With a start, the old Mercedes engine buzzed to life. I removed my sunglasses, wiped the dripping sweat from my forehead, and then put them on again. A muscled, low-hanging heat rippled off desert stones, curling between the underbrush, through the vicious thorns of scattered acacia, and up into a cloudless, bleached sky. The north Kenyan border post, ten minutes outside of Lokichogio, Kenya, was less impressive than I had expected; it was composed entirely of five termite-eaten shacks resting beside the “road,” and five or so lazy, lanky men chewing something and cradling machine guns. A crop of powerfully tall, forest-dusted mountains sloped up to the east. To the west was a long shock of flat, hot desert. Between the two ran a perilously unkempt trail, to be attempted only by vehicles with four-wheel drive, that spanned the 60-kilometer stretch of befittingly named “No Man’s Land.” This road, the only legal route between the moderately stable country of Kenya and the bleak war zone of Sudan, is notorious. Hijackers, terrorists, rogue militias, and any other kind of gun-toting troublemakers imaginable have been spotted, rumored, or (least likely) caught on this road. Only two weeks earlier, an armed military transport driving between Loki and Nadapal was hit by a RPG from somewhere on the mountainside, killing several soldiers and sending another handful to hospitals in Nairobi with serious injuries. It was an incident of the sort you won’t hear about on the news.
Despite it’s reputation as a war-torn desert hell (and in fact, because of it), Sudan is one of the most expensive countries on the continent. The invasion of foreign aid organizations, NGOs, and development contractors – inevitably led by the UN and the World Food Program – has driven prices up exponentially, while for the majority of the Sudanese, doing nothing to boost wages. When some cheap clinic is being built as a European Union initiative or a Medicines Sans Frontiers project, they will often hire local labor at outlandishly high prices. Even the presence of these organizations alone is enough to skew a local, regional, or national economy; when a vast troop of hungry, dirty, bored Westerners move into your town, you naturally charge three or four times the rate for food, water, and luxuries. Walk into a Sudanese town today and ask how much it will cost you to park in the rocky, unmaintained, piece-of-shit carpark, and someone will tell you, “One hundred dollars.” Of course, you’ll be able to argue it down, but peacemongers like the UN are more than happy to oblige the poor, desperate savages. Be it for the sake of “charity,” or born out of pure laziness, this bizarre form of management has transformed the Sudanese society into one that, quintessentially, cannot comprehend the value of money. So when a military truck is attacked along the main road connecting South Sudan with cheaper, cleaner Kenyan goods, it is important that no-one see it on their evening news.
“Okay,” said Daniel offhandedly from behind the wheel, “ready?”
“Ready as you can be.”
Daniel chuckled, and gave the 300 GD a dose of diesel. After a few quick revs for morale, we were off. The bush passed us slowly, heavily-thorned branches thwacking loudly against the vehicle’s doors, competing with the soft grinding of all-terrain tires on dusty ground and the cacophony of an old clutch and a weak engine tackling the dips and rises of the African soil. I peered cautiously out the window, eyes glued to the nearby hillside, contemplating the fact that we were definitely within firing range for rifles, and that the thick bristle of shrubs and small trees could easily hide anyone staring down on our small, slow, bright blue vehicle crawling desperately through the powdery beige wasteland. Both of us were silent in the car, our heartbeats a few BPM faster than usual, although Daniel had the challenging road to occupy his mind. I wondered what it would be like to suddenly hear the peppered clack of automatic gunfire hitting the car, to see shattered glass and feel helpless, yelling at Daniel to drive, dammit, and then realizing that you literally cannot drive any faster on such a road, turning up to the hillside, perhaps spotting the glint of sun on gunmetal, and being completely unable to stop some 20-year-old Taposa runaway from gleefully testing his newest and most deadly toy. It occurred to me that, for all my apprehension and sensationalism on the dangers of pickpockets and robbers in Nairobi, I had never been in a situation where I could conceivably meet a violent death at any moment, until now.
I cracked a terrible joke to relieve the tension.
