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saving south sudan doc

Flying In

This is chapter eight of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. You can skip ahead and read the full text here or <a href...

by Robert Young Pelton
May 23 2014, 12:30pm

A bushfire burning across a vast stretch of land in South Sudan. All photos by Tim Freccia.

Machot, Amos, Tim, and I fall into a routine. Machot wanders over from the hotel in the mornings. Seeing Tim and me enjoying our coffee, he demands to know why we’re not leaving. Then Tim and Machot get into a furious argument, usually over Machot’s dislike of Nairobi, while Amos stands back awkwardly and doesn’t say much. I play peacemaker, eventually calming everyone down. We are fighting our own little war in trying to get out of Kenya. We had our airstrip in Akobo; we just needed someone to take us out.

After numerous dead ends, our fixer, Edward, trips over a lead to a pilot who might take us into the bush to find Riek Machar. A connection of Edward’s, a man who also happens to be a native white Kenyan, thinks he can arrange a flight through a pilot inside South Sudan. We are told the pilot cannot be named or photographed. About all we know for sure is that the one-way flight will cost us $17,200. That’s more than double what the normal charter rate is when the country isn’t about to cannibalize itself.

Edward relays the details from his contact to us: “You will be dropped—he is not even going to stop the engines—and then when your gear is clear, he is going to take off.” We agree.

Later we get the call: “Be at the airport at 6 AM.”

Elated, we prepare by shopping for food, camping supplies, and gifts for the new friends we’ll meet on our travels. Machot seems obsessed with purchasing things that his associates have insisted Machar needs: a tent, boots, onions, baby formula, and other random bullshit. I mix it up by buying a candelabra, spices, and Tabasco. Machot also claims he needs clothes, even though he has packed his normal street clothes and a dress shirt, pants, and leather loafers. Amos, as always, hangs back quietly.

As soon as word is out among our contacts that we are leaving, demands to take people and equipment with us flood in. Nothing like a $17,200 flight into a country’s asshole to attract new friends. Our baggage swells with a new Thuraya satellite phone, two video cameras, tripods, more groceries, and boots.

At this point Tim and I get the sense that Machot has been moonlighting at our expense. He disappears for long periods of time, burning up minutes on our Thuraya, followed by constant demands to fill up random commanders’ satellite phones. We ignore these requests. He promises us we will be up on the front lines. “You OK with front lines?” he asks. Tim and I look at each other.

The morning of our departure we gather in the cool dawn at Wilson Airport, Nairobi’s commercial tarmac. Pilots are having their early-morning cigarettes. Shiny new planes taxi the runway before taking off to deliver fresh goods to Somalia.

Robert and Machot embrace before boarding the charter aircraft in Nairobi.

Upstairs in the office, Edward’s contact carefully counts the stack of cash I’ve given him. Then he counts it a second and a third time. He looks nervously at Tim, who is pointing a camera at him, and reminds us that we are not to film our pilot.

Is this finally it? I refuse to believe it until we are airborne. The second time. First, we have to fly to the pilot who will take us to our final destination.

After lugging our gear through a makeshift security line, we load into the plane and taxi out. Machot is smiling broadly. He has never flown in a small plane. The wheels are soon in the air, and we fly north as the landscape turns rugged and mountainous, eventually flattening into a dry plain.

As we descend, the runway below comes into view. It’s littered with crashed and abandoned cargo planes, and we tuck in between them on touchdown.

Soon after we land our pilot arrives. He’s flying a massive Cessna Caravan, the 12-passenger, single-engine workhorse of Africa. Luggage is stowed in a pod in the undercarriage. The inside features mud-caked cardboard on the floor and stained cotton seat covers.

We load our stuff as our pilot drinks Nescafé and chain-smokes Marlboro Reds. He suggests that we hurry up and get away from the prying eyes of the airport workers lurking behind the building.

“How is it?” he asks nervously about the landing strip. I say it’s fine, that we’ve been talking to the people on the ground and they are expecting us. Then, shaking off my Nairobian haze, I realize that it has been Machot talking to the people on the ground all along. I admit that I have no idea what the situation might be. I ask Machot to call them again, and he dials my satellite phone.

Our pilot is nervous because, before our flight, he tried to pull a favor from a general he knows in Juba, who he hoped would grant permission for her to land in Akobo. His response was that under no conditions was he to land anywhere near Akobo. It meant that if he were spotted on the runway, his business in South Sudan would be over.

