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The Holy Land

This is chapter 19 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
Jun 10 2014, 11:20am

A Nuer medicine man. Mysticism, prophecy, and traditional beliefs run deep in Nuer culture. Machar has integrated the forces of the tribal prophets, the media, and diplomacy throughout his long career. Photo by Tim Freccia

After spending days talking to Machar, we learn that the White Army is heading north to stage an assault on Malakal. So we need to get there—first by boat to Nasir, then by vehicle to Malakal.

As we make our way through Akobo, a medicine man approaches to perform a little song and dance for us. He struts like a chicken, mimes spitting on Salva Kiir, and insists that the Nuer will overcome. Onlookers laugh and cheer him on. He may have more sense in him than anyone we’ve met on our trip thus far. Akobo city is considered holy land by the Nuers, and the latest prophet, the man who controls the White Army, lives about ten miles away and meets with Machar on a regular basis.

The boatman we’ve hired to take us to Nasir finds us. He wears a pink shirt and has sparkles painted on his fingernails. As we discuss the trip ahead, he tells us that besides the fuel he’ll need oil and spark plugs—in addition to his fee. He wants $200. I barter and persuade him to take half that, roughly a month’s wages for what should be a five-hour trip. He tells us where to find fuel.

The merchant is conveniently located behind the UN camp, selling food and fuel that a more cynical person might think he looted from the compound. We buy six jerricans of gas for $100 apiece, about $20 a gallon, which is what (we hope) we’ll need to make it up the river and back to Akobo.

We have just spent what it costs to fly one way from Ethiopia to New York on what should be a short boat ride. At Machar’s request, we must also take aboard half a dozen rebel soldiers, who insist they are along for our security.

The Pibor River and even more convoluted Sobat River might seem like a circuitous way to travel between Akobo and Nasir, but it’s faster than driving through the dense bush. We load up and the boatman guns it, and we almost immediately hit a fishing net. Soon we slam into another, then another, flying forward in the hull. With every net we hit, our pilot takes an inordinate amount of time to uncoil it from the prop. They keep coming, dozens of them. It’s like slamming the brakes on your car every five minutes on the freeway.

One of the soldiers accompanying us warns that if any fishermen see us destroying the nets they’ll get angry and probably shoot at the boat. This is clearly not going to be a five-hour trip.

It evolves into an 11-hour marathon of clearing nets, slowing down, speeding up, getting stuck in hyacinth weeds, and then, after dark, looking for something to eat. The soldiers have brought nothing but a few cookies for the journey.

Our boatman pulls into every village along the way to ask if anyone has food. Nope. The sun sets, and fireflies dance around our heads. Smoke rises from a red horizon of burning fields. Finally, the soldiers spot some young men with rows of dried fish hanging among their shanties. Fires are lit, and crusty catfish are thrown into a pot of boiling river water, or simply torched black over the flames, until the soldiers are full. They leave without paying, and we resume our trip down the river, now by moonlight.

Along the shoreline we see movement in the shadows. A flashlight reveals dozens of terrified animals drinking meekly from the crocodile-infested water. The pelicans are startled, barely missing our heads as they dart from the water and into the sky.

We are now freezing from the constant spray of water below. Our only relief comes when the boatman almost collides with an overcrowded passenger boat and instead runs us aground at full speed.

At last we see the lights of Nasir. It’s 2 AM, and nobody is up, so we sleep atop an overturned steel boat. At dawn we discover we’re camped out in the middle of the town market, surrounded by curious spectators.

We walk over to visit the commissioner, who is apparently someone we have to see. Where he’s stationed there are two new schools and a new government center—signs of growth.

The commissioner graciously puts us up in a compound abandoned by an NGO, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). Things are in a bit better shape here than in the camp in Akobo, and the commissioner says he can supply internet and power if we buy fuel for the generator.

The compound is littered with garbage, but there are beverages in town. An old lady snags up our bottles as quickly as we can drink from them. There seems to be a fuel business being run out of the NGO building, operating off the gas left behind. We watch a “businessman” enter the compound and sell ADRA’s fuel to our boatman for his return trip. We are introduced to the economics of warfare when the boatman explains that his original estimate was wrong and in fact we are paying for the fuel for him to return to Akobo.

I explain that we already purchased the fuel we needed, prior to our departure, as he requested and based on his estimate. This argument doesn’t interest him. Machot intervenes and tries to negotiate a settlement, but our boatman, with his painted nails and crisp pink shirt, continues to argue through the “manager” of the abandoned NGO, who now seems to have a deep interest in prying more money out of us on behalf of the boatman.

Soon the boatman and Machot are shouting and arguing in Nuer. Machot says that more fuel is needed because the boatman has to go upstream to return. I point out that he used up all his fuel because we had a ton of weight, a dozen people on the boat—three of them his crew. I tell him that he should be able to make it back without the extra weight, and besides, that was the price agreed upon.

This doesn’t sway the boatman, so he decides he will not drive the vessel back. I agree and tell him that this is great, that he can stay here and we’ll charter his boat on our return—and hire a different boatman to drive it. Flustered, he tells me he will go to the commissioner to seek satisfaction. Soon the boatman arrives with an angry mob of armed men.

Machot tells me that word has gotten out that we are cheating the boatman, and the whole town has come to prevent us from leaving.

“Leaving where?” I ask.

“Leaving,” Machot says.

I see a gaggle of heads, guns, and sticks outside the gate. But we aren’t leaving; we are quite comfortable in the ADRA compound with our free internet.

“Fine, we could use the extra security.”

My response puzzles Machot. The rabble is clamoring outside the gate. He makes another plea to go along with the boatman’s extortion, insisting on a new tack—that we need to return the boat to the commissioner because wounded people need to be carted off for medical care. I point out that the Doctors Without Borders hospital is actually here, in Nasir, not in Akobo. As our argument drags on, the mob outside the gate grows quiet.

I have Machot bring our accuser to me, and I ask him why he is such a bad boatman. Why did he take 12 hours instead of five, why did he break so many fishing nets, why does he demand more money, and why has he brought a mob to beat and shoot us? He looks at Machot, who refuses to translate. I tell him to go, and that we will hire another boatman.

Machot is now even more frustrated. He offers to pay the man out of his own pocket, even though he doesn’t have any money. Apparently, I am making Machot look bad because he brought these crooked white men to swindle the locals. Tired of the game, I give the money to Machot. As if by magic, the crowd outside the gate disperses. We have somehow gone from esteemed guests to instigators of violence, cheaters, and pillagers and back again in the course of a day.

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