Shattered Sudan | Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace, National Geographic: Ruweng County War Zone | Only Leaves to Eat | South Sudan

Ruweng County War Zone | Only Leaves to Eat | South Sudan

This war zone in South Sudan has been so hammered by the Northern Government that they have no supplies. They have eaten all the leaves out of the bottom areas of the trees – now they are in the tops of the trees to get the last leaves to eat – They only have this and some rancid swamp water to boil them.

From my journal:

Gabrielle shows up and says, “Is it ok if we go to where people are eating leaves?”  Ruweng County is an island surrounded by enemies—now that SPLA and SPDF are joining (SPLA is Dinka and SPDF is Nuer) there is one less threat.  But these are people that have nowhere to go. 

I call Melissa on the sat phone—I have about 200 flies on my body as I am talking to her—periodically I breathe in and swallow one or two.  I tell her “this is the sound byte for what I’m doing.  I’ve moved 3 tons of food and medical aid into an area the UN is afraid to fly into, where people are starving and only have leaves to eat.  My satellite phone hit her cell phone in Lexington KY where she is in an air-conditioned, cupola topped, chandeliered barn photographing a 72 million dollar racehorse—we couldn’t be in two different worlds.

I visit commander George again and he says this wet season is critical to his cause—his men are wet season fighters who know the swamps and are dealing with desert Arabs.  I get the feeling from him that if he doesn’t shut down the oil operation this wet season, it will be over for him.  I think of the folks I met on the rigs as a guest of the north—I could almost walk there from here.

George is saying he must kill these people if his side is to have a chance—he will be killing many of his own people who migrate thru the war zone to work on the rigs.  If he’s lucky he says, he will also get a few of the Canadian roughnecks who are just trying to make more money by working in hazardous areas.  The other side of this equation is that there are 78,000 people reaching the point of starvation because north burns their crops and harasses them with gun ships.

Gabrielle shows up at 6am and says, “Is it ok if we go to where the soldiers are marching?”  Such understatement from this man who is starving and can barely ask for a water bottle are strange to me.  I have been waiting for months to photograph the military—it is impossible in the north—and this morning is only by special approval by commander George.

We walk an hour in the moonlight and then they appear across the savannah—all lined up waving their AK’s.  The marching songs they sing in Dinka are the same beat as in any army.

Refugees have gathered around George’s camp because they know he has some anti air and anti tank protection.  And they won’t be as harassed here.  I don’t know how long these folks have been drilling but as we head to them there are soldiers working on a large machine gun—I stop to take a few frames—and get in trouble.  This has to be cleared with George—eventually it does and they march me around to show all the guns.

George has only one motorized 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.  All the soldiers are young, polite and dignified.

You want to give everyone something, but from working in this kind of situation before, I know if I start it will get out of control.  I have to pre-allocate all of my personal stuff and leave Benjamin to sort it out.  I have a lot of stuff for just a few days of work.  I brought 4 cases of water (24 1 litre bottles per case).   Even the empty bottles are precious to anyone here.  Six cans of tuna, six cans of Echira (local beans), a big box with many bars of soap to give away, a bag of rice, bag of beans, box of onions, can of doom to spray around bug net to keep flesh eating parasite fleas away.

When a few of the soldiers find out I have a satellite phone, they bring the phone numbers of their family in states or Nairobi.  They haven’t heard from any of these people in years and yet I only have one spare battery and there is no way to charge anything out here.  I figure I will let a few of them call after I have called in the plane to get out of here.

I tell Commander George that I’ve called in the plane for the afternoon.  George says its good for the afternoon but the morning was bad—we heard gunships all morning and some on the horizon as well.

George’s military camp has a couple of huts with radios run on solar panels and they are good at deciphering GOS codes so they know exactly where bombing and airships will be.

It is a 2-hour walk to the airstrip in the sun on hard cracked ground.  I’ve been lancing blisters and patching my feet, but my legs and feet aren’t in the best shape anymore.  I’ve tried to keep my return flight a secret from the village—But as I sit on the airstrip I see a line of people headed towards us along the horizon.  I’ve made the decision to allow this flight to pick up wounded at Jiech.  They tell me the fighting is over there and guys with gut wounds have been waiting 5 days to be picked up.  I am assured it is safe and Kevin is sending an SRRA commander to make sure it goes smoothly.  But this also means we won’t have room for many of the folks walking here now.  I am proud this charter is also bringing 3 ton of food, medical etc… It won’t make much of a dent, but it’s the best I can do.

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