The Burden of War

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

War eviscerates children, transforming them into empty vessels silently conveying what is too unimaginable to utter. On the outside of a nearby tukul was etched a scene more reminiscent of the Stone Age than the 21st century: A warrior on horseback points a rifle at a crouching child who brandishes a spear in futile defense.

Villagers and aid workers alike have told me of the raids. Arab tribes from the north, called mujahadeen, armed and incited by government soldiers, ride horseback into villages in the cloak of dawn. Men and boys are shot dead. Babies thrown into the fire. Women and girls kidnapped, often raped, then enslaved in the north.

“Does he ask where his brothers are?” I asked.

As soon as the question escaped my mouth, I wanted to snatch it back, ashamed for its pointlessness.

She looked down at her remaining son. Caressing his deformed foot, her lips moved slowly, quivering slightly as the words slipped out.

“Yes. Yes, he does,” she replied, tears forming in her eyes.

Images of the lonely boy calling out for his brothers swirled through my head. I thought of my daughter and the unbearable sorrow that would consume me if I lost her.

Dinka words ricocheted past me. Click. Click. Bobby’s camera. The heat intensified. God Almighty, this poor woman. What more could I possibly ask her?

At some point, I noticed the talking had stopped. Eyes fixated on me.  Waiting.

“You can ask more questions,” Rehan offered.

I shut off the tape recorder and lowered my head. “I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered, more a confession to myself than a public declaration.

Hot tears dripped down my cheeks, pooling in the brown dirt below. I was paralyzed with an immense and unexpected grief, vaguely aware of the collective eyes upon me.

There was a clamoring behind us. Another woman who had been injured in the bombing approached the group. Rehan rubbed my knee before moving toward her.

Thankfully, the crowd followed. The mother and I remained on the sandy ground. I felt her gaze, but I kept mine down, desperate to regain my composure.

My decision to come to Sudan had been met with apprehension from my family, then hostility. “What do you think you are?  Some CNN war correspondent?” my mother had snapped in an e-mail message a week after I arrived in Sudan, her concern boiling into rage. I wrote about Nantucket beaches and ice climbing in Vermont, not cluster bombs and deformed children. I had never been to Africa before, much less a country embroiled in a protracted and brutal civil war.  Suddenly, the notion of trying to make a difference seemed appallingly naive.

Finally, I stood and walked away from the throng and discreetly tried to wipe away my sorrow. I turned and faced the mother. Her eyes were gentle, almost pitying, and full of gratitude for my empathy. I gave her a tender smile, which she returned.

“Tell her I’m sorry,” I said to Rehan as we were leaving. I touched her shoulder. The boy looked up but I could not meet his hollow eyes.

After sunset, we gathered in the mess tent for our nightly meal. “How was your day?” asked Collins, a Kenyan doctor who had worked in southern Sudan for three years.

“It was tough,” I replied carefully, aware of my neophyte status in the African war zones.

“Welcome to Sudan,” he deadpanned, filing his plate with ugali and goat stew. Sensing my reluctance to talk, Justus told Collins of our visit with the bombing victims.

“It was tough,” Justus reiterated, his eyes weary. After ten years in southern Sudan, the horror still registered.

Collins reached into the cooler and handed me a beer. His jewel-colored sarong contrasted with his subdued affect. In a few days, he was heading to the Congo for a yearlong assignment with GOAL. Like many of those deep in the belly of African conflicts, it was doubtful he’d ever leave. Only missionaries, mercenaries, madmen or misfits gravitated toward these places, the tale went, usually over a few too many pints of Guinness. I took a sip of the warm beer.

“How could I possibly ask this woman anything?” I muttered.

“But at the end of the day, you have to. That’s your job,” Collins insisted. “Just like at the end of the day we have to amputate.”

Days before, we had headed out in the Land Cruiser before dawn to retrieve two gunshot victims from a dusty, fly-infested clinic. We transported them an hour’s drive along a rutted path for the flight to Loki. An emaciated twenty-year-old had been shot once, a single bullet still lodged in his chest. A Kalishnakov had accidentally discharged into the legs of another young man, shattering one ankle and ripping apart the other lower leg, which hung in a tangle of bone and flesh from his knee. He had been laying on a plastic tarp for three days without anesthesia, awaiting his flight. In all likelihood,  Collins said, he would return to his village a double amputee, if at all. I retired to my tukul early, a cool respite from the intensity of the day.

Lying beneath the mosquito net, I listened to the heartbeat of the Sudanese night, drums and chants echoing from the river, and considered what Collins had said.

The journalist credo is to probe. But when does well-intentioned inquiry become invasion of privacy? In my attempt to reveal the consequences of war to a world numb from endless savagery, I obliged a grieving woman to re-create her anguish, asking her questions too painful for answers and offering nothing in return but a tiny voice and perhaps the hope that someone would listen.

The day of our departure engulfed me like the suffocating sub-Saharan heat. Bobby, Collins and I gathered in the shade of a neem tree outside the mess tent, waiting for our plane to land. Bobby shot a final round of darts. I sat across from Collins, lost in my thoughts.

“Come back to Sudan, Wendy,” he said, regarding my glazed countenance as indifference rather than the concealed anguish it was.

Inexplicably, I didn’t want to leave, drawn to this unforgiving land—a place that reaches into your chest cavity and squeezes your vital organs until there is no blood or breath and you slump to the dirt in a sobbing mess, imploring your brain to comprehend the incomprehensible. How does one begin to matter in that environment? I boarded the plane last and took a seat next to Bobby in the first row. The fifteen-seater plane was crammed with stoic and sweaty black faces desperate for a way out. Collins and two other Sudanese men sat atop the pile of bags in the back of the plane. A young man crouched on the floor near the pilot. Gazing out the window at the scraggy plains, tears welled in my eyes. As we lifted off, I glanced to the rear of the plane. Collins was staring through the Plexiglas window, a despondent look fixed in his ebony eyes. Quiet tears streamed down his face.

Come back to Sudan, Collins, I thought as I watched him weep. Come back to Sudan.

Tags: War, Africa, Sudan

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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