Life in South Sudan

A blog about working and living in South Sudan.

First days back in Juba

On the surface everything seems normal. Traffic is as crazy as it used to be, people are out walking, shops are open and women are selling mangoes on the roadside as before. There are a few noticeable changes; more holes and bumps in some of the roads, other roads have been repaired, a high wall around the graveyard to chase the settlers away and our old Frisbee field at UNMISS is now an IDP camp. There are also some surprises, like a newly opened French bakery and a new hotel with a very nice roof top restaurant.

Our survey has kept on going without big interruptions since the conflict broke out. Life goes on, people go to their jobs and try to cope with the situation the best they can. If I didn’t know better I wouldn’t be able to tell that there was a war going on.

After getting a security briefing last night I got a sense of what is below the surface. Fighting, soldiers deserting the army or defecting to the opposition, rebels regrouping, mines, no progress in peace talks, starvation, cholera outbreaks and no way of knowing whether things will improve or get worse.

Normality is one side of war. Uncertainty is another.


Returning to Juba

The first time I went to South Sudan was in April 2012 and the country was almost at war with Sudan. I remember sitting at my gate in Addis, waiting to board my flight to Juba, feeling scared and nervous. It felt like standing on a trampoline before diving into deep water.

The best advice I got before going to South Sudan was to keep an open mind and to have no expectations, because there is just no way to be prepared for what you will experience. With that in mind I decided to relax, stop worrying, observe my surroundings and deal with whatever comes my way.

At my gate in Addis I looked around to see what kind of people I was travelling with. They were mostly men, most of them older, there were Chinese businessmen, aid workers and people working for the UN. I particularly remember one man. He was South Sudanese. I could recognize the scars on his forehead from pictures I had seen. He was tall and was wearing a brown suit and looked like he could be someone important. However, the reason I remember him is that he had a goatee and was wearing huge, brown, round 80’s style glasses and on his feet he had fluffy slippers with tiger stripes. I couldn’t stop starring and wished I could take a picture of him (although I knew that the image of him would last in my mind forever).

Watching this man, trying to understand who would wear such a fantastic outfit with fluffy tiger slippers, took away most of my fear and nervousness and I only prepared myself to be amazed. I took one last deep breath and boarded my plane with the sense of having jumped into a deep and unknown ocean.

Today I am returning to Juba. This time to a civil war. I am back at that trampoline, waiting to jump. Just like the first time I feel scared and nervous but the excitement is not there. I am returning to a place that used to be my home, where I have friends and memories and still some of my belongings, yet I feel like I am diving into the unknown. The war has changed South Sudan and it has changed me. Once again I need to keep an open mind to what I will see and experience. Once again I need to take one last deep breath, jump and remember to swim for the surface.

War stories

On the 16th of December I woke up early feeling strangely rested on a Monday morning. I had decided not to set my alarm after receiving a text message from my boss telling me to not come to work in the morning because of fighting among the presidential guard. I thought I had heard gunfire just before receiving his message, but my reaction to shootings is a bit different now from when I heard it the first time in Juba. This night, being stressed about finishing up before Christmas and annoyed by the neighbor’s new, massive and noisy generator, my initial reaction was only irritation, “Oh great! Fighting! And I was hoping for a good night’s sleep!” With my neighbor’s new generator drowning out the sound of shootings I had managed to sleep through the fighting.

Still in my pyjamas I stepped into the kitchen. None of my housemates were yet up. The power was off. From outside I could hear something that sounded like explosions. The fighting that had started last night was still going on.

I wandered out on the balcony. It was cold. I have never felt cold in Juba but this morning the temperature was below 20 degrees. Hugging myself to keep warm I stood and listened to the explosions and gunfire.

Boom! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta… Boom! Boom! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta….

No sound of birds. No sound of voices from children walking to the school across the street. No morning sun to warm me up. No generator on. No kids shouting, “Morning! Morning!”. In hot and noisy Juba I had never experienced a morning like this. While listening to the surreal background noise of explosions and shootings, trying to comprehend the situation one thought came to mind, “So this is what war sounds like.”

Half an hour later the Swedish Embassy in Khartoum called me. “Where are you? Stay inside and wait for information!” That’s when I started realizing that the situation was far more serious than anything I had experienced before in Juba.