As our laughter died, the edge fell from my unease. If God chose to take me in such a simple, violent way, it would befit me. I would much rather die in an ambush doing missionary work in Africa than suffer a coronary while reading a math textbook in Long Beach. Whatever happens, happens.
Despite my wildest fears, no creeping RPG contrails traced after us from the hillsides, no muzzle flashes warned us of a bloody fate, and our car did not tear itself apart on the ditch-laden road to the border post. We breathed a sigh of relief when, across a dry riverbed and over an expanse of desert road, a barbed wire fence appeared and behind it, the Sudanese border town of Nadapal.
If I am blacklisted and deported for what I am about to say regarding the Sudanese border officials, it is a price I am willing to pay to expose their absolute bastardry. After being told to unpack and repack every ounce of our terrifically overloaded vehicle, we were directed to Customs. These gentlemen, seeing two watch-wearing, passport-toting wazungu traipse into their office and hand out a bundle of oft-copied paperwork from Nairobi, decided that they wanted a payday. It took more than 2 hours fielding the most ridiculous excuses conceivable as to why our church-sponsored tax exemption pass was invalid for us to get to the point: “you may pay the required fee now, or we will confiscate your vehicle until you do.” A smartly-uniformed guard posed in the doorway with one of the Chinese-built AK-47s to reinforce the demand.
“Okay,” said Daniel hesitantly, “what’s the required fee?”
“That would be – one minute, sir…” Tapping at a calculator longer than necessary. “That would be seven hundred dollars, sir.”
“Shit,” I said, before realizing that I had spoken aloud, “Dollars? Like, US dollars?”
“Yes, sir.” A wide, crooked smile.
It is typical for church workers to simply get waved through the border, sans payment, sans hassle. Even in a much larger lorry, truck drivers didn’t experience much hassle back then, although by the time of this writing the route has changed due to increased imaginary “fees” at the Nadapal border. I looked at Daniel and he looked at me, and we stepped outside to cool ourselves off before we could go all Michael Bay on their asses with a barrel of diesel and a cigarette. We gathered our collected funds, both personal and for business, and found that together we had about $715 USD. Great.
At the time, I thought it understandable that the border officials would act so self-seekingly. It was wrong, of course, but understandable. But four months later, perusing the open-air market of Torit in Southern Sudan just before the 2011 Referendum Vote, a friend of mine mentioned the unsustainably high prices of the goods offered even there, in the poorest part of town. I asked him why two trays of almost-rotten eggs would, here, cost twice their original Kenyan price. He shook his head and quipped that “these fucking border officials don’t give a shit about their country or their families, that’s why. The trucks coming from Kenya with eggs and stuff get charged more and more each time, and come on, the shipping companies have no problems raising their own costs to cover that, and neither do their suppliers. It’s a vicious cycle. Keeps getting more and more expensive, and who pays?” He nodded at some dirty-looking schoolgirls sifting through an expensive pile of bad tomatoes. “Their own people, that’s fucking who.”
As soon as we were free, we immediately stomped across main street, bought two cold cokes with half of our remaining funds, and sat in plastic chairs cussing horrifically for around half an hour. At long last, feeling very much cleansed by the cathartic hurling of curses at people not present, I drained my coke, looked at my watch, and said, “well, onwards and upwards.”
It was a rocky, bone-numbing two hours to Kapoeta, the small town where we stopped briefly for lunch. The sun was hot, the ground hotter, and even the breeze was a sweltering warmth as it blew dust across the wide main street; it was that hour of day when all movement has ceased. Everyone was sitting in as much shade as they could manage, motionless on a chair or under a tree, spitting into the dirt and watching our shamefully colorful car navigate a ditch in low gear and U-turn into the shade beside a restaurant. We half-stumbled out of the Benz, one arm burnt, mouths pasty with dust, squinting against the whiteout sun and groaning at the bone-bruised ache that seemed to radiate all over our bodies. Daniel knew a place to eat, so we sat down in a shaded booth that smelled more than a little like sewage and ordered Cokes and chapati, an African tortilla of sorts.
