Author Robert Young Pelton and former Lost Boy Machot Lat Thiep became fast friends when Robert helped rescue Machot’s family from Somali kidnappers. After experiencing the best and the worst of South Sudan, they head from Nasir to Ethiopia and then home. Photo by Tim Freccia
Machot continues his habit of vanishing for most of the day. As we are loading our vehicle and preparing to leave, he appears out of nowhere and shows us a metal plate and plastic water container.
He has been looting the International Committee of the Red Cross on the river, insisting it is overflowing with food. It took him most of the day to figure out that the reason he felt strange was thirst. On his way toward the river to fetch some water, he realized he had nothing to put it in. Hence his subsequent exploration of the ICRC warehouse.
As he made his way to the marshy riverbank, he saw a few bodies, then more bodies, then bodies stacked on bodies in the killing fields. He fled and forgot about the water entirely.
Late that night, after eight hours on the road, we arrive back in Nasir. We return to the abandoned Adventist Development and Relief Agency compound and make ourselves at home.
In the morning the manager of the camp demands money for our lodging, even though, a few days ago, we were told we could stay for free. I ask him how much, but he refuses to give us a number and rebuffs the several offers I make. After an argument, he storms off into town with Machot to fetch the police, locking the gate behind him.
The “police” are a small group of men and children with guns. Uneager to face what passes for Nasir’s law enforcement a second time, we decide to bail and hire a donkey boy loitering outside the compound fence. We smash the gate’s cheap lock with a discarded pipe.
He takes us down to the river, where we sit under a large tree, inhaling the fishy air. Soon Machot strolls up with the angry manager, just the two of them. Machot accuses us of cheating the man and says the commissioner asked him why he has brought these white troublemakers into town. I point out that we have offered the manager money on multiple occasions, that he has not specified what amount will satisfy him, and that I can even send the money directly to his employer at the NGO.
Then Machot angrily tells the conniving NGO manager to get the police. He’s speaking in Nuer, but even I can translate that one.
I suggest to Machot that he stay here while we move on because I’m starting to grow suspicious that he’s playing the straight man in these seemingly endless petty scams. “Instead of coming here to ‘fix’ your country, you’re on the side of the extortionists and con men,” I tell him. “Maybe it’s best you stay here and, when you’re ready, figure out how to make your own way home.”
This further angers Machot and results in another lecture from him that doesn’t make much sense to me. The police soon arrive—an angry man with a stick and even angrier men with AKs. At this moment, with all his posturing, Machot could easily be mistaken for one of them.
They try pointing their weapons at us. I suggest that if they do this again I will, in true rebel fashion, stick them up their behinds. Then they turn their fury on Machot, who is suddenly taken aback at being singled out as one of “us” instead of one of “them.”
Amos hangs quietly in the background, calling the game in my ear. “They want to beat you… They won’t beat you… Now they are going to beat you… Now they want to shoot you.” When I ask him to explain that shooting us means they won’t get paid, they wind it down to just a beating again.
There are four of us and six of them, though they have guns and I don’t expect Amos or Machot to offer much help if things get out of hand. Despite their efforts to rattle us, they don’t end up beating anyone and instead storm off to the commissioner’s office to enlist more angry locals and firepower.
As the kids stare at us, I ask Machot what he thinks of his country and countrymen now. We have come to document what is going on, and while many people have worked hard to help us achieve our goal, some have worked just as hard to hinder us.
Machot has a defining moment as he sinks down, realizing he is an American and a target for abuse at the hands of extortionists. He holds his head in his hands. “These people are crazy,” he says. “These people are crazy.”
I seize the moment to ask him what he thought when he saw the killing fields in Malakal, all the raping, burning, and shooting. Why was he so eager to believe the rebels’ claim that the women and elderly were “caught in the cross fire”? What does he think now of all the rhetoric Riek Machar delivered under the trees? Was it in any way contradicted by the brutal killing sprees of the White Army? Machot has nothing to say, which is the correct answer. There is nothing to say. He just sits there holding his head in his hands. It reminds me of the catatonic Shilluk woman whom I gave a drink and some money the other day.
The members of the mob, eager to wrangle reinforcements, are halfway back to the commissioner’s office when they notice that our boat out of here is pulling in. We are already preparing to load up. For once this country’s slowness is working in our favor. Knowing that their time is limited, they rush back, with sticks and guns flailing.
“You are not leaving!” they shout. “You will go to prison.”
I mention that there is no prison anywhere near here.
“We will beat you.”
All the while, the renegade NGO manager realizes that what started as his inability to do basic math has spiraled into another dimension. I walk straight into the angry mob and put my arm around the manager’s neck, covering his heart with my left hand. I ask him if he can feel his heart pounding. He is too scared to reply.
The makeshift police force, seeing this sudden détente and fearing that their instigator has flipped, start threatening him too. None of it makes sense, other than as a microcosm of how things work in South Sudan. Enemies become friends at the snap of a finger, and now the tough-guy NGO manager needs me to get him out of a potentially severe beating.
So I offer him $200 to solve all our problems and suggest that he make a big display of accepting it. I am sure the mob will divide that into enough portions to leave him with almost nothing. I count out the money very publicly, admonishing him to be more specific next time. Disgusted with the lot of us, the rabble storms off.
The trip upriver is fun. Crocodiles, cranes, pelicans, fish, herons, and children splash in the water as we make our way to the Ethiopian border crossing. The facilities aren’t much to look at—just a few boats, a World Food Program warehouse, and yet another predatory cluster of Nuers who threaten the jitney drivers and demand money for doing nothing.
Over the border, the Ethiopians give off a completely different vibe. When we ask how much it will cost for a trip to the nearest town, they quote a fair price. When the Nuer porters threaten them and try to block their exit, the Ethiopians gracefully cast down their eyes and wait.
I demand that we start moving. The Nuers respond by trying to latch onto our tiny three-wheeled vehicles in a strange attempt to mime jumping aboard. The drivers slowly wait them out a second time, and we blast down the road.
The madness fades behind us. Unfortunately, South Sudan is not going to be saved anytime soon.