“We’re Happy That You’ve Come”
The sun hung high like an aged friend I longed to see, yet a friend quickly turned; burdening, blistering.
We were finally there; making our way to a small building that I would’ve assumed abandoned hadn’t it been for the people pouring in and out of it.
The setting was stark as I stepped into customs at the airport of Juba, South Sudan. A tiny little terminal plagued with trash, the smell of defecation, and urine. I barely had room to walk, and wasn’t sure of where to. As my eyes wiped the room, I couldn’t comprehend how I felt. There was a mass of people overcrowding that space. I realized that most of the people in that room weren’t coming or going, they were just there waiting for whatever was coming.
The room was suffused by a sentiment of conquest, accented by a grim, and succumbed relief. I saw it in their shoulders. I saw it in the ridges of their faces.
I met eyes with a man not much older than I. He was toweringly tall, calm, and he gazed at me with one eye dark, the other white as the foam of an ocean when it crashes against the stony shore. I stared into that shoreless void, and pondered his life.
I fell perturbed by my curiosity. I asked myself, if this man’s existence could be documented through a series of photos, which few would he choose that best defined who he was in that very moment, and how different would he of liked those photos to be; what were the photos that resembled his dreams? I tore away ambivalent, and asked myself the same thing. I had no answer to the former.
I heard a vicious scraping, and clacking. Another young man gaited across the room on a crutch; compensation for a missing leg. He felt my stare, stopped, and regarded me with sallow eyes. I was weirdly calm amidst the stone look; I knew I was subject to the deference of these people, I just embraced it.
He wasn’t alone in his condition, I counted at least 5.
This terminal resembled more a safe house for those who’ve escaped an abattoir, not an airport; maybe that’s what it was. People were shouting vehemently at one another. Others seemed to be meditating; attempting to displace themselves to that far off place: tranquility.
Among them was a woman breastfeeding catatonically in the corner, her eyes so tired, and allayed; succumbed to the numbing, balmy touch of her child.
They were all scrambling soliciting their services — to carry baggage, or give rides — for which, in return, they’d ask for a few pounds.
This country has been torn apart by a civil war that commenced in 2013 shortly after it claimed its independence in 2011. The government then ripped out all the stitches that it had administered in its long conflict with the tyrannical and abject government of Sudan — specifically the regime of Omar-Al-Bashir. Since then practically half the country’s population is at the brink of starvation, and have no access to clean, healthy water.
The soldiers on both sides, pillage, steal, rape, and kill; rarely engaging one another, preferring these types of rampages against the innocent lives they were supposed to protect. All the while, both countries, Sudan, and South Sudan, are covered by a darkness that leaves them unknown, forgotten, and silenced. This darkness is government controlled, destroying democracy’s finest instruments: press, individualism, and representation.
The two governments are blocking humanitarian aid, destroying the lives of journalists who expose them of their crimes, burning villages by the hundreds; silencing their people. This is why we’ve come, to help eliminate the ignorance of such forgotten conflicts by spreading these people’s stories as wide as possible; to show the world that the tyrants that we’ve read about in history are very much awake, and at work, committing atrocities paralleled only to the worst we’ve ever seen.
I approached the customs counter for the non-sudanese, thinking I had finally made it, yet had to remind myself that nothing was guaranteed. It’s a test to pass so that our jobs can be done. The Sudanese governments doesn’t take kindly to cameras, or filmmakers, especially in Juba. All together we slowly approached the yay or nay, the power resting in the hand of an S.S.P.S.: a suzerain of a fragile, and corrupt democracy. We wait, basking in the clamor, and anxiety.
Finally, the test comes.
My friend, Aaron, is to the right of me, and having forgotten his proof of vaccinations, is being harassed by the S.S.P.S. officer for having done so. Eventually, the stress has apexed, and we all fear we will be turned away after the immense voyage we’d just undertaken; we’d have to return home. Eventually, the officer asks him, “What’re you going to do about it?” — an attempt at a bribe. Yet, in our team is a widely respected man, Ismaiel who approaches to resolve the problem, and seeing him approach the S.S.P.S. tells him he’s free to move on.
By this time, I was speaking to an officer of my own. I found him very aimable, and respectful, yet rigid. He was well-spoken in english, and presented inquiries standard for customs. Deceivingly answering his questions — we sure as hell didn’t want him to know the true reason we were there — we chased a rabbit hole, and spoke as newly formed friends. I presented him with all my papers, and he gave me the keys to the kingdom; that beautiful entry stamp.
He handed me my passport, his eyes stealing the light in the room, and said, “On behalf of the beautiful South Sudan, you’re very welcome here, and we’re happy that you’ve come.”
At hearing these words I gave him my most sincere smile, for what he said was ultimately, strangely comforting, for it made me feel like I was on vacation checking in to a resort. Then it crossed my mind: maybe he understood; what I meant to do there, then again, maybe not. I turned to depart, head down, nodding; I’m happy that I’ve come as well.
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