Daniel excused himself to wash his hands, and I had barely swallowed that first, glorious sip of cold Coke when someone said “Hello” in an American accent behind me. I turned around and saw a tall, black-haired guy with wire glasses and some kind of khaki safari clothes on. Stubble. White Land Cruiser behind him, parked beside our church Benz, with an African driver sleeping behind the wheel. Medicines Sans Frontiers logo on the door.
“Hi,” I said, and extended my hand, “I’m Clay. You want to sit?”
“Sure, sure,” he said, shaking my hand without offering his name. He pulled a chair over and lit a cigarette.
I swallowed another slug of soda. “What part of the states you from?”
“New York,” he said, and exhaled sideways, “doing some relief stuff up here. Just heading back to Nairobi now. You?”
I leaned back in my chair. “Came from the border today. We’re just doing a supply run, we’ll drop some stuff off southeast of Torit, probably spend the night, and then head back to Loki in the morning. We’re doing some ministry work up there later this month. Just prepping for that.”
“Right on. You guys have any trouble at the border?”
“You could say that, yeah. These guys wouldn’t let us leave without paying a lot of money.”
He smiled. “Like how much?”
I sighed, licked my lips. “Like seven hundred US dollars.”
“Fuck…” He scratched his chin. “That sucks.”
Daniel returned, and after a little small talk, the New Yorker got bored and decided it was time to go. He said a half-hearted goodbye, smashed his cigarette underfoot, and went off to wake up his driver. They talked for a minute and then the Land Cruiser revved to life and kicked into reverse in a cloud of dust.
“How much do you think that guy gets paid?” I asked, when they were gone.
Daniel thought for a minute, then said, “More than us.”
We went on, the overloaded little Benz roaring through sandpits and conquering the washboard straightaways with efficiency, thanks to Daniel’s skillful driving; the engine was almost overheating once, and we realized the radiator was spewing water from a gash near the fan, but a few burns and a pair of pliers later, the thing was pinched shut and has stayed that way for a long time.
It is a strange feeling to drive through a war zone. Looking out on the vast stretches of high desert to either side of the road, you can spot whitewashed rocks near and far, areas hastily marked by landmine crews as potentially dangerous. Then there are the more brightly-painted rocks, sometimes just beside you, not a meter away from your tires. Live, confirmed landmines. I have a colleague who, serving as a missionary in Sudan some years ago in wartime, twice drove over a landmine in a massive lorry and survived. He described it as the “loudest sound you can even imagine, but louder. It’s like a frickin’ lightning bolt underneath your feet… my ears were ringing for, like, an hour. All my tires gave out immediately – four punctures at once, it was a nightmare. I was lucky it was just an anti-personnel mine, man, or I’da lost a lot more than my hearing.”
Spent bullet casings littered the sun-bleached gravel on the side of the road, of any and every caliber imaginable. We passed first one abandoned, bullet-riddled sedan, and then a second one, burned down to the frame from a petrol fire, just sitting at the side of the road. At one point, I looked at my watch, and then went to resume staring at the passing scenery, but found myself gazing directly into the barrel of a full-on armored tank. It took me a moment to see that it was overcome with rust, and suffering from a massive hole in it’s side – probably from an RPG – and I wondered, should you be brave enough to walk over to it and peek inside, if you could find bones.
As we drove, Daniel pointed at a dip in the side of the road, and told me about the first dead body he had ever seen. “We were coming along here, and then we saw some vultures there… they were all over the place. Right there, right where that ditch is, there was this kid. He was probably your age, like nineteen or twenty-one or something. Blood on his face, like, it hadn’t happened an hour ago… it was disgusting. We kept driving, and then saw one of these army guys walking on the road with his rifle. I asked him what had happened with this kid back there, and he said, ‘oh, the boy was caught stealing a cow.’ So they shot him.”