It is hard to describe the days that followed. Hiding from gunfire in the hallway. Staying in touch friends in Juba. Informing people back home. Preparing for evacuation. Sleeping in the corner of my bed to keep away from the window. Saying goodbye to friends who managed to evacuate. Trying to locate colleagues  (some of them I still haven’t heard back from). Receiving news about the death of colleagues. Finally evacuating after five extremely stressful days.

A good friend told me that now I have a story to tell and now I would understand the war stories he has been telling me. “A story like this is special and doesn’t come easy”, he said. As special as it is, now I am one of those too many people with a war story. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have been affected by this conflict and with them there are hundreds of thousands of war stories. The new generation South Sudanese, who were born and raised during peace, now have a new generation of war stories to tell. Not to mention the war stories that are being told from other parts of the world.

I deeply wish for 2014 to be the year we start telling love stories.

A sense of freedom

It was one of those Juba nights. We ended up singing karaoke at the U.S. residence until 3 am. Getting home at night is always difficult as there are no taxis to call that late. We managed to squeeze into one car and then drove around Juba to get everybody home.

At 3 o’clock in the morning the streets of Juba are empty. No one is outside and there are no cars. This is partly because you shouldn’t move around late at night. You risk getting stopped at checkpoints or at gunpoint or getting robbed, or all three of those alternatives at the same time.

There is still no city power and most people turn their generators off at night. In other words there is complete darkness, except for the lights at the UN compound that light up the sky of Juba, hiding the stars.

Without the sound of generators and traffic the city is silent. There are no other sounds but crickets, and the voices of people praying in a church we passed by.

Empty streets, darkness and silence.

While cruising the streets of Juba I leaned my head out of the car window, let the wind blow in my hair, and while breathing in the sweet, warm night air I felt free.  We were balancing on the edge, doing something that we shouldn’t and maybe that is what evoked a sense of freedom. I wasn’t locked inside. I moved around and it was fine. A town that is stressful and sometimes scary was at that night only peaceful.

There was no power in my guesthouse when I arrived at 3.30. The guards opened the gate, smiled and asked me if I feared that they wouldn’t open for me. I stepped over one guard who was sleeping on the stairs leading up to the second floor and managed to open my door using the light from my phone.  In my room I found my headlight. While wearing it I brushed my teeth and washed my face before I went to bed under the mosquito net. One slightly reckless car ride and I fell asleep happy, relaxed and feeling safe for the first time in a long while.

Age is just a number

”He is saying he was 23 in 2004. But now he says he’s 28. What age do we use?”

As I have mentioned before in this blog post, conducting surveys and collecting data in South Sudan is not an easy task.  The question above was raised when I was out in the field with our enumerators and I think it illustrates the problem well.

If we overcome rain, mud, extreme heat, old equipment and slow internet, we still encounter other difficulties. Questionnaire design is always tricky but becomes a bit of a challenge when even age is a debatable question.

Field trip to Malakal

The mother I escorted made it on to her connecting flight, and my colleague carried a bag of food that he handed over to a woman in the waiting hall in the airport in Malakal. This is very common here. People ask you at the airport where you are going and if you can deliver things for their family. With no postal system you have to find other ways.

We went to Malakal to deliver a new computer tablet to our team working there and to see how the market price collection was going. Malakal is located up north close to the boarder to Sudan. In Juba rainy season has now started and the weather is “cold”, but in Malakal the rains were still to come and it was unbearably hot and dry. The water stations in the town were empty for water so everywhere we went we saw people carrying water from the Nile. My hotel didn’t have any water either, or power, which made my stay there rather unpleasant. There were simply no way of escaping the heat. If there hadn’t been soldiers with guns outside my room I would probably have tried to sleep outside.

A part from the hotel, the field trip went well. I enjoyed watching scenes you don’t get to see in Juba, like people cultivating on islands in the Nile. In Malakal they also use donkeys and horses for transport and they “decorate” them as if they were matatus or cars. I saw one sad looking donkey with flowers behind its ears and another with a hat. They even had home made painted number plates on the donkey carriages. Work was also good. The price collection is going well and we’ll release new data soon. And for the people curious about what market price collection in South Sudan can look like, here are some pictures.

