Tag Archives: travel in a war zone

He Prepares A Table For Me…

I’ve had a number of things on my mind lately that I’d like to write about, but I decided tonight to go back to the basics and tell a story of my travels. Specifically I’m going back four years to my last journey to South Sudan. At the time, South Sudan was the second most dangerous country in the world, and was quickly devolving to number one, which is where it currently stands. I’d like to be able to give reasons for why this is the case, but that would take volumes to describe. This being a blog, I fully expect to lose almost everyone if I go over 1000 words. If you’d like to know more about the how and why of the situation in South Sudan, feel free to look back through the archives where I write about it at length.

Staying put in South Sudan is not so bad. And if you have the opportunity to take a small plane where you need to go, you can avoid most of the danger, minus that of actually flying in poorly maintained small Russian planes.

The problem is when you have to travel the roads, and this is what we had to do. There was a village we had neglected to visit the last time we were there, and it was necessary to go and visit this time, despite the fact that the situation had gotten worse in the last six months since we’d been in country. The problem was two-fold. The first issue was what are known as “black snakes”. These are not literal snakes, though those exist as well, but rather armed bandits that wait along the road with Kalashnikovs for an easy looking target or a vehicle that has gotten separated. They then stop the vehicle and in the best case they only rob you. This is an ever present danger of road travel in South Sudan.

The other, more pressing problem was that of the White Army. An army of mostly children and teenagers from the Nuer tribe, they rub ashes on their faces as an insect repellent, hence the “white” moniker. They had been emboldened by the renegade vice-president and occasional war-lord of South Sudan, Riek Machar, to attack and raid villages of their cattle. The village we were visiting was directly in their path, and the only road back was in their territory. So to say the least, we were concerned about our road travel, especially since it would be nearing darkness as we were returning.

Many seemingly daunting or hopeless situations are punctuated by the simple phrase, “but God.” This one was no different. Normally I avoid soldiers in developing nations as much as possible, especially in South Sudan, where loyalties change at the drop of a hat. As Sung Tzu so famously wrote in “The Art of War”, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

As we turned out of the village along the Nile onto the rutted dirt road, a cattle truck full of SPLA soldiers was passing. We hung back a bit, but drove within sight of the truck the entire way back. Their presence offered a deterrent to any would-be attackers for the whole journey. As I thought about it later, a couple of things came to mind. Part of Psalm 23 was one of them.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;

For You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;”

The table prepared came in the form of a cattle truck full of soldiers, and I was thankful for it. I managed to snap this clandestine picture as we drove.

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Staying out of trouble.

There are lots of ways to get yourself into trouble in Africa, and particularly in South Sudan, especially if you’re carrying a camera. God has watched over me in all situations, so I am blessed to be able to tell you a lot of these things from personal experience without anything bad having happened. Just as a side, all photos can be clicked for a larger view.

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First of all, as in any undeveloped country, don’t drink the water. You would think this goes without saying, but some people still do, though it may not be intentional. If you’re taking a shower, don’t let water run into your mouth. This is the first way people drink untreated water unintentionally. The second is if there is ice available, it’s usually made with untreated water and can make you as sick as water straight out of the river.

Secondly, don’t eat any raw fruit or vegetables that have not been peeled. You really have no idea what’s been on it, and it’s a quick way to pick up a parasite.

When you’re taking pictures, be aware of what’s going on around you, as well as what you’re taking pictures of. Don’t ever take pictures of the military or police unless you have their permission, and even then maybe not. Furthermore, and what you might not think of, is don’t take pictures of infrastructure, especially in a country that’s at war. They may think you’re a spy and you’ll find yourself either arrested or shot.  Also, be aware of the political situation going on. Elections can be more dangerous times to be in an unstable country.

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Election posters in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013.

If you can spend some time in a village and get to know people, it’s much easier to take pictures and get the kind of results you are looking for. If you’re just passing through and are taking pictures, there’s a general lack of trust and you might find yourself in a precarious situation, even if you technically have the rights to take photos. If you find yourself in this situation, a smile and being friendly will get you out of the situation most times rather than being combative. Offer to delete the picture if it comes down to it. If however, the people aren’t truly upset about having their picture taken but are trying to take advantage of the situation for personal gain, well, that’s another story and I’m not going to give advice on that.

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Infrared photo taken from the top of a water tower in Juba, South Sudan

Blending into the surroundings is easier than you might think.  I’ve climbed a water tower before with a long lens. People see you go up, but after a while, they forget about you. People generally don’t look up when they’re going about their daily business, and it’s a way to get truly candid shots.

Now we get more into the nitty gritty. Always, and I mean always, be aware of your surroundings. Trouble doesn’t usually just show up out of nowhere. There’s usually some kind of warning beforehand, and it’s always easier to get out of a tricky situation if you avoided it altogether than to extricate yourself later.

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spent 50 caliber bullets littered the road in this spot.

Don’t follow regular patterns. If you do, and someone intends you harm, you’ve made yourself a target of opportunity because they know where you’ll be at what time.

Don’t pick up anything if you don’t know what it is. South Sudan is full of mines and unexploded ordinance.  Even if an area has been declared free of mines, stick to where there is obvious traffic.  Also, if you see a line of rocks with paint on them, the white side of the rock means the area has been checked for mines and cleared, the red side of the rock has not. Stay on the white side.

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An unexploded mortar in a minefield.

Finally, don’t travel at night. And if you must travel, make sure you can stay within sight of other vehicles if at all possible. Again, most situations can be avoided if you don’t make yourself a target of opportunity.  I hope this was helpful.