Sudan is a country of many things, but at the top of the list, before resources, religion, and even before money, it is a country of blood. The First Sudanese Civil war, a 17-year debacle resulting in the loss of half a million lives, was a vicious bid by guerilla fighters in the South for autonomy from the oppressive, predominantly Muslim North. When the Addis Ababa Accords for peace between the two regions shattered in 1983, the Second Civil War broke out, led by the emergence of the SPLA and it’s iconic leader, John Garang. The conflict would continue until 2005, claiming almost 2 million lives and displacing around 4 million civilians over it’s 22-year course. But the root of this evil is much deeper than a political movement, much more ancient than the constantly-shifting borders of the cursed country. Before the British colonization, or the even the Muslim, Christian, and Egyptian occupations of pre-Independent Sudan, the spirit of war was brewing in it’s people. In remote villages today, you can still see plain as day the root cause of war in Africa: tribalism. It is the core instinct that drives you to kill, raid, rape, and compete with enemy tribes. I don’t know why it is there, or why this tribal instinct seems to have lost it’s edge in Westerners, but the massive humanitarian failing of the Sudanese Civil Wars is proof that burying old tensions underneath the guise of political unity will simply not stop millions of angry, armed families from exacting justice upon each other for past wrongs. Forgiveness, in many African countries, is weakness.
We blazed past a military post, warranting little more than a facetious glance from several napping, out-of-uniform soldiers sitting around a trash fire. The little Benz purred, settling into a nice, single-lane sand road with wet, densely foliated lowlands on either side. Daniel popped the vehicle into 5th gear and finally, we were humming along at a comfortable rate, bouncing and jolting considerably less than we had for the past seven hours. A large, white lorry was ahead, trailing dust and from what we could tell, driving several times faster than we were. Urgency.
“He’s hogging the road,” said Daniel to himself, beginning to decelerate.
As the truck came closer, I could see that the vehicle was absolutely packed. People were everywhere; atop the cabin, in rows upon rows sitting in the bed, even the cabin had five or six crammed inside. There could have been forty altogether. As they slowed down and our vehicles pulled haphazardly alongside each other, I noticed a handful of men gesturing to me with their hands: they were pretending to shoot, mimicking the buck of a Kalashnikov. I pointed it out to Daniel, who looked at me but said nothing.
“Hello, guys,” said the driver in an accent so thick it was difficult to discern, “you cannot go this way.”
There was a brief pause, the silence filled with the roar of two powerful engines idling.
“Uh… why?” Asked Daniel.
“Yeah, because, you know, there are the robbers there, and it is not so nice. You can just turn around and come this way.”
“Robbers? What, down this road?” Some of the guys in the bed of the truck were laughing.
“Yeah, they are there.” The driver cracked a smile.
Daniel looked at me and I at him, and without speaking to each other, we wondered if these guys were serious or, for some reason, trying to pull an elaborate joke on some unsuspecting wazungu.
“Please guys,” came the driver, “don’t risk yourselves here. You can just turn around. I am saying, this, eh, this path is not good…”
“I don’t know whether to believe this guy or not,” said Daniel, glancing in his rearview mirror, and then ahead. “I mean, if there are robbers ahead, how did they get through? You see anything up there?”
I scanned the road, my vision limited by a sharp bend half a kilometer down the way. “No. But better safe than sorry. Let’s follow these guys back to the military post and see if we can sort anything out.”
“Yeah…” Daniel looked at his watch and then kicked the car into reverse. “This is not good.”
Five minutes later, we turned into the post, finding it as disturbingly relaxed as it had been when we left it. There were five or six guys asleep on the ground, their machine guns piled alarmingly beside them, and then two more seated on their helmets, playing a game of mancala with pebbles. A fire simmered, bits of floating white ash picked up by the slight breeze, the smell of cooking oil and sugary chai filtering from the mud house beside them. They looked at our vehicles as we approached, and then as we hopped out of the car, they resumed their game.
To my chagrin, the lorry driver was a step ahead of us. He had left the massive truck idling, hopped out, and dashed ahead of us, speaking quickly in some rambling, indiscernible tongue to the guards, who were still engrossed in their game.
“You understand that?” I asked Daniel, who had been studying Arabic in Egypt just the month before.
