Rebels With Ancient Machine Gun | Ruweng County | South Sudan
Ruweng county is an island surrounded by enemies… it is the last stand for the rebs in the existing oil field area. They hike in their plastic shoes that are taped and tied and slog thru swamps trying to put a mortar shell or two into an existing oil operation.
Refugees have gathered around George’s camp because they know he has some anti air and anti tank protection.
George has one motor vehicle—an Allis Chalmers tractor. I guess he can transport a mortar or something like it for a short distance into the swamp. These soldiers wear simple green tunics and most have the cheapest, white plastic shoes I’ve ever seen. These shoes are held together by tape and bits of twine—many are barefoot.
From my journal: Excerpt about getting permission to go to rebel controlled areas.
The flight to Nairobi is a real scene–flight attendants on the Kenya Airways are African Christians with names like Peter and Robert. And there’s a group of 20 or so fundamentalist Islamic folks on the flight–some with black turbans (they believe they are direct descendants of Mohammad). The Christian flight attendants are just trying to serve stale croissants and orange juice when the Muslims realize the sun is going to come up. They go into a panic. Most have never flown before, can’t operate a seat belt, squat in the airline seat as they try to use a piece of the stale croissant to pick up other food on their tray, and now there are 4-6 of them hovering, panicked, behind the drink cart. They are staring holes through the back of the flight attendants heads—a few of them have made it back to the bathrooms were they must wash their feet hands face etc..
They have completely hosed down both bathrooms and there is water coming underneath the doors. The poor flight attendants try to make little Kleenex dams to keep water out of the aisle. Then they realize they don’t have a good place to pray so they pull the first-class curtain back and break into that area and take turns, two at a time praying and facing the proper direction as the sun comes up.
I’ve never seen such a group of panicked folks in my entire life. I don’t get to the hotel until late. And then I just have to sleep. I have one hour with Julie Flint, Paul’s fixer. She knows all the rebels and has been working here for years. We have dinner. This is my first wine in two months. She talks, I listen. This woman can definitely talk; she’s had an interesting life though–she tells me about phone calls with Leni Riefenstall and how they went by foot through the Nuba mountains by night (many nights) evading government garrisons and also about being captured. All in all–an interesting life that she has spent mostly living in war zones reporting for The Guardian or BBC. She gives me a map to the rebels’ headquarters, which is on a lonely road outside Nairobi and tells me to talk to the No. 2 man because John Garang is out of town. My problem is I only have one passport, unlike Paul who had two passports, I have a Khartoum visa—This makes the rebels very paranoid and I need a letter from this guy to make everything OK.
I wake up in the middle of the night realizing I am in a strange country with lots of crime and I will be going alone to meet rebels in a lonely place to try to prove I am not a spy. All I have is a mobile phone number for a driver and a map to rebel headquarters. It is impossible to keep the Daniel Pearl story out of your head. There were two competing rebel factions S P D F and S P L A. Julie called the leader of S P D F for me and he wanted to chat and joke with me on the phone. Julie called him a war criminal and he joked back that National Geographic was in imperialist publication. He gave me directions to the rebel headquarters even though I have never been in this country before. He kept asking me on the phone if I knew where various landmarks were. Julie has trouble with their phones and offices because they are constantly shifting around. S P L A and S P D F are now in the process of merging but at the moment they maintain separate offices and separate control of different areas. Even though the leaders have settled differences, soldiers in the field are still suspicious, so I will have to be careful which pass I show which rebel group.
The driver takes me to a wealthy area of Nairobi with beautiful gardens outside electrified razor wire. This is so different from the dust up north. S P L A headquarters is at the end of this narrow lane. A guy with an incredibly dirty T-shirt opens the double gates—obviously S P L A has some money–this would be a relatively expensive home. I am told to wait in the living room and kitchen area. This area has a lot of plywood cut into arbitrary geometric shapes with round bulbs as decoration. This must be some tribal architectural period of sorts. Eventually I am brought upstairs to Martin Okerruk. He puts me off guard immediately—“ how are you? “ This accountant-like guy says. We eventually get around to my problem and he wants to see my passport to make sure I am stamped out of the country. The only hang-up is he wants to know exactly where I am going. I say it varies—W F P changes their itinerary week to week—He says we need the entire list of options—So I point to his phone on his desk and ask to call. He says their land phones don’t work anymore and he has no credits on his cell phone—but there is a gas station at the corner and a pay phone. I have to change money in a long bank line to get a few coins and about two hours later have a list of places I want to visit in the rebel controlled South.
I’ve gone to their administrative Office with my memo from Martin–the travel authority functionary reads them all over and over—his lips moving slowly as he reads. Then he reads every page in my passport—finally he fills the remaining blanks and signs my travel permit authorization form. But he doesn’t put down the whole list of towns that took so long to get. He points to one part of the memo that says “oil area” and says all these towns aren’t in the oil area—only Ruweng County. I point to a line that says humanitarian relief and finally get my way. I realize why Martin said over and over while writing this I must make this clear. Our next stop is to register my satellite phone for $225–what a racket—people who are just bringing them food for free have to pay all these stupid fees as well. It is almost 4:00 p.m. By the time I get to the S P D F they say we thought you were coming at 9:00 a.m.—we have been waiting—the guy I talked to on the cellphone was the leader of the S P D F and he has had them waiting all day. They know I have been to the north and say the only thing that is important is that I come up with a balanced story. I get a permit in 10 minutes, all the while having pleasant chats with these guys—reinforcing how crazy the North was—I know these folks don’t have as much to lose but they sure are more pleasant to deal with.Buy This Image