I have seen RPGs before. They’re funny because they look like toys. A gun is a gun, but an RPG is a stick with a rugby ball on the end and it looks comic unless it’s pointed at you. What I had never seen, however, was the sheer array of weaponry that South Sudan insisted on lining its roads with in the run-up to independence. Not that you can blame them, though. As the bus enters Juba it passes a long stretch of road on which the rectangular shadows of huts are visible, but these shadows are marked in soot and smashed brick.
I was fortunate enough to be travelling with a good friend, Ryan, whose experience of the cultures and conflicts of Northern Uganda and South Sudan make him a fascinating travel companion. We had decided to travel up, but were forced to wait until painfully late because he was presenting a paper at a conference. We took the early bus out of Kampala on Thursday, reaching Gulu in the late afternoon and waiting beside the road until three AM, when the convoy of buses to Juba arrives. We were joined in our waiting by Junior, a South Sudanese who has spent most of his life in Uganda but was returning home in great excitement for the celebrations, having secured three days leave from his school to attend.
When we finally boarded the bus, I was lucky enough to get a seat near the back while Ryan was forced to sit in the front, directly behind the driver. At the best of times this is a terrifying experience- the roads are heaped murram which rises to a central point, but in order to avoid potholes the drivers often swerve to the side of the road, leaning the bus at crazy angles. However the trip had added undertones this time, because very recently two buses crashed on this same route (their mangled remains are still beside the road), killing 29 people. I slept fitfully but Ryan was forced to stay awake by the sight in front of him.
The road is poorest on the Ugandan side, but improves on the Sudanese side partly because the UN built a highway to facilitate their convoys in their passage through to Juba. The road winds through lush hills covered in thick grass and low trees, and more and more huts are springing up as refugees return home. The huts are extremely neat and trim, but everywhere there is the same sight as in northern Uganda, the shattered brick walls of the buildings from before.
South Sudan has suffered more than its fair share of war, and then some. Along the roads you can still see the skull-and-crossbones signs which mark minefields, and on the eve of independence they were taking no chances. Tacticals (pickup trucks with a .50 cal machine gun welded on the back) were parked all over the place in central Juba, and men with assorted weapons stood, sat or lay at regular intervals along all major roads. Some picked their teeth, others looked thoughtfully at their little heaps of RPG rugby balls, but all were ready to keep the peace.
We reached the border at 5.20am, and stood in the early dawn chill, waiting for the immigration offices to open. The sun began to rise, and with it a gentle mist from which the pointy tops of small hills emerges. Money changers frantically tried to get us to buy Sudanese Pounds, but in the end (and after a heck of a dance) we were visa’d up and the bus moved on to Juba. As we got close we were stuck in first one roadblock (bags emptied, armpits felt), then another, and another. At the second roadblock a great sounding of horns cleared the road, and President Museveni’s convoy shot past us. I’ve seen that convoy a good many times, but this was the first time I had seen it stripped of its customary heavy weaponry. But finally we entered town, arriving at Jebel bus park to an atmosphere of welcoming and absolute happiness.
And that’s what was so strange about the whole experience of the secession. It was so totally, utterly good-natured and peaceful. I was aware that Juba was at peace before I visited, and I was also aware that the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) quite like to wear light weapons as bling. But for the two days I was there we were met with nothing but cheery greetings from civilians and army alike, with the exception of one bus driver (but bus drivers are bus drivers). I know the SPLA are no angels, and there are many dark secrets hidden beneath, but for those two days they were on their best behaviour.
We were met by Roza, a friend from Gulu who now works for the UN in Juba. She helped us find a room for the night, and then we went with her to visit her friends, who were having a celebratory dinner to which we were welcomed despite being uninvited. It was a delicious goat stew with posho and soft, spongy bread. The stew was incredible, but the bread was such a treat. In Uganda most bread is either ‘Tip-Top’ brand, or a similar style. It is, in short, not bread.
Along all of the roads were huge posters of the South Sudanese flag, of Salva Kiir, and of John Garang. My first introduction to the story of John Garang was last year, when I crossed the (then) Sudanese border to have lunch under the careful watch of a very stern SPLA intelligence officer who made sure I went, ate and returned and didn’t take any pictures. This was at Kaya (the West Nile border point) and there was a giant poster of Dr John Garang, emblazoned with the words “Dr John Garang- Forever a Burning Spear in Our Hearts”.
The actual independence ceremony took place at the Dr John Garang Mausoleum, the final resting place of the father of the nation. He died in a helicopter crash in 2005, the cause of which was never satisfactorily proved, and throughout the morning’s festivities a flag-draped statue of him dominated the crowd close to the dais.
The mausoleum is sited within a large walled field, and by 8am there was a giant crowd of people from throughout Sudan, most forming small circles to celebrate around drums. We arrived just after 7am, and were soon festooned in South Sudan flags, greeting everybody with “South Sudan Oyeeee!”
There are over 200 ethnic groups in South Sudan, and there must have been representatives of most at the mausoleum. We walked around, talking to people and marvelling at the worrying amount of bullets, both spent and live, which still litter the ground. At one point we found a live .50 round, a very large bullet indeed. I fetched a security officer, who without ceremony but with a wry grin picked it up and headed for the gate. The atmosphere was one of a music festival, but more men in leopard skin (print and real) than you would usually see. Sadly I know very little of the different tribes there, and while I could spot different Northern Uganda traditional dresses and dances no problem I can’t claim the same of South Sudan, so you’ll have to put up with the slightly insulting catch-all of “South Sudanese tribesmen”.
When Garang’s statue had been unveiled Ryan and I took a walk to witness the parade, and were invited up onto an SPLA car to get a better view. Then we returned to the mausoleum just in time to witness the raising of the flag. As the flag began to rise, thousands began to cheer and wave their own flags. Finally as it reached the top a rare gust of wind blew through, spreading it out. The crowd went beyond everything they had managed all day, and the emotion was clear throughout. So many people suffered and died for that moment.
As the festivities began to move out into the streets, Ryan and I went in search of buses to Uganda. It was too expensive to stay (a cheap room is around $100, and literally everything had been booked by the government) and there are no ATMs, so we decided to move. We reached the bus park, however, and found it empty. No buses until the morning, and nowhere to stay. We decided we needed food, so went to an Ethiopian restaurant. There we met William, a Ugandan photographer, who without hesitation offered us a room for the night. He was a saviour, for sure. We walked half way across the city, through scenes of great celebration, to his house.
Then early in the morning we headed out to the Kampala stage, getting a bus easily and heading swiftly through to Uganda. I am lucky beyond belief to be able to do what I do, but this was a privilege throughout. South Sudan was charming and welcoming (though a little pricey) and people like Roza and William made it something unforgettable. I wish the world’s youngest nation nothing but good things, and I hope it will soon become fully peaceful. The transition from rebellion to statehood is a hard one and there is still a long way to go, but I hope it will get there.
Update: Apparently I’m on Freshly Pressed again! Thank you WordPress, now I regret not putting all of the photos up… If you like what you see, please check out the rest of my blog (https://themzungudiaries.wordpress.com) and also my website (www.willboase.com) where you can see lots more of my work. I’m also on Twitter at @willboasephoto, although I mostly just retweet stuff and talk about food.