Crisis in South Sudan: The Diary of Anna Sambo

South Sudan Anna Sambo 260x190South Sudan - As the peace negotiations that were originally scheduled for Februrary 11th in Adeba, Ethiopia remain on hold indefinitely, AVSI has decided to publish the testimony of Anna Sambo, AVSI’s project coordinator in South Sudan. Her free flowing reflections jump from practical considerations to heartfelt observations. They speak of her life in Africa as an aid worker and of her growing awareness for the importance of her work. The descriptions she gives of her life and the landscapes that surround her are both harsh and enchanting. And ultimately, her story contains an important truth: “there is no hope for the person that does not learn from his past.”

In Anna’s words one finds both disillusionment and determination. But most importantly, one recginizes a strong will to continue a search that belongs to every human being wherever he lives. Her words reflect a search for the Good, even where it is least expected to be found.

At last, this afternoon, I’ve arrived in Juba. The trip by car was long and hot. The people in the villages carry on their usual activities. South Sudan, especially in Eastern Equatoria where Juba is located, is exceptionally beautiful, even in the dry season. The landscape is yellow and black, though now and then there are some patches of green and of flowers. The music on the radio keeps us company. Me, Paola – James, the driver.

Juba is nearly deserted but not completely. There’s no sign of traffic. There are shops open, but many are closed. There aren’t many people in the streets, and only a few soldiers. I found the local staff again. There’s fear in the air and I ask myself what I can do for them. This is the period when contracts are expected to be renewed and their only concern seems to be their wage. Everyone’s counting their pennies. Since the crisis, the South Sudanese pound has grown weaker and weaker and prices are inflating due to scarcity of merchandise and closed borders. In Juba there are fruits and vegetables. But in Torit, the city where I was before this morning, the trucks that bring fruits and vegetables come less frequently. That’s why we’ve only been eating cabbage, tomatoes, bananas, and some pinapple these last few weeks. We haven’t been here very long, but given all that’s already happened it seems as if we never even went back to Italy.

And now Juba. It was beautiful to finally arrive in Juba, surrounded by the Nile. And then I saw the deep concern in the gazes of the staff and of Dr. Ben, the president of our education faculty, whose face doesn’t hide anything. His eyes and in his words tell no lies.

Riek Machar, the coup leader and ex-vice president of South Sudan, has said he’s organizing the liberation movement in South Sudan. People say they are camped in Jonglei (a place full of swamps, plagued by death, and yet so fascinating to me) and that they have enough weapons to bring about real “change.” Dr. Ben says that if these people do not learn from their past, there is no hope.

He continues to tell us that the Nuer and Dinka continue to kill each other both in Juba and throughout the northern states of South Sudan. He also says new negotiations are predicted to begin in Addis Adebe, this Friday, February 7th but that Machar won’t to show up unless President Salva Kir frees the prisoners loyal to Machar and that were captured in December.

Dr. Ben’s gaze seems void of all hope: everyone is being asked to wait without any definite time limit and without any real expectations. There is only fear. But then again, just the other day, when I was traveling between Isohe and Torit, I realized that keeps us here is our desire to be with them. This isn’t some desire to do good for the poor. It has nothing to do with being responsible. No, it’s something that happens to you when you’re with them. You stay because they’re there with you.

After what seems like an eternity, our first full night in Juba finally approaches. It is important to know about everything that’s happened since we left. In that sense, going to visit the sick isn’t a metaphor. It is what has to be done. What does it mean not be afraid in front of a situation like death which takes up so much of our life? Why not look it in the face? Only then can we try and see some good in all of this.

 

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January 30th, 2014

 

“And because everything was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. A desire was born in me, the same one as always: somewhere there had to be something even more beautiful. Everything seemed to tell me, ‘Come’” (C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces)

 

Four years ago, in 2010, I arrived in Isohe, South Sudan a city surrounded by mountains. For four years Africa has been a part of my heart. At first Africa seemed like paradise. When we first crossed the border between Uganda and South Sudan and saw the houses lining the mountains I thought to myself, “the Garden of Eden must have been something like this”.

But today, on the road from Isohe to Ikotos, where the mountains stand behind the trees underneath the blue morning blue sky, and where the people grind wheat big black boulders with small rocks, I didn’t think about anything, I only watched. The only thing one can do in front of all this is look. It is strange that one can be different from the next, and that January can different from December, and that you can see your co-workers nearly every day and then, one day, seem them in a new and different light.

 

These days, my heart is heavy.

I cannot see.

 

Yesterday I went with Maria to watch a game in Isohe’s soccer tournament. Isohe is a village, but sometimes it’s like one big house. Today I was taking a walk with Maria at sunset and everyone was calling out her name and saying, “Hello, Maria!” or “Maria, good evening”. It’s hard to speak about my Africa because it becomes easily romanticized and there really isn’t anything romantic about the market in Ikotos or the dirt road, which, after five minutes of driving, leaves you with only one remaining desire, to vomit.

I attend two meetings. One with the Diocese of Torit and another with the Comissioner of the County of Ikotos. The commissioner is a large man who tells us the story of AVSI in South Sudan, and how he and Pietro (I need to meet him, the first Country Representative of AVSI in South Sudan) spent a week in a village, sleeping in the same house, in order to pick the place where AVSI would eventually establish its base. It was a decision they made together, between AVSI and the local authorities. A decision made by the people living there.

It comes to me again, “to be here simply means to be here”. Today two other Italian colleagues arrived from Uganda after a long journey. Today at dinner, I was thinking about the role that desire plays in all of this. You really have to desire to be here.

 

Here we are, together, under the stars of Isohe, and all of them seem to be coming down on us.

 

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February 13th, 2014

 

This morning I went to mass. I’m beginning to regain my faith in Juba. Today I was in Torit, and then in Isohe, and then back Torit again. Each time I thought of Juba, I thought of home. As soon as I came back from my peaceful trip through the villages and mountains and set my feet on the boiling asphalt of Nimole-Juba, I found myself receptive to every noise. Each noise has become familiar again. During the day, the heat of the dry season is blistering hot and our movements are slow.

I went to Mass this morning because I needed some time in silence. Each day we work, we talk, we discuss, and we laugh. As if it was nothing. We take it for granted. Not to mention the uncertain situation that all of us are facing in South Sudan. It’s not that we ignore it, but there isn’t much to recount aside from the stories of the shootings and the refugees. But it all loses perspective. And a big question seems to build within me. I need space and I need silence.

The joy this places gives me, the joy I expereinced last year, hasn’t vanished, it hasn’t gone away. But it needs motivation, it needs a reason. My joy from last year has become more serious this year. All the difficult behind doing something without knowing the end result had finally been rewarded. Paola is heading north. We have a new project in the Lakes State, in the north part of South Sudan. So I ask her, “Are you afraid?” I’ve already imagined how she would respond. Maybe she’s afraid of the Dinka and the Nuer that are klling each other. Or of going to a new place. She must fear for herself and for her own safety. But mostly, I think about all the fear that I would have and of her courage.

Instead, she tells me that she is afraid of the expectations that other people there have of her. They’ve already been calling her. They want to be sure that she arrives by the time classes begin at the school (a vocational school for masons, carpenters, and farmers). They are kids, living in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a person they have met only once. There is always work to do or a hole to fill. That’s one good reason to live here and to never want leave. It keeps you dreaming about a South Sudan that is as happy and beautiful as the mountains.

 

Read more: 

Background to the South Sudan Crisis and the experience of resident AVSI staff