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The Wretched Land

This is chapter six of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. We will release a new chapter daily, but you can skip ahead and
May 22, 2014, 11:25am

Machot pacing around and talking on a satellite phone in Nairobi. Photos by Tim Freccia.

Machot is antsy. He hates Nairobi. It’s too busy for him, too diffuse. It doesn’t help that he remembers nothing but bad things about the last time he was here. That was when he was a Lost Boy, or more specifically a terrified country bumpkin being pickpocketed by thieves and ripped off by police, shop owners, and taxi drivers.

In an attempt to save money, one day after wandering the city he decided against the bus and walked home. He was jumped by a gang of youths on a freeway median. One man stabbed Machot in the back of the head while the others robbed him of everything he owned, including his clothes. He walked the remaining miles to his cousin’s house, bleeding onto his underwear. Passersby were too afraid of retribution to offer help.

His return brings with it the bad kind of nostalgia. He wants to leave the moment we arrive. But we’re stuck here, working the phones to arrange a meeting with a pilot with the nerve to take us into the bush to find Riek Machar. This bores Machot.

To pass the time he hangs out with the Nuer diaspora, who always seem to be on their way to a meeting about something or other. Every dollar we give Machot vanishes quickly; he is fond of picking up the tab for his new friends. He is just as fond of asking for more cash.

Meanwhile, we arrange a meeting with a group of Nuer politicians who planned to attend peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but are now technically under house arrest in Nairobi after being accused of plotting a coup. They ask for phone cards, and we buy them lunch at an upscale mall. They tell us that they’re just as puzzled by the turn of events as we are. They say that they don’t know why they were arrested. They don’t know why they aren’t allowed to travel to Addis Ababa for the peace negotiations. All they know is that Salva Kiir has ushered in a new era of war and ethnic division.

With a palpable sense of pride, they tell me that two of Joseph Kony’s people are talking to Machar’s people and may join forces with them to fight Kiir. Kony’s Acholi tribe is ethnically, geographically, and politically related to the Nuer. The Acholi also control South Sudan’s southeastern border with Uganda, with additional fighters stretching westward toward the Central African Republic. Both tribes wish to oust Kiir.

The crew’s supplies piled near a piece of Kenyan temperance propaganda

Weapons have begun to flow. Favors have been cashed in. Calls have streamed in from Nigeria, Sudan, and Eritrea, all seeking to take advantage of seismic shifts in South Sudan’s rupturing fault lines. With the explosion of violence in CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, regional powers are getting involved in the scramble for land and resources. Everyone wants to grab a chair before the music stops—and not end up dragged lifeless through the streets in the process.

The Nuer politicians introduce us to a thin young man dressed in a New York Yankees cap and trendy jeans. Amos is his name. They ask us to take him to South Sudan with us, and our group grows by one.

Amos is a sergeant major in the South Sudanese army, a bodyguard, and a driver, so there is hope that he might be helpful in reaching our goal. In December, Amos was sent to Uganda by his boss, Taban Deng Gai (the governor of South Sudan’s Unity state and the man heading up the current peace talks), to buy some parts needed to fix Deng Gai’s Cadillac Escalade back home. While he was gone his country fell apart. He has no idea how to get back to Juba in a fashion that won’t get him killed or arrested.

As we plot various routes into the South Sudanese bush that won’t alert the government to our presence, some suggest that we simply travel through Juba.

This raises the eyebrows of both Machot and Amos. “They will kill us” is all they say, and that’s all I need to hear as I’m reminded of the pluses and minuses of a white man traveling through Central Africa with a former Lost Boy. Juba is not an option.

Day after day slips by as Tim, Machot, Amos, and I sit around Nairobi and try to devise a way to sneak across the South Sudanese border. The weather here is perfect, the people speak English well, and the airport links to anywhere—all reasons why it serves as the heart of Africa’s NGO infrastructure. It’s also expensive, dirty, crowded, full of petty crooks, and the traffic is maddening. Underlying it all is a dark desperation. Street vendors dodge rows of speeding cars to sell food from impromptu stands along the road. Everybody is hustling to make a dollar, and corruption is rampant, on all levels. Every taxi ride ends with an argument about the fare. Even the cops manning the traffic circles will hold up cars if they aren’t offered a small tip.

The longer I’m in Nairobi, the more I begin to share Machot’s loathing of the place. If this is what passes for civilization here, we need to get to the comforts of the bush.

Then, on our eighth day in the city, we get a break. After burning through hundreds of dollars of time on our satellite phone, we finally find another pilot and a landing strip. We are headed to Akobo.

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