So instead he offers to take us to Pochalla, a small town near the Ethiopian border. Under my direction, Machot makes a quick call to the rebels, who tell us it’s in enemy hands. It has to be Akobo or Waat. He chooses Waat, putting us 100 miles away from our destination.

Soon enough Machot is back on the phone, shouting and relaying sideways intel to us: “They have 300 people, and the airstrip is secure.”

After hanging up he says, “They also asked if we could bring back four wounded people.”

Our pilot bristles. “No, you didn’t tell me this,” he says. “I will not do it. I cannot bring wounded people here. Do you know how much trouble that causes? How much paperwork, how many headaches?”

Machot grows angry, retorting, “They have driven all the way from Akobo. They must be flown out.”

“What are their wounds?” the pilot asks.

“They have PTSD.”

“PTSD? I thought you said they were wounded.”

“They have suffered from all the heavy fighting,” Machot protests. “One man led the escape for Riek out of Juba, and he has not slept for 14 days. They must be taken out.”

He is on the verge of screwing up the only ride out that we will ever have. Doing my best not to upset him further, I try to explain to Machot that PTSD is not really considered a fatal wound, nor does it call for a medevac.

The pilot refuses: “No. I am flying to Juba afterward. I will not fly those people back.”

We argue with Machot and tell him to call the rebels back and inform them that we are going in and no one is coming out. We say we can arrange something later if necessary. We are lying. Machot is becoming a liability.

The pilot is not having a good time. While Machot yells in Nuer over the phone, he says, “I have done this before. They will mob the plane, wave their guns, and threaten to kidnap me. I have seen this many times with these people. I don’t think this is a good idea. I just walk away and smoke a cigarette. I say, ‘If you want to fly the plane… go ahead.’ And if one person reports me to Juba I can lose all my business.” He shakes his head. “No, this is not good. If I take those people back to Juba, they will kill them.”

A soldier sits in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser filled with defected SPLA fighters.

Machot is off the phone, and he asks what they said. “They are not happy,” he replies.

He tries to bail on us. “I can come back later,” he says. “There is a cheap hotel here. You can spend the night.”

We make it clear we are going in. We tell Machot to call back and make damn sure there aren’t any problems. He does and assures us that everything is fine. They have cleared all the people from the airstrip.

I tell the pilot that it’s now or never: If he wants the money, we are flying in today; we don’t have the funds to keep trying. He needs the money. Business has been shit for the past two weeks. He stubs out another cigarette and says, “Let’s go.”

We walk through the terminal’s solitary metal detector and board the plane.

The pilot has good reason to be nervous. He tells us that the day before, her plane was loaded with the corpses of three of Kiir’s bodyguards. He was hired to transport the dead bodies back to their home village.

By 11 AM there is nothing on the ground below to indicate that we have crossed into South Sudan, except for the clusters of tukul huts that appear every so often. Our pilot smokes and reads a book while the plane is on autopilot. As we approach Waat we peer eagerly for any signs of our hosts. The town of Waat is small, bisected by a rough-hewn airstrip—a pit stop for Ethiopians making their way across the border. On approach all we see is a group of random people roaming about the runway. There is no evidence of security or men with guns who will protect us from what could quickly become a mob. As we dip to a few hundred feet, the group scatters. We land.

Even inside the fuselage, the coolness of Nairobi is gone. It’s about 90 degrees. The sun is blinding, and a searing wind stirs up dust. Curious children are followed by women who greet us with goods balanced on their heads. There is no sign of rebel forces.

Scanning for trouble, out pilot barks at us to get out and unload. Within minutes our gear is piled up on the tarmac. “Be careful,” he says, climbing back inside the plane. Then, in a harsh spray of dust and rocks, he is gone.

Robert hitches a ride.

As the plane disappears, we stare at the locals, who stare at us in turn. We have an impressive pile of baggage and no place to put it. Soon a pickup truck with armed men rolls up, and they greet us. It isn’t the 300 armed men promised by Machot, but it’s better than nothing. The bed of the looted NGO Toyota is encrusted with coagulated blood. We throw our stuff aboard, and they drive us to a nearby compound.

When we get there the mood is not congenial. We are offered plastic chairs to sit in while the men gather around a plastic table and discuss our fate.

A two-inch-long digger wasp is busy making a hole under the table. A large brown eagle flies overhead while white-throated ravens look for food. A soldier walks by with a UN Peacekeeping flak jacket.

There’s a space issue. The four men supposedly suffering from PTSD didn’t leave on our plane, so now there’s not enough room in the car for all of us to go to Akobo.

