By Anisha Desai
It is Sunday, 3 August 2008, and here we are again in the VIP lounge at Addis’ airport. Weren’t we just here a few hours ago!?! Not that there’s anything wrong with being in a VIP lounge, but we’re getting kind of sick of this one. Thankfully, we’re heading out for Chad and won’t be back this way again – at least on this trip.
Our flight to N’djamena, the capital of Chad, is a little under four hours and we’re supposed to arrive early afternoon. At the moment, it is my intention to go right to my room and lay down. I’m worn out. This has been a long trip and very draining. Interesting and challenging every day – which is, of course, why we all feel a bit spent today.
Juba – capital of South Sudan – is quite a place (read that however you wish). I want to write “rising out of the ashes of the more than 22 years of war…..” except it isn’t exactly “rising.” It is more in some ways huts – tukuls – huddled together, while it is also sort of sprawling out along the Nile. The tukuls are the same round, single-room huts that are found throughout much of east Africa. The walls are made of packed mud and the conically-shaped roof is of thatching. Some of the tukuls had designs on the outer walls, but not many – at least not many of the ones we saw.
The newer buildings, like our Juba Grand Hotel, are uninspiring cement structures – but not to complain – we had air conditioning and hot water!!!! The exterior of the Juba Grand is reminiscent of a 1950s American motel. Someone said the rooms were actually made out of containers – like shipping containers. I was also able to use my cell phone and send text messages on it – which I’d not managed in Addis! The UNMIS offices were also containers.
Juba is wild, but according to those who’ve been coming there over time say it really is a boom town. It’s population is around ¾ of a million, which I’d never have guessed. I’d have thought somewhere under 100,000.
One of the low points of the Juba experience was attempts at a “photo shoot” of me and Wangari together (and this was NOT a shoot by the wonderful photographer of our delegation, Judy Rand, but a different photographer). It was the most torturous and protracted photo experience I’ve ever undergone. And I’m not joking!!!
Despite the fact that there were tukuls just steps away from our hotel, we were herded into cars and driven to a place across the Nile. Even trying to get there was unpleasant. In fact, it had been easier to get into the President’s office than to get across the damn bridge. First of all, it was a one-lane bridge so we waited for traffic to come across in the opposite direction. The process was prolonged as vehicles dogged cows trying to cross the road. Those cows had without question the biggest horns I’ve ever seen in my life. They were positively gigantic. Truly impressive.
When it was our turn to cross the bridge, we were stopped at the security check point and roundly hassled by the guards there. They were refusing to let us cross, for reasons totally beyond our understanding. There was quite a bit of loud discussion going on, and we were just on the verge of making a u-turn and returning to the hotel when somehow they let us go – which didn’t turn out to be much of a favor at all.
A bit down the road on the other side of the river, we pulled to the side of the road and got out of the cars into the burning mid-day sun. The site had not been scouted before, nor had the people of the village been approached to see if they might mind having us show up and pose beside their homes. After mutiple attempts to take our picture directly facing the sun, I was growing rather irritated. How the hell can you look directly into the sun and look relaxed and happy!?! Eyes watering and sweat running down my back, I protested and we tried to move toward a tree into the shade.
There were two young boys in the tree and the photographer asked Wangari to speak to them and as she was standing there smiling at the boys and they were smiling back, a woman came screaming angrily out of her tukul and very hostilely tried to chase everyone off. Others came out too and were very unhappy about the situation.
Needless to say, it was a complete bust and we returned to our hotel – and were completely hassled again as we tried to re-cross the bridge. After that badly orchestrated – read completely un-orchestrated and unprofessional – attempt, I was not anxious at all about trying a repeat performance. Unbelievably, when we tried again the next day, at the tukuls right down the road from the hotel, it was no better than before!!!
Supposedly this one had been all set up, but when we got there we were met again with hostility. Wangari appeared calm and was able to smile in spite of it, but I was completely uncomfortable and in anything but a smiling mood. So when the photographer started trying to order me to “relax” and “smile” because I didn’t “look so good” when I wasn’t smiling as hostile people were surrounding us, I finally told her to just “shut up” and keep shooting pictures and see what she’d get.
Right at that horrible point, a toothless drunk on a motorbike took deliberate aim at Wangari and I and we quite literally had to jump out of his path not to be run over. At that point, I said I was done! and went directly back to the car. Enough was more than enough. I’ve been photographed more times than I could possibly remember all around the world and have absolutely positively never had such an experience of lack of professionalism, lack of preparedness, lack of “people skills” (and we all know that ain’t my strong point! so I sure as hell know it when I see it), and lack of proper equipment in my life! I hope the bad feelings we somehow brought to the people in the two places where the shoots were attempted do not rival mine.
The “photo issue” was an irritating backdrop – kind of like the constant attempts of mosquitos to bite us raw – to the otherwise interesting experience of Juba.
The possible indictment of Bashir hung heavy in the air. But unlike the sentiment at the AU, the people we met with were not opposed to it at all. In fact many talked about it as opening unexpected possibilities to press for peace; that this newest pressure might be sort of a “wake up call” that if real negotiations don’t take place the situation will only get worse for the regime.
South Sudan has been playing a significant role in trying to move negotiations forward. Recently the government had hosted 17 rebel groups in Juba where they could try to hammer out common negotiating positions. They’ve also been in discussions with key rebel leaders to bring them back to the negotiating table. Of course, they can’t negotiate alone, Khartoum has to be willing to reopen the Darfur Peace Accord and tackle the issues of power sharing, revenue sharing and compensation for the victims of the war.
Peace negotiations were also on the minds of the women we met with. The women from Darfur talked with us about efforts to bring women together in Darfur, including some representatives from other parts of the Sudan, to develop their own peace platform and to strategize about how to press for their inclusion in negotiations should they take place. The conference had been planned for June but security concerns made that impossible, so it is now tentatively scheduled for October. It would be great to be able to attend that meeting, but since Khartoum will not give me a visa to enter the country it isn’t possible.
The challenges facing the women of Sudan are huge. The women we had the opportunity to meet with clearly are committed to creating opportunities for women to fully and equally participate in building a new Sudan. They do need support – not just financial support, but capacity building, leadership training, and education across Sudan for young girls and women.
Ok. I think I’m finished “reflecting” for now. We still sit in the airport. It’s now 10:35am and we’ve not yet boarded. We were to have departed at 10:15. At some point we will leave for Chad. More from there later.#########