South Sudan is one of my favourite places in Africa. I have visited many times in the course of my work and I have to come to love the place and its people. When caparkinson.com was hacked I lost a lot of posts about my travels in the country and this article is my attempt to rectify that. I have included a combination of different written pieces and films that I have made there between 2008 and 2011.
The Hungriest place on earth: Day trip to Akobo, April 2010.
The United Nations base was a maze of blue roofed Porta-cabins protected by lightly armed Bengali soldiers, distinctive in their luminous green uniforms. UN bases across the world are identical, clean and well organized with a fleet of white painted four by fours standing by and ready to roll. We were there by invitation, to travel with Lise Grande, the impressive and tough UN Resident Humanitarian Co-ordinator. Her and her team wanted to show us the hungriest place on earth.
We boarded the ancient and creaking Russian Helicopter, there were about thirty of us including aid workers from Save the Children and a small number of other journalists. It was a bone shaking two hour journey, out of Juba along the Nile river before baring east, passing low across huge tracts of desolate scrub and dried up river beds.
I filmed through the Helicopters small round window, zooming in to our destination, Akobo. It was a ramshackle place of mud and straw houses that had been swelled by internally displaced people, desperate to avoid the inter-tribal fighting that had effected the surrounding areas. The helicopter landed gently on an empty piece of land outside the town. The Russian crew told us that they would not wait if we took longer than two hours.
It was midday and the sun was high and hot. It was the sort of heat that took your breath away and seemed to scrape at the inside of your lungs. My colleague Andrew Harding and I jumped into a waiting vehicle and were rushed off to the local hospital.
We steered along dusty, pot holed roads until the sound of crying children and the babble of a gathered crowd indicated that we had arrived. A long line of Mothers queued patiently before handing their babies over to be weighed and measured. In exchange they were given high energy biscuits. The most seriously malnourished children were inside the clinic. I focused on Rhett, a baby so fragile that he was being fed milk through a syringe. He still couldn’t keep it down. His body was tiny and his eyes were glazed over, without hope. I took the pictures that I needed and left.
With little time remaining we were rushed across town to meet families displaced by the local fighting. We found one group sheltering under a leafless tree by the river. The South Sudanese are generally tough people, the family we met were tall, and sported the tribal facial scars that are common in this part of the world. They had nothing, the drought had destroyed their crops and the fighting meant they could not return home.
The local Government Commissioner spoke with an American accent picked up while studying , we met him on our way back to the airstrip and he showed us the cause of many of the problems – guns, and lots of them. His men had confiscated hundreds of weapons from local fighters but he knew that the problem was not going away, “If they are hungry then somebody will look for a gun again to get a cow so that he survives. It’s a matter of survival.”
At three PM, as the shadows began to lengthen we made a run for the helicopter. We dashed across rugged, undulating ground and reached the Helicopter just as the pilot started the engines. Sweaty and exhausted I climbed back aboard. It had been a tough but fulfilling day and I hoped that in some small way my pictures would help to make life in Akobo more bearable.
If you want to see the film we made on that day then please follow this link
Voting for a new nation: January 2011, film for BBC News
Behind the scenes at the birth of a new nation:
To watch the film we made on the day of South Sudan’s independence then click here
or click here for the preview film we made on the day before independence.