“No, it must be a tribal language.”
“Dammit, I want to be able to hear this conversation. You know how these people are…”
We strode up to the scene together; the breeze was no match for that thick, hanging afternoon heat. Daniel interrupted the babbling driver with a firm hand on the shoulder, a gesture which drew the immediate attention of the guards, who suddenly looked up from their game, and from the driver, who paused mid-sentence. “In English, please,” said Daniel over the stillness and the crackle of the fire.
A look of disgust swept over the driver’s face. “What the hell, man, I am trying to help you now…”
“I know, I just, it’s good if we can understand what you – ”
“… and if you no fuckin’ respect me, why the fuck I gonna help you, heh?” He proceeded with a string of protests directed at the guards in whichever tribal language he was using, probably Didinga. The guards who had been sleeping were suddenly beside us, leaning carelessly on their firearms and watching the situation unfold with blank expressions. Daniel glanced between me and the car, and then at his watch, and then at the driver again, who was gesticulating wildly with his arms, nearly screaming now.
There was a loud noise behind us: the screech of brakes. I turned to see a white Land Cruiser skidding to a stop, groaning on it’s suspension as it came to a halt. There was a Red Cross logo on the door. A swirl of churned-up road dust passed across it and continued on down the desert highway, settling as it went. It had come from up the road, in the direction of the supposed hijackers, which compounded my interest in the four small, patternless holes I noticed just above the license plate. The driver stumbled out of the car, his dress shirt and tie soaked in sweat, and was met by three of the gun-toting guards who had just been observing our own debacle.
Keeping an ear on two conversations is difficult enough, but when they are both in a completely foreign tongue, you can only rely on vocal inflection, tone, and then the body language in whichever of the conversations you are seeing to maintain any degree of comprehension. The driver of the Land Cruiser seemed to be scared out of his wits, complaining to the guards about something, eventually getting angry, and then simmering down within a minute, while the driver of the white lorry was still rambling on about Daniel in a negative context.
Neither of the guards who had been playing mancala had spoken yet. They were older men, over forty, with scraps of metal shrapnel under their skin and the traditional V-shaped scars across their forehead. Many tribes believe in the power of bloodletting against disease; if you’re experiencing knee pains, simply carve a dozen small penny-sized holes in the skin around your knees. I could tell these gentlemen had both suffered from headaches in the past. One of them held up his hand, which was enough to silence the rabid truck driver, and shouted loudly across the compound to the driver of the Land Cruiser. The response sounded hoarse, but resolved, and the old man nodded slowly and then stood.
He extended his hand to Daniel, and then to me, and then said in accomplished English, “So my friends, there are hijackers on this road.”
Surprised by the sudden appearance of my mother-tongue, I responded that “this is very good to know, but it’s also a problem. We’re with the church, and we have supplies for some of our friends along the road. Is there another route we can take, or, something…”
“No, no. There is no other road. We have had this problem of hijackers for some, maybe, two weeks now. And it is not only that they are stealing.” The man spat into the dust. “The problem is, they are also beating people very bad, and scaring them just… you know, it is too much. But uh, for you, if you can take one of my men here, this guy, then it will be safe for you.”
Daniel and I looked at each other, and knew the game. The idea of a group of hijackers operating so close to a military post is as ridiculous in conception as in execution, but it is common knowledge that in Sudan, these two sides of the law exist in interdependence rather than independence. If a truck is sent down the road with a military escort, this is their hall pass, and the driver and/or passengers are expected to pay their soldier for his services. But if a truck is allowed through without an escort, as we were before, then the hijackers down the road are given freedom to do their job, provided the post commander gets a slice of the profits. And since both the criminals and the police typically live in the same village some kilometers away, this symbiotic relationship is allowed to continue with the full knowledge and cooperation of all involved.
“Yeah, the problem is,” I said with a sigh, “we have no room for an escort. We’re completely loaded. You can even see it from here.” I pointed to our Benz, resting heavily-laden on the hard soil.
