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The Overdue Journey

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 a 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 course nothing 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 -- Suffering a Long Way Off.” I needed a better understanding of what I was presuming to depict.

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 planes and 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.

I 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.

This 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.

Eric Reeves is a professor of English language and literature at Smith College and is preparing a book about Sudan.

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