Saturday, July 16, 2011

Happy Birthday R.O.S.S.




YOU are free,” Deng says to me shortly after the Republic of South Sudan has become the world's 193rd and newest country. “You are free”, he repeats. “You go to your place, you bring your peoples... and your cats and you come to live here. In South Sudan”.


Perhaps he is referring to my cows - for Dinka wealth is in their livestock - but I'm sure what he really means is that his sense of place, his personal freedom, has been fulfilled. I feel no freer here than I have had the fortune to be anywhere else.

Deng is filled with pride. He has a nation he can call his own.

He trails off but his eyes remain fixed on me with stern intent. His huge hand clasps mine in the fluid, shifting handshake of the Dinka and then his face cracks into a massive smile. “We are so happy” he says to me before he walks off. My encounter with Deng is one oft repeated during my time in Juba. Their lands will finally belong to the peoples of South Sudan and they are eager to share it with the world.



After twenty five years of civil war against the Northern forces lead by Sudanese despot President Bashir, the loss of two and a half million people including their great leader and martyr Dr. John Garaang, being in the Southern Sudanese capital for the week leading up to independence is an invite to a party like no other.

The weight of war is finally being lifted and the mood is jubilant. Normally beady eyed SPLA soldiers pose for pictures with their Kalashnikov's, tribes from all over the country stage impromptu dance ceremonies in the middle of the street. Dinka men who look like they could jump over a building in a single leap perform to drum beats; ash painted women holding tree branches, babies swinging from their breasts, their tongues clicking from the roofs of their mouths as they sing and shout, slowly shuffle from shady tree to shady tree in endless harmony.

The streets are filled with cries of “South Sudan Oyee.”



Beyond the party though is the business of starting a new country from scratch. For me personally it's a bonus having the same name as Africa's 54th nation - I spend most of my time buying t-shirts and trinkets bearing my mantle - before realising that walking around wearing your own name emblazoned across your chest would feel somewhat ostentatious under normal circumstances.

For now though I am bonded by name to these people of the Republic of Southern Sudan. We are one.

For others, here in Juba, there is the serious task of nation building. The breakfast table at Nimole Logistics, Resort & Hotel is the place to go to rub shoulders with diplomats, Lebanese businessmen and clean cut Americans - whose task here is unclear - but whose chinos and golf shirts remain perfectly pressed despite the 40 degree heat and swirling red dust. By the pool or over instant coffee with powdered milk in the restaurant is where the action is.



Returning twenty somethings, the elite Juba set, lucky enough to have fled the war and have schooled in Melbourne, London or New York sit around in their Prada shades, sometimes discussing how they will build businesses in their homeland but mostly gossiping about who was spotted partying at D-Havana, Juba's hippest local club, the night before.

They are privileged to have escaped the atrocities of the past but hoping to bring their collective experiences to shape the future of their nation, to get their SPLA qualifications and their dual citizenship and, most of all, to be part of the moment.

It is here, under the fans, that deals are hacked out. The nitty gritty.

The future of R.O.S.S.

On it's birthday, July 9th, South Sudan also becomes one of the world's poorest countries, war still rages in the Nuba mountains, people fret the future political ramifications of tribal divisions that are deep set between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. In the villages a 16 year old girl in South Sudan will be more likely to die in childbirth than to finish school.

When the nation enters the UN some days after independence it will do so at or near the bottom of the World Development Index.

It is not a pretty picture but these statistics seem far from the mind at breakfast in Juba. Like any post-conflict society the capital is a boom town. Cash flows and construction is everywhere. The nation's infrastructure and gilt edged government contracts are up for grabs.

Seventy Harley Davidsons are imported for the Independence celebrations for a nation that has just over a hundred kilometers of paved roads. A new hospital is promised for Wau district. Warehouses on the outskirts of Juba will store everything from frozen chickens to military uniforms. The new currency is chatted about. The banks have frozen the distribution of precious US hundred dollar bills in preparation. Cash flow will be an issue. It may not go smoothly.



Journalists pretend to be engrossed in their laptops but they are here at Nimole to people watch and glean information that will get them behind the facade of flag-raising ceremonies and to handshakes with the people who have jumped the gun and set up shop in Juba to quadruple their investments. There is, surely, a story in that.

For the most part I have little cynicism about this new country. Any fledgling economy is open to exploitation but how else will South Sudan maintain any momentum in it's development without presenting a modern face to the world first and foremost. This is Africa after all. My gut however tells me that Juba in five years will be a pretty decent place to be. Interesting at least. My naïve optimism is not met by most however.



These days I am drifting between the airport chasing lost luggage, the press centre chasing accreditation and Dan Eiffe's place. A former Catholic priest who fought with the SPLA, ran arms and married a beautiful Sudanese woman, Dan was here when all but a handful fled.

The writer I am with calls him Sudan's Oskar Schindler. He talks effusively about his twenty something years fighting and living in South Sudan. This is a moment of immense pride for him. A moment he thought he would never see. He will get a South Sudanese passport after independence and live out his days in a land alien to his Irish past that he has given his whole career to be part of. Dan can't move through Juba without impossibly tall Dinka's hugging him. “I've no idea who most of them are” he tells me, until they say “you were with us in the bush, in 1992, you saved my father's life”. “Yes!” Dan says, “I remember now, another Garaang. Tell him I said hello”. “Yes Commander Dan, I will” the Dinkas reply. Dan has seen it all, in Juba he is a true VIP, not just here for a token celebration.

