It’s a troubled country, South Sudan. The newest country in Africa, a very fertile country, it shouldn’t be so troubled. But it is. I’m back there for a couple of weeks. First, there was a flight from Nairobi to Juba – and then on to Pagak in Upper Nile. I found South Sudan like a country holding its breath.
South Sudan’s life force is the Nile. And the rains also have come to Juba. On the KQ flight out, as we dipped below the clouds, all was green down there. I was not looking forward to the press of the crowd in the cramped terminal. But there was no stress to the checking through. And, after the early morning shower, the air was cool.
It was a Sunday, so the traffic along the city’s roads was light. I was soon unpacking my bags in the container in the NGO compound that was going to be my refuge for two nights. It was a smart and cleverly-fitted container: a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, a shower, a toilet, electricity, and an air-conditioner.
The only down-turn of that first day was the lunch at a restaurant across the road from the compound. It was boiled chicken and glutinous rice. I had tried to steel myself for this. But I could only scoop with a spoon some of the greasy juice with the rice; the hacked pieces of chicken with pimpled skin I gave away to one of the NGO colleagues.
‘What do you call this restaurant?’ I asked him.
‘Across the Road,’ he said.
Two days later, we flew north to Pagak.
In one of my other lives, I spent two of my years being taught to fly by the RAF. I gave myself a few hairy moments. But the two hairiest in the hands of other pilots have both been in South Sudan.
The first was in a four-seater Cessna from Rumbek to Lokichoggio. After only ten minutes the other passenger fell asleep. About fifteen minutes later the co-pilot fell asleep. I was watching the pilot. Occasionally, he nodded drowsily. Sure enough, he too drifted off. I was the only one awake on the aircraft. But I knew that we were on autopilot and that, as soon as we hit a patch of turbulence, the pilot would wake. We did, and he did.
The second occasion was from Nimule on the border with Uganda – and it was also a flight to Lokichoggio. The old Russian Antonov that should have flown us out wouldn’t start. Later in the day a plane that had been delivering meat was diverted to rescue us. As we took off and climbed steeply, a huge meat safe slid towards us from the front of the cabin where the seats had been removed. Then a crew member started to put masking tape round the passenger door to muffle the screams of the wind. The door to the cockpit was open and we could see the pilots were smoking and drinking…. It was the last time I flew with that cowboy outfit.
The two hours’ charter flight to Pagak was nothing as stressful, though for a while our pilot had to cope with a storm that buffeted us a little, until he climbed above it. Fortunately, it was not raining at Pagak, because the dirt runway might have churned to a slippery mud.
The small town is the headquarters of what the Nuer people now call the SPLM-IO: the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – In Opposition. I was reminded of this when a security officer standing by our plane before take-off noticed a bulge in my jacket pocket and he checked it out. He thought I might have been carrying a Thuraya phone. The Government in Juba has cut off all telephone communication with the rebel SPLM-IO areas. But it allows the humanitarian work of international NGOs to continue – and I was engaged in a short consultancy for one of them.
If you had been cut off from news about outbreaks of violence or talks about peace deals, you might well not have known it was a time of troubles. Pagak was so relaxed. In the late afternoon we begged a ride on a quad-bike down the runway and into the township. In a central open space we drank a coffee at one of the outdoor café places. The coffee was heavily and nicely spiced like good Ethiopian coffee – the border with Ethiopia is only a walk away.
Back in the NGO compound the girls, tall and lithe, were serving rice or ugali with chicken and beans. Two men of the staff were bottle-feeding a young bushbuck that had been rescued somewhere out in the bush. And an emerald-spotted wood dove was singing his goodnight from a tamarind tree. It was peaceful like that the whole week.