My sometimes traveling companion Armin Rosen (he went with me on reporting trips to Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring) visited the world’s newest country—the Republic of South Sudan—when it declared independence after its long bloody struggle with the regime in Khartoum that costs the lives of more than two million people.
Armin has written for us an astonishingly literary and detailed portrait of a place most people still don’t realize even exists.
In [the capital] Juba itself, you expect to see graves. A friend who visited Sarajevo once told me that the city offered little evidence that a war had been fought there less than two decades earlier—only cemeteries that blanketed the surrounding hills, visible from virtually any sector of the city, serve as testimony to some horror or another, though they are silent as to which horror. And while you expect to see the residue of war, ruined buildings and charred vehicles and craters, you’ll in fact see none of these things in Sarajevo. But death, or at least the fact of some recent mass death, nevertheless beams from grey reservations of the newly and prematurely dead, a ubiquity that makes grim demands on the imagination, inflicting the image of a hecatomb upon the same physical space as a city that suddenly appears unnervingly normal.
But in Juba there aren’t even graves, or at least there weren’t any that I saw. The war dead are somewhere; disturbingly, that somewhere isn’t obvious or apparently visible. Neither did I see ruined buildings, nor all that many charred vehicles (that wrecked fighter notwithstanding), and I certainly didn’t see any craters. I didn’t see any formal war memorials, no ostentatious public displays of triumphalism or regret, no murals or statues, no eternal flames surrounded by wreaths. At the roundabouts there are already-fading posters from the previous July’s Martyr’s Day—exhortations to remember “the 2.5 million whose sacrifice formed our national foundation”—along with very occasional propagandistic reminders that “the SPLA stands on guard for the nation.” These reminders are weather worn and admirably discreet, considering that the country’s origins lie in violent revolutionary struggle, and that its government ministers and even its president began their careers as guerilla fighters rather than politicians, per se. A traveler arrives in a city already at odds with an unfathomable and bloody recent past, a past that commands no subjective, physical presence, at least not immediately, not in those first confused hours of choking humidity and flickering cell-phone signals. But already emerging is the sense of a city half-finished, a place whose atrocities remain guiltily archived in the darker regions of the visitor’s mind, even as they’re given few tangible reference points in the external world, where exhortations to proper health and hygiene far outnumber state-sanctioned reminders of the war. “New country, new beginning,” read several large billboards. “Have an HIV test today.”
Yet the war endures in subterranean form: figuratively, in mind and memory; and literally, in the tens of thousands of landmines that ring the city. Bombs of either variety lie buried under the dominating facts of the city’s physical existence: the smattering of high rises encased in scaffolding, white Land Cruisers (NGO and UN, mostly) clogging smooth and newly-paved streets, pop-up shanty-neighborhoods of freshly-arrived migrants, palm-shaded riverside hotel bars where Dutch consultants and Ugandan businessmen gather to waste their evenings—all of it evidence of a place exploding into a novel and unfamiliar normality.
In Juba, muddled geography is a tyranny in the sense that any basic, seemingly insurmountable fact is a tyranny. One morning at a nearly-empty hotel bar I met a South Sudanese man who had fled to Kenya during the civil war and then moved on to Australia, where he became a successful computer engineer. When the war ended he had no desire and no conceivable reason to return to a homeland that was still in a state of violent transition, but when independence came, he felt pinched by obligation, and his conscience could not allow him to simply enjoy a comfortable life in a borrowed corner of the earth. So for the last few months he had been on a consultancy with the Ministry of Tourism. In the deep south, down near the Kenyan border, are grasslands that rival the Serengeti in diversity—there are elephant herds and even lions, and each spring, antelopes migrate there, thousands of them, fur and hunched spines stretched to the horizon. It was the largest land migration in the world before the war scared them away—nature, it seems, has an instinct for human troubles. But it’s been seven years, and they’re beginning to come back. Had there been many tourists in South Sudan since independence? No, he said, chuckling and shaking his head.
Another thing about the deep south, he added: pineapples grow in the wild there. You don’t even have to try to cultivate them. Just dig them out of the ground. The land in our country is the most fertile in Africa.
Later in the day I found myself at yet another hotel bar (for a western visitor, Juba is a city of hotel bars). Remembering what the man had told me, I ordered a pineapple juice. I was given a can of Rani brand pineapple juice, from Yemen.
In all likelihood, the can had been taken by container ship from Yemen—thirsty, suffering Yemen—through the piratical waters of the Gulf of Aden, then to Kenya, then trucked through Uganda along miles of maraudering clay roads. It was a paragon of wasted effort and wasted local capacity, and in this respect, the humble can of pineapple juice was not alone: There is a national airline, but its planes are supposedly registered in Kenya. There is a national beer (White Bull—a Toast to a New Nation), but there are whispers that it’s owned by a Kenyan company as well. There’s an excellent weekly newspaper called The New Nation—but it’s a project of a European NGO, and its editor in chief is Belgian (even though most of its writers and columnists are locals). The woman who sold me phone cards at a roadside stall was Kenyan. The bartender at the Bedouin is Ugandan. What about the man scanning a fully-uniformed Bangladeshi UN peacekeeper’s groceries at the JIT Mart? It’s well known that the JIT Mart—the only “western” style grocery store in town, and as fine a place as any to spend $9 on a box of Frosted Flakes—is owned by Kenyans (or possibly South Africans), and the man looks as if he could be from India or Pakistan, which in this part of the world means he’s probably from Kenya, which means that he, like virtually every other laborer and businessman and piece of commercial produce in Juba, is not from anywhere that’s even particularly near Juba.
That was but the tiniest sample. Be sure to read the whole thing.