The Burden of War

Travel Stories: Wendy Knight went to Sudan in search of compelling war stories. Then her own personal battle began.

11.05.04 | 9:34 PM ET

imagePhoto by Bobby Model

Bumping along in a white Toyota Land Cruiser, Rehan motioned for Justus to veer right toward a huddle of mud and grass huts. Well-trodden dirt paths wove through the low elephant grass, a lone acacia tree stretching its meager canopy across the savannah.

“There’s one,” Rehan, an aid worker from the Dinka tribe, announced,  gesturing his long fingers to a gaping hole in the scrub, thirty yards from one of the huts, or tukuls.

Justus hastily downshifted so we could digest the damage, a violent ten-foot gash in the ground. We climbed out and moved toward the huts. A slender woman cradling a toddler emerged from one. The boy whimpered at our sight, burrowing himself into her hip. It was not difficult to imagine why. His left leg had been severed at mid-thigh from a bomb, leaving a thick stump for a limb.

I spoke with a stout woman, probably in her mid-twenties, who was his aunt. Rehan asked her to recall the bombing. She spoke in a harsh staccato, face set with anger.

“We are just farmers. What did we do?” She glared at me with eyes as hard and unrelenting as the parched earth beneath us.

Walking back to the truck, Rehan pointed to another palm tree, eager to show Bobby and me—“American journalists,” he called us—the devastation.

I flinched whenever the Sudanese referred to me as a journalist, having come to Sudan on an impulse, really, and a vague notion of what I’d find. Bobby and I, who had met through mutual friends in Wyoming, primarily toiled in adventure travel—he is a photographer, I am a freelance writer. When I approached him with an idea for a story about rowing on the Kenyan coast, he suggested Sudan, where he had been working on a photo essay about the war.  His rundown of the long-standing conflict fascinated me. I was eager to write about something of consequence and figured I wouldn’t have difficultly interesting an editor in a story when I returned.

I anticipated plenty of despair in Sudan, but I hadn’t expected to encounter it so intimately. Despite a 2002 cease fire that had been signed by the government of Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the rebel group that controls much of the south, the government had unloaded three cluster bombs on this tiny village in southern Sudan, killing three, injuring several others and prompting the temporary evacuation of the ex-pat aid workers with GOAL, a Dublin-based aid organization that operates health clinics in the region.

The decades-long north-south conflict in Sudan is multifaceted—Arab vs. African, Muslim vs. Christian, nomad vs. farmer—but above all, it seems, it is about oil. The bombing of makeshift markets, feeding centers and relief planes is part of the government’s methodical campaign to displace black Africans—Dinka, Nuer and other tribes—from their homes near the oil fields, or to eradicate them altogether. Similar tactics are now being deployed in Darfur, in Western Sudan, where the issues are different but no less complex.

Since arriving in the northern Bahr el Ghazel region of southern Sudan, I had seen the Antonovs, old Russian cargo planes, circling the cloudless skies like buzzards coming in for their due. At the first drone of the engine, the staff in the compound would glance up apprehensively. Watching. Waiting. One of the government bombs that had dropped here three months prior had landed 100 yards from the GOAL compound, down by the Lol River. “It scared the fuck outta me,” recalled Joe, an ex-soldier cum aid worker from Ireland who built clinics and schools for GOAL. After the bombing, he constructed two proper bomb shelters in the compound—eight-foot-deep caverns reinforced by corrugated metal—one just outside my tukul.

We clambered back into the Land Cruiser for the thirty yards to the next stop—three huts gathered around a central fire ring. This was the compound of the family who had lost two young sons in the bombing—a five-year-old and a two-year-old twin. Women and children, barefoot and barely clothed, filtered out of the tukuls and milled around us. An elderly man in a dirty beige robe took us beyond the compound to a crater that stretched twenty feet wide. A handful of children—ghostlike figures with long limbs and bulging eyes—billowed behind in a trail of dust.

The elder man jabbed his walking stick toward the gnarly trunk of a nearby kuol tree. Speaking in excited, clipped tones, he thrust his stick up and down the tree where shrapnel had gouged out fist-sized chunks.

“One of the bombs,” Rehan explained.

A young woman carrying a cherub-faced boy walked toward us.  “This is the mother,” Rehan said.

Pregnant with another child, her belly bulged slightly over the waistband of a tan cotton skirt. A strand of traditional black, white and red Dinka beads fell loosely around her bare chest. Her cropped hair was natty; her black skin a flawless wash of ink.

Speaking in their native Dinka tongue, Rehan sought permission for the interview. In the shadow of the damaged kuol tree, she squatted to the ground, and I sat next to her, steadying my tape recorder. Villagers pressed into a semi-circle around us. Bobby stood just beyond, photographing.

“The children were playing under the tree. I had gone inside the tukul.” Rehan translated for her. “At that minute, the first bomb landed. The children screamed and I ran out.”

She spoke in a soft, orderly cadence. “When the second bomb landed a few seconds later, this child here was already lying on the ground.”

Rehan gestured to the boy sitting motionless in his mother’s lap. “He was hit but only wounded.  My two other sons were running. That is why they were killed.”

The tragedies of Africa are so pervasive that their telling becomes routine, told in the casual way one might use to give directions. “Martin’s son died over the Christmas holiday.” “That boy won’t make it through the night.”

I looked at the naked boy sitting on his mother’s lap. He wore a similar strand of Dinka beads around his neck and a hopeless expression on his chubby face. Shrapnel wounds to his right foot had rendered him a cripple, but it was his eyes that revealed the aching testament to the brutality of war—black as rich soil but drained of any life-sustaining nutrients.

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Wendy Knight has written for the New York Times and Outside, among other publications. She is the editor of "Making Connections: Mother-Daughter Travel Adventures," which was recently awarded a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers. A portion of the book's proceeds are being donated to GOAL, the Dublin-based aid organization that runs health clinics in southern Sudan.

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