One night over a Jameson he tells me that he weeps for these people. There is no hyperbole or artifice in his voice for he is one of them.



The luggage arrives, as does the press pass. The 9th is here and I have no idea what I am doing. It's fun and the Tusker is cold but as a photographer on the ground the work is hard. The press pack is in full effect and access to stories has been swallowed up by the big media organisations with producers and most importantly with budgets. At this point I am here with a camera like everyone else, trying to get a Kodak moment or two.

We arrive for the independence celebration at the Dr. John Garaang Mausoleum at seven am and the media quickly become as much a part of the event as the crowd of two hundred thousand or so. We sit on the sweltering tarmac for hours waiting and slowly dehydrating. Photographers eyeball each other. Some slip from the security cordon that is intent on blocking our view to get closer to the VIP area where the dignitaries are arriving for their moment on the red carpet. I decide that the time is now but my timing is poor. I get caught in mid-dash towards the podium, the promised land, where the successful have already crossed. The guard has spotted me by the soaked t-shirt I have tied around my head, du-rag style, to ward off the sun. He hauls me unceremoniously back to the press pack.

I get an ironic round of applause for my efforts.

A Sudanese Rick James and his cohorts perform an impromptu pop track on the tarmac. Everyone else is irrate.

Eventually I cross to the sacred other side, where the real photographers are, my head beginning to thump, my left eye half-closed from the soup of sunscreen and sweat that has slow-cooked my retina all morning. The Army parade begins and Salva Kiir, the new President of the Republic of South Sudan is sworn in. The new Constitution is read.

The flag of Sudan is lowered and placed in a glass case as the new flag of R.O.S.S. is raised somewhere in the distance beyond my lens. I lower my camera and sit for a while just watching.

I am here. That much I am sure of. It is history. Right now that's good enough.

I drink the last of my precious water and see the Red Cross pull another unconscious new citizen from the masses. The heat has taken me over too and the stage management, pomp and ceremony has gazumped my desire to carve out any kind of personal perspective on the event. There is no image for me now that I could not sit at home and watch on television. I am ok with it.





I take a break for a couple of hours and return to the Mausoleum in the evening and photograph the aftermath of the great moment. The crowd has mostly dispersed, to careen around town in flag waving convoys or to make their way home

Some remain though and it is far more satisfying to see the locals invade the VIP podium, sitting in the leather armchairs where the new President sat only hours before and stand at the lectern from which He spoke. A sea of South Sudanese flags litters the ground as the rain begins to fall. The pressure has been broken; both in the atmosphere and in the hearts of South Sudan. We catch a glimpse of the big man, Salva, but his security are once again intent on denying us a picture. A party is brewing in the backstage, Colin Powell flies past in a motorcade.



We wrap up the day as the sun breathes it's last breath, fittingly, photographing those coming to pay respects at the actual grave of Garaang, the man who had a vision for his people, a man who, like all great martyrs fought and died for a cause he believed in.

Surreal and already now memorable as a great occasion, the day has gone well for the South Sudanese and all of the preparation, the build up and anticipation are in the past.

A nation has been born.





My time here however is not over. The following days are a blur of encounters and whimsical vignettes, of sitting on building sites and watching laborers construct the new South Sudan, of seeing Hummers fly through the streets and eating salty, roasted goat meat and sipping Ethopian coffee. Of hanging out with Dan telling stories.

It has been a wholly confusing time and I try to figure out how to rescue the week in images that somehow capture the things I have seen. It is a search for a shortcut, for work that other photographers and journalists have put months and years of effort into realising at this moment in time. But really there is no shortcut for me and I resign myself to the fact that this was a wonderful week and this is a wonderful place, photography can wait in the face of bigger, more important things.

Finally I go to the airport on the back of a little motorbike with a trailer on the back. My usual driver doesn't show up and I'm in real danger of missing my flight.

I wave the guy down on the street and promise him ten Sudanese pounds to take me there right now. The jumble of huge ice blocks he is delivering somewhere are melting away in the sun but this Kawaja, me, needs help and the driver seems happy I have chosen him to ride on the back of his little vehicle and not in one of the many Land Cruisers that ferry the foreigners and dignitaries around Juba.

I'm going to make it on time.

The wind and dust from the dirt road blow in my face. I sway and bounce along in the trailer and I realise that Deng might just have been right, I am free.


9 comments:

thefrench said...

Keep 'em coming, looks great man. Hope you're holding up!

djkormac said...

Great piece man. Hope all's well...

Z-Bert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Z said...

Ross, this was a fantastic piece, gives an entirely different perspective of the feeling on the ground. Thanks for posting.

Majier said...

Thanks ROSS. I enjoyed your attitude herein. You clearly understand the optimism in South Sudan. Things can only get better now, our poverty notwithstanding. I just wanted to read thoughts of visitors like you, not news.

NB.I'm a Canadian from Toronto, originally from ROSS. Thanks for sharing this piece =)

Ross McDonnell said...

Thanks for your comment Majier, hoping the optimism in South Sudan remains and I get a chance to return again soon.

best

R

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