Will we rent a car? Maybe.

A beige lizard scurries across the brushed dirt. We sit politely.

A looted but serviceable Red Cross ambulance is found. The owner wants $700 to rent it. We decline, only to later discover that this was a bargain.

Commander Dieu Koang Bangot mulls over the situation with his men. It is decided that we will all simply pile into the battered green Toyota Land Cruiser that brought us in and drive the roughly 150 miles east to Akobo. Problem is, there are 17 of us. We sit four deep, with two on the roof, and somehow find room for our gear.

The road is a straight shot across the dry savanna. The black cotton soil is hardpan and deeply riven by cracks. When the rains come, this will be impenetrable swamp. For now it’s brutal road, all the way.

We pass more people walking with goods balanced on their heads. We are in Nuer territory and should have no fear of the enemy. Other than the pickup truck, AKs, and uniforms, this landscape has changed little since people started living here.

Machot and defected SPLA fighters carry a slain antelope.

The truck stops abruptly, and one of the men on the hood points. A herd of antelope is grazing to the right. One of the soldiers jumps off the truck and aims carefully. Bang. The herd scatters. One animal is wounded, its hindquarters immobilized. We rush over and see blood pouring out of its wound. It’s still conscious, so the rebels bash its head and step on its throat. Then it’s dead. The carcass is strapped to the hood. This will be chow later, as none of the rebels carry water or supplies into the field.

The men are all Nuer, and this is their homeland. Although they wear SPLA uniforms, their current battle is with the government and Salva Kiir. They are all aware of the attacks against their fellow tribesman, a situation that has pitted the Nuer against their Dinka brothers.

After nightfall we pull into Akobo. We are definitely with the rebels now. Long processions of officials stop by our mud hut to greet us. “You will hear gunfire tonight,” says one gentleman. “Don’t worry—that is happy gunfire! Don’t be alarmed.”

We sleep under the stars, gunfire trailing off in the distance. In the morning there are two groups of uniformed rebels running through a casual muster and roll call. They carry what appear to be new weapons, with belts of PK machine-gun ammunition wrapped around their bodies.

We are told the random shooting is to make sure the gun barrels weren’t bent after the new weapons were airdropped from planes. I ask who delivered them. They tell me they are courtesy of Sudan, via Eritrean aircraft.

Akobo says much about South Sudan. The city follows the river, which has carved out a winding, watery boulevard. Steel riverboats, canoes, and speedboats line the riverbank, but fuel is in short supply. The social hub is a central tree-lined street where people stroll back and forth, saying hello to one another umpteen times a day. Large, empty schools sit adjacent to government buildings. The expats and NGOs are long gone. There is no electricity, and people still bathe in the river and shit in the fields. Where we’re staying there’s a pit toilet, but a writhing mass of maggots is currently occupying it to the point of uselessness. Just outside the gate sits a sad collection of new Toyota trucks on blocks, stripped of their parts.

Dinner is tied to the hood of the Land Cruiser.

A faded South Sudan flag flaps weakly in the town square. Electricity hums from the commissioner’s office—I’m told someone from the US Armed Forces has installed solar panels and batteries. Although there is power, the office is locked, and only certain people are allowed to go inside to charge their cell phones. Even though there is no coverage in the area anymore, people still like to walk around with their phones as if they have someone to talk to or something to talk about.

Spiderwebs and dead, hand-wired electrical grids connect the surrounding huts. Two large generators sit idle, their starter batteries dead. The old colonial structures are covered in graffiti and human waste, the locals preferring their wattle-and-daub construction to cinder blocks and corrugated tin roofing.

For some reason the local market is closed today, and police warn groups of youth to go home. The “market” is a collection of NGO-installed shacks that hawk dry goods imported from Ethiopia. A man there runs a foot-operated sewing machine, and kids peddle glucose packs and toothbrushes.

Just behind the UN base, on the river, is a storehouse. A white truck unloads what can only be freshly looted flour and grain. Its cargo also includes an impressive collection of plastic chairs and goods. The man who runs the place is well dressed and a little uneasy about our cameras. He is selling sorghum from a large sack to housewives.

We bump into the soldiers who traveled with us from Waat. They are proud of their town. They are also quite proud that the UN Mission in South Sudan has remained secure after fighting broke out in the region a few weeks ago. Somehow the fact that it has not been looted is an indication of their control over the surrounding area.

It makes us nervously wonder when we will be getting out of here and on with the show. The last thing we want is to overstay our welcome.

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