“Mm,” came the old man, eyeing the car, sizing up the worth of our cargo. “And why can’t you fit three in the front?”
“There’s no middle seat,” interrupted Daniel, “it’s only the stick and the rest of the gear for 4-wheel drive. There’s only space for two.”
The old man nodded, spat again, and looked back at his men. “Yeah, then you can go.”
“You can go, it’s no problem.” He smiled. “We have, uh, we have called the hijackers, and they are coming, so… you can go without a problem, now.”
Daniel looked at the road. “You’re sure? What about this other guy who’s just come here?”
“This guy is not, you know, he’s talking about something different. There is no problem. Just go.”
“Let’s just do it,” said Daniel when we were back in the car.
“Let’s just pray, and then keep going. God knows what’s going to happen.”
Part of me felt like telling him that he had gone completely batshit, and that this was the definition of taking unnecessary risks, but to my surprise, I heard myself say, “Hell yeah, let’s do this.”
The Benz was sounding better than ever, the converted diesel engine buzzing a sweet tune in 5th as we roared past the place where we had first stopped beside the white lorry. It felt like my heartbeat was revving at the same RPM as the engine, but I faithfully scanned the sides of the road for anything that could be human. The sand road wasn’t as dusty now, so it would be harder to see us coming before we rounded the bend, should anyone be waiting for us. My panga, a kind of double-edged machete I had bought in Samburu on another trip in Northern Kenya, was tucked away beneath a towel and a few water bottles in the side of my door; I hastily unpacked it, took it out of it’s sheath, and put it just beside my feet on the floor mat.
“I don’t think it would be a sword fight,” said Daniel flatly.
At last, we came to the bend, and Daniel swerved the car through the sharp turn in 4th, spraying a sheet of sand from under our tires into the thick greenery. I strained to see any movement ahead of us… there. Not a hundred yards down the road, striding calmly out from either side of the way, were two African guys with AK-47s in their arms. Now there were four, forming a line across the road, blocking our way. They didn’t look the way I had pictured – buff goons with masks and camouflage and strings of ammunition across their chest – they were young, not older than twenty-five, thin, wearing ripped clothes and shoes that were falling apart.
“You see that?” I asked.
“Of course I do.” But he was still in 4th, foot frozen between the brake and the clutch, undecided.
I looked back at the hijackers, standing seventy-five yards away now, and realized with horror that their guns were up, barrels aimed right for us. Shit, shit, shit.
When a situation has descended so far into danger, to the point that you are staring it in the face and needing to make a choice, your body is designed to compensate for the complete absence of calm that will suddenly come over you. It is God’s gift to man. Within a few seconds, you will be so overcome with adrenaline that you cannot, will not second-guess whatever instinctual, blink decision you make.
“Drive,” I said in monotone, but Daniel had already made the decision.
He gave the car gas, and kicked it into 5th gear. We huddled as low as we could manage against the dashboard, and waited for the the shots to come. One second passed, two passed, and then I peeked out of the window. The young men with guns had retreated to the side of the road, still pointing their rifles right at us as we passed them, smiling and yelling at each other jokingly. I sat up. Daniel caught my attention, and pointed at something out his window. I stared out at a large group of men, maybe fifteen of them, all heavily armed with both Kalashnikovs and other more powerful support guns, walking beside the car. They were expressionless, pacing parallel to us from a distance, eyes glued to the little blue Benz rocketing past.
And then they were gone in a cloud of dust.
Four months later, I was again entering Sudan via Lokichoggio, but the circumstances were very different. This time I was alone, and instead of driving, I had been given the opportunity to fly. I realized, holding my bags in my lap and swallowing against the pressure change in the roaring volume of the Cessna 206, that the road between Kenya and Sudan looks very different when you are in the air, looking down on it. I could see the twisting, dusty road through No Man’s Land, I could see Nadapal. Still further along our northwestern route, I found Kapoeta in the distance, and knew that somewhere out there, the hijackers were drinking chai and having breakfast.
But 9,000 vertical feet removed, it feels different. It looks beautiful.