Adventure Category—Silver Winner: The Burden of War

by Wendy Knight

Bumping along in a white Toyota Land Cruiser, Rehan motioned for Justus to veer right toward a huddle of mud and grass huts. Well-trodden dirt paths wove through the low elephant grass, a lone acacia tree stretching its meager canopy across the savannah.

“There’s one,” Rehan, an aid worker from the Dinka tribe, announced, gesturing his long fingers to a gaping hole in the scrub, thirty yards from one of the huts, or tukuls.

Justus hastily downshifted so we could digest the damage, a violent ten-foot gash in the ground. We climbed out and moved toward the huts. A slender woman cradling a toddler emerged from one. The boy whimpered at our sight, burrowing himself into her hip. It was not difficult to imagine why. His left leg had been severed at mid-thigh from a bomb, leaving a thick stump for a limb.

I spoke with a stout woman, probably mid-20s, who was his aunt. Rehan asked her to recall the bombing. She spoke in a harsh staccato, face set with anger.

“We are just farmers. What did we do?” She glared at me with eyes as hard and unrelenting as the parched earth beneath us.

Walking back to the truck, Rehan gestured to another palm tree eager to show Bobby and me– “American journalists”– the devastation.

I flinched whenever the Sudanese referred to me as a journalist, having come to Sudan on an impulse, really, and a vague notion of what I’d find. Bobby and I, who had met through mutual friends in Wyoming, primarily toiled in adventure travel– he a photographer, me a freelance writer. When I approached him with an idea for a story about rowing on the Kenyan coast, he suggested Sudan where he had been working on a photo-essay project about the war. His rundown of the long-standing conflict fascinated me. I didn’t have an assignment from one of the publications I worked for, but I was eager to write about something of consequence and figured I wouldn’t have difficultly interesting an editor in a story when I returned.

I anticipated plenty of despair in Sudan, but I hadn’t expected to encounter it so intimately. Despite a cease fire that had been signed by the government of Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in July 2002, the rebel group that controls much of the south, the government had unloaded three cluster bombs on this tiny village in southern Sudan, killing three, injuring several others and prompting the temporary evacuation of the ex-pat aid workers with GOAL, a Dublin-based aid organization that operates health clinics in the region.

The decades-long north-south conflict in Sudan is multifacetedArab vs. African, Muslim vs. Christian, nomad vs. farmer, but above all, it seems, it is about oil. The bombing of make-shift markets, feeding centers and relief planes is part of the government’s methodical campaign to displace black AfricansDinka, Nuer and other tribes– from their homes near the oil fields, or to eradicate them altogether. Similar tactics are now being deployed in Darfur, in Western Sudan, where the issues are different but no less complex.

Since arriving in the northern Bahr el Ghazel region of southern Sudan, I had seen the Antonovs, old Russian cargo planes, circling the cloudless skies like buzzards coming in for their due. At the first drone of the engine, the staff in the compound would glance up apprehensively. Watching Waiting.

One of the government bombs that had dropped here three months prior had landed 100 yards from the GOAL compound, down by the Lol River. “It scared the fuck outta me,” recalled Joe, an ex-soldier cum aid worker from Ireland who built clinics and schools for GOAL. After the bombing, he constructed two proper bomb shelters in the compound– eight-foot deep caverns reinforced by corrugated metal– one just outside my tukul.

We clambered back into the Land Cruiser for the 30 yards to the next stopthree huts gathered around a central fire ring. This was the compound of the family who had lost two young sons in the bombinga five year old and a two-year old twin. Women and children, barefoot and barely clothed, filtered out of the tukuls and milled around us. An elderly man in a dirty beige robe took us beyond the compound to a crater that stretched twenty feet wide. A handful of childrenghost-like figures with long limbs and bulging eyesbillowed behind in a trail of dust.

The elder man jabbed his walking stick toward the gnarly trunk of a nearby kuol tree. Speaking in excited, clipped tones, he thrust his stick up and down the tree where shrapnel had gouged out fist-sized chunks.

“One of the bomb,” Rehan explained.

A young woman carrying a cherub-faced boy walked toward us.

“This is the mother,” Rehan said.

Pregnant with another child, her belly bulged slightly over the waistband of a tan cotton skirt. A strand of traditional black, white and red Dinka beads fell loosely around her bare chest. Her cropped hair was natty; her black skin a flawless wash of ink.

Speaking in their native Dinka tongue, Rehan sought permission for the interview. In the shadow of the damaged kuol tree, she squatted to the ground, and I sat next to her, steadying my tape recorder. Villagers pressed into a semi-circle around us. Bobby stood just beyond, photographing.

“The children were playing under the tree. I had gone inside the tukul.” Rehan translated for her. “At that minute, the first bomb landed. The children screamed and I ran out.” She spoke in a soft, orderly cadence.

“When the second bomb landed a few seconds later, this child here was already lying on the ground.” Rehan gestured to the boy sitting motionless in his mother’s lap. “He was hit but only wounded. My two other sons were running. That is why they were killed.”

The tragedies of Africa are so pervasive that their telling becomes routine, told in the casual way one might use to give directions. “Martin’s son died over the Christmas holiday.” “That boy won’t make it through the night.”

I looked at the naked boy sitting on his mother’s lap. He wore a similar strand of Dinka beads around his neck and a hopeless expression on his chubby face. Shrapnel wounds to his right foot had rendered him a cripple, but it was his eyes that revealed the aching testament to the brutality of warblack as rich soil but drained of any life-sustaining nutrients.

