By Eric Reeves
Landing in northern Kenya
early this past January, very near the border with southern
Sudan, I found myself within a
few miles of a country I’d been writing about almost daily for
over four years. A professor of English at Smith for a
quarter of a century, I had been
waylaid by the moral urgency of Sudan’s ongoing catastrophe following
a life-changing conversation with Joelle Tanguy, the executive
director of Doctors Without Borders,
an organization I’ve passionately supported for many years. In
1998, Sudan had just been declared by Doctors Without Borders
to be suffering the most underreported humanitarian crisis.
In turn, with
a simple declaration to Joelle that “I’d see what I could
do,” I launched
an advocacy career that I’d never imagined and that had no precedent
in my life.
This advocacy work -- including the writing
of numerous op/eds on Sudan, providing Congressional testimony and circulating
roughly twice-weekly Sudan news analysis -- has
been entirely independent, without any institutional or organizational affiliation
(save what is for most my perplexing English department faculty status at Smith).
So it was perhaps both inevitable and appropriate that I arrived alone in Lokichokio,
Kenya, carrying only a backpack, without a real itinerary and accompanied simply
by good wishes and various general offers of help in traveling to Sudan. In the
event, these offers served me exceedingly well, and during my three weeks of
travel I saw a great deal of an immense and largely inaccessible country that
continues to endure a civil war of almost unimaginable scale.
More than two million
human beings, overwhelmingly southern civilians, have died
in the most recent phase of the civil war, which reignited
in 1983 with the northern
Khartoum regime’s efforts to impose shari’a, or Islamic law, on the
largely non-Muslim south of the country. In the ensuing fighting, more than four
million southerners have been internally displaced, a deeply threatening form
of existence in a part of the country to which the Khartoum regime regularly
denies all humanitarian access.
I knew of these staggering numbers, and
I knew a good deal more about what I would encounter; but there is of
like seeing a country for oneself.
Traveling to Sudan was important for my advocacy work, for my “professional” credibility,
and even more important for a truer understanding of myself and my passion for
these people of the south. My book-in-progess is provisionally titled “Sudan
a Long Way Off.” I needed a better understanding of what I was presuming
Historically, the timing of the trip seemed
auspicious. Departing in early January 2003, I thought I might actually
be seeing the first fruits of
peace in Sudan -- something
I’d tried to imagine from the very beginning of my efforts. After all,
a historic cease-fire had been signed on October 15, 2002, and this followed
a breakthrough agreement in July 2002 on the right of the people of the south
to hold a self-determination referendum. But instead, in a terribly perverse
irony, I would find myself traveling in the country just as the cease-fire was
falling apart in the oil regions of the south, with clear threat of the fighting
spreading to other regions. Oil development has been at the center of the fighting
in Sudan in recent years, indeed is quite clearly now the major engine of conflict.
It has been the subject on which most of my researches have concentrated, and
the focus of my Congressional testimony. It was with a whelming sense of the
deepest tragedy that I heard and saw evidence of renewed fighting throughout
the oil regions while I was actually in the country.
I traveled to various places
in southern Sudan, always hitching a ride as a guest with a humanitarian organization
flying to some destination of interest or importance
(an aside: I was always in the country illegally, since the Khartoum regime
would never have granted me a visa). I criss-crossed the country in small
in the process gained some physical sense of its vastness -- no small task,
since Sudan as a whole is the size of the United States east of the Mississippi.
saw Marial Bai in far northwestern Bahr el-Ghaza¯l province, the most
remote and distant location served by international humanitarian efforts. I stayed
in Lui in Western Equatoria, site of the most important hospital in southern
Sudan -- people will walk hundreds of kilometers for medical aid there. I
spent several days in the austerely beautiful Nuba Mountains, where most observers
agree that Khartoum’s denial of humanitarian access has amounted to genocide.
I traveled to Yei, the “capital” of Western Equatoria and now directly
threatened militarily by Khartoum. And I spent several days in Rumbek, in the
oil province of Western Upper Nile. My time in Rumbek gave me an especially close
view of the current situation in Sudan, and it was here that I saw southern Sudan’s
two futures: one as a thriving, if woefully underdeveloped, part of the world;
the other as the locus of more incalculable human suffering and destruction.
ambiguous sense of southern Sudan’s future seemed to ensure that I
would come away from my ultimately deeply dispiriting visit to Sudan with two
sharply contrasting pictures. One sits on my office desk, the face of a young,
wonderfully innocent Equatorian boy. The other I carry only in my mind’s
eye. It is the face of another young Sudanese boy from the oil regions of Western
Upper Nile, struggling to tell me about being attacked by a helicopter gunship
while fleeing his village. In obvious pain, deeply disoriented and clearly in
danger of losing his arm, he was nonetheless one of the lucky ones, having survived
to tell his tale of loss and terror and suffering.
I’ve now been to Sudan,
but I don’t know which is the truer picture.
Reeves is a professor of English language and literature at Smith College and
is preparing a book about Sudan.