Change is inevitable

Fredskorpset is celebrating their 50th anniversary with an exhibition in central Oslo. A friend of mine sent me this picture with some words that look very familiar. They are from a text I wrote in Norwegian that can be found  here.Fredskorpset 50th Anniversary Exhibition

“Change is inevitable.

By moving a person from one country to another and into a new culture, you push her out of her comfort zone and right into someone else’s.

That’s when different types of mutual exchange happen.

That’s when change happens.”

I’ll let these words end my exchange year at the National Bureau of Statistics. But my time in South Sudan is not yet over. There are more stories to come.

I’m just happy to help

It’s my last week at NBS and I’m at Juba international airport on my way to Malakal for a field visit. I must have a very sweet and innocent looking face because wherever I go in the world people always ask me for directions and people at bus stations and airports always ask me to watch their luggage. The same thing happened today but this time it’s a bit different. Today I’ve been entrusted someone’s mom.

It wasn’t even a request. As I was waiting to enter my gate a man came up to me and said, “You go with my mother. She don’t speak the english.” So now I’m escorting his mother to Malakal and I’ll make sure she gets on her next flight. So far all is well. We’re watching al Jazeera and I’ve managed to explain to her to keep her ticket and boarding pass ready. Oh I love field trips.

Party Saturday – bring your gun!

A colleague and I discussed guns the other day and I asked him how common it is that people in South Sudan have guns. He told me it’s very common and that you need it for protection.

“But it’s illegal. Before it was legal and you could buy a gun for a cow or two in the market. We used them when we went dancing.”

I had to interrupt him right there. “You used them when you went dancing?!” He laughed at the surprised look on my face and explained that when he was a child people wore guns over their shoulders when they went dancing. I asked if it was to attract women. “Yes, a gun shows you are rich,” and he added, “But it wasn’t automatic. Another type of gun.”

The thought of this happening in Sweden or Norway is of course absurd. People would be terrified if you showed up at a party with your gun, automatic or not. It would definitely not appeal to the ladies. Most probably it would scare people away. But I have to admit that if you have to use guns, this must be the absolute best way to do it. No killing, no threatening, just dancing.

No parking in graveyard

Between Konyo Konyo market and an expat bar called Bedouin there’s a big and green open area. When you come close you realize it’s not just any open area. It’s a graveyard. Partly hidden by bushes, trees and grass you can see the tombstones. While walking along it you’ll soon notice the large amounts of rubbish. You’ll see more tombstones showing under piles of plastic bags and bottles. Keep walking and you’ll see children searching through the garbage piles looking for something they can use. Outside of Bedouin there’s sign that says “No parking in graveyard”. At least it makes people aware of it so that they respectfully can park their Land Cruisers beside the graves, and not on top of them, when going for a drink.

If you continue past Bedouin you’ll soon learn that the graveyard is also a home to some people. On top of the graves, between the tombstones, people have settled down and built small sheds of whatever they could find; iron sheet, cloth, grass, bamboo. Women, men, children and old people are all living in the graveyard.

Yesterday I drove past it and watched the settlers from my car window. Normally they are leading their normal life. They’re having tea, carrying water and children are playing, waving at you and shouting “Morning! How are you?”. But not yesterday. They were standing in groups, quietly, without talking and two men were digging a hole not far from their sheds. I wondered why they were digging and wished to myself that it wasn’t another grave.

It was a grave. I drove past the same place today, saw a small heap of dirt with decoration on top of it and a woman kneeling next to it, head down, crying. As I looked around I noticed more and more piles of dirt. Larger and smaller grave looking piles all facing the same direction. Women, men, children and old people are also dying in the same graveyard.

Some might say that children dying in South Sudan is so common that this child was just a number in the statistics. The sad reality is that this child didn’t even make it to become just a number. She or he was born, lived and died outside of a refugee camp, outside of a hospital or any other place where she or he would have been counted for and received help. And what is statistics if we cannot catch all of this; add one tragedy to other meaningless deaths and use that sum to calculate the needs of this country. Today, my job feels far away from reality and little relevant in this environment.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by South Sudan. It blocks my mind and I lose my words. This is one of those moments. I don’t know what more to write.