even if we can maintain our house, we don’t have anything to eat.”
Her response stayed with me as we traveled to Kuajok, the regional capital, and later to Juba, seat of the newly formed Government of South Sudan. It was reflected in the questions we asked government officials. Most seemed to empathize with the impatience villagers had expressed when talking about the lack of development the South has experienced since the signing of the CPA. We were reminded, however, of the challenges the new government faced trying to build infrastructure (roads, healthcare, education, every institution of civil society) from scratch after more than twenty years of devastating brutal warfare.
Some, including Pagan Amum, secretary general of the SPLM, remained hopeful about the progress that had been made and what the future held. But, as Amum quickly pointed out, the work had only just begun. There is a vast difference between signing a peace agreement and bringing the development and long-term stability that will actually secure peace. Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin, minister of regional cooperation for the South Sudanese government, was more willing to express his frustration with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, and to connect the dots between South Sudan and war-torn Darfur.
“For any success of peace in Darfur, you must see that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in the South is fully implemented. There is a lot of dragging on feet. It makes the Comprehensive Peace Agreement itself very fragile,” Dr. Benjamin warned, referring to key provisions of the CPA that were being neglected, such as establishment of the Boundary Commission, which would ascertain the borders between North and South Sudan and the withdrawal of Northern troops from Southern oil fields. Dr. Benjamin continued ominously, foreshadowing the current alarming unraveling of the CPA and the spike of fresh violence in Darfur. “If the peace process in the South collapses, then the country all as a whole goes back to war,” he said.
The women we met in Akon–the ones who carried the little girl with the flesh-eating leg wound, didn’t need that to be explained by any government official. “Peace was signed, but life has not changed,” one of the women told us pointedly. “We’re not running to the bush and we’re not being shot anymore, but in day-to-day life, it’s all still the same.” She glanced over to the mother who was breast-feeding her newborn, her sick toddler lying listlessly on a blanket next to her. “I’m scared,” she added. “We’re worried for our lives.”