War eviscerates children, transforming them into empty vessels silently conveying what is too unimaginable to utter. On the outside of a nearby tukul was etched a scene more reminiscent of the Stone Age than the 21st century: a warrior on horseback points a rifle at a crouching child who brandishes a spear in futile defense. Villagers and aid workers alike have told me of the raids. Arabs tribes from the north, called mujahadeen, armed and incited by government, soldiers ride horseback into villages in the cloak of dawn. Men and boys are shot dead. Babies thrown into the fire. Women and girls kidnapped, often raped, then enslaved in the north.

“Does he ask where his brothers are?” I asked. As soon as the question escaped my mouth, I longed to snatch it back, ashamed for its pointlessness.

She looked down at her remaining son. Caressing his deformed foot, her lips moved slowly, quivering slightly as the words slipped out.

“Yes. Yes, he does, ” she replied, tears forming in her eyes.

Images of the lonely boy calling out for his brothers swirled through my head. I thought of my daughter and the unbearable sorrow that would consume me if I lost her. Dinka words ricocheted past me. Click. Click. Bobby’s camera. The heat intensified. God Almighty, this poor woman. What more could I possibly ask her?

At some point, I noticed the talking had stopped. Eyes fixated on me. Waiting.

“You can ask more questions,” Rehan offered.

I shut off the tape recorder and lowered my head.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered, more a self-confession than a public declaration.

Hot tears dripped down my cheeks pooling in the brown dirt below. I was paralyzed with an immense and unexpected grief, vaguely aware of the collective dark eyes upon me.

There was a clamoring behind us. Another woman who had been injured in the bombing approached the group. Rehan rubbed my knee before moving toward her. Thankfully, the crowd followed. The mother and I remained on the sandy ground. I felt her gaze, but I kept mine down, desperate to regain my composure.

My decision to come to Sudan had been met with apprehension from my family, then hostility. “What do you think you are? Some CNN war correspondent?” my mother had snapped in an email message a week after I arrived in Sudan, her concern boiling into rage. I wrote about Nantucket beaches and ice climbing in Vermont, not cluster bombs and deformed children. I had never been to Africa before, much less a country embroiled in a protracted and brutal civil war. Suddenly, the notion of trying to make a difference seemed appallingly naïve.

Finally, I stood and walked away from the throng and discretely tried to wipe away my sorrow. I turned and faced the mother. Her eyes were gentle, almost pitying, and full of gratitude for my empathy. I gave her a tender smile, which she returned.

“Tell her I’m sorry,” I said to Rehan as we were leaving. I touched her shoulder. The boy looked up but I could not meet his hollow eyes.

After sunset, we gathered in the mess hall for our nightly meal.

“How was your day?” asked Collins, a Kenyan doctor who had worked in southern Sudan for three years. “It was tough,” I replied carefully, aware of my neophyte status in the African war zones.

“Welcome to Sudan,” he deadpanned, filing his plate with ugali and goat stew.

Sensing my reluctance to talk, Justus told Collins of our visit with the bombing victims.

“It was tough,” Justus reiterated, his eyes weary. After ten years in southern Sudan, the horror still registered.

Collins reached into the cooler and handed me a beer. His jewel-colored sarong contrasted with his subdued affect. In a few days, he was heading to the Congo for a yearlong assignment with GOAL. Like many of those deep in the belly of African conflicts, it was doubtful he’d ever leave. Only missionaries, mercenaries, madman or misfits gravitated toward these places, the tale went, usually over a few too many pints of Guinness.

I took a sip of the warm beer. “How could I possible ask this women anything?” I muttered.

“But at the end of the day, you have to. That’s your job,” Collins insisted. “Just like at the end of the day we have to amputate.”

Days before we had headed out in the Land Cruiser before dawn to retrieve two gunshot victims from a dusty, fly-infested clinic. We transported them an hour’s drive along a rutted path for the flight to Loki. An emaciated 20-year had been shot once, a single bullet still lodged in his chest. A Kalishnakov had accidentally discharged into the legs of another young man, shattering one ankle and ripping apart the other lower leg, which hung in tangle of bone and flesh from his knee. He had been laying on a plastic tarp for three days without anesthesia, awaiting his flight. In all likelihood, Collins said, he would return to his village a double amputee, if at all. I retired to my tukul early, a cool respite from the intensity of the day.

Lying beneath the mosquito net, I listened to the heartbeat of the Sudanese night, drums and chants echoing from the river and considered what Collins had said.

The journalist credo is to probe. But when does well-intentioned inquiry become inconsiderate invasion of privacy? In my attempt to reveal the consequences of war to a world numb from endless savagery, I obliged a grieving woman to recreate her anguish, asking her questions too painful for answers and offering nothing in return but a tiny voice and perhaps the hope that someone would listen.

The day of our departure engulfed me like the suffocating sub-Saharan heat. Bobby, Collins and I waited in the shade of a neem tree outside the mess tent waiting for our plane to land. Bobby shot a final round of darts. I sat across from Collins, lost in my thoughts.

“Come back to Sudan, Wendy,” he said, regarding my glazed countenance as indifference rather the concealed anguish it was.

Inexplicably, I didn’t want to leave, drawn to this desolate, unforgiving land– a place that reaches into your chest cavity and squeezes your vital organs until there is no blood or breath and you slump to the dirt in a sobbing mess imploring your brain to comprehend the incomprehensible. How does one begin to matter in that environment?

I boarded the plane last and took a seat next to Bobby in the first row. The 15-seater plane was crammed with stoic and sweaty black faces desperate for a way out. Collins and two other Sudanese men sat atop the pile of bags in the back of the plane. A young man crouched on the floor near the pilot.

Gazing out at the window at the scraggy plains, tears welled in my eyes. As we lifted off, I looked to the rear of the plane. Collins was staring through the plexiglass window, a despondent look fixed in his ebony eyes. Quiet tears streamed down his face.

Come back to Sudan, Collins, I thought as I watched him weep. Come back to Sudan.

Wendy Knight is a writer who lives in Vermont.

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