by Ishmael Annobil

I had my reason for not venturing up north while living in Juba, the ‘capital’ of Southern Sudan. Juba’s wretchedness, after all, symbolised the misdeeds of the North, perfectly. Signs of that tyranny were all around us, from the fallow landscape to the enforced redundancy of southern intellect, et cetera  – all the things that inspired my long travel piece, Leaving Juba Before the War.

I had travelled in by road from Kenya, through a post-war Uganda that was still struggling to dowse its political embers. But the edginess of Uganda did not prepare me for what Juba presented. Tourism operators may have called it quaint, and fellow poets may have found pastoral rhythm in its tukros (huts) and the occasional shock of modernism, but I had come in from a modern, revolutionary Ghana, 1981, and so, poet or not, I saw the place for what it was: wretched. It was an unformed place; not the kind of place you would expect real estate speculators to clamour, let alone a skyscraper to ever rise from. Everything else was either a paradox or anachronism.

That included the US educated, Dinka electronics engineers at that mute broadcasting house, who had to make do with fixing radios for the general public. Ditto the UN’s huge pool of social workers from as far afield as Burma, of all places. Though you would be tempted to assume the social workers were all here by urgent appointment (such as the petrol sniffing youth), they were, in fact, a redundant corps, and you had no choice but suspect a potential for ‘Munchausen’s’ on their part.

Then there were the biggest of all paradoxes: the same wretched country was playing host to the biggest wave of refugees from all of Africa’s North-East region. These included war criminals from war theatres, such as Uganda (one such murderer came to my brother’s bungalow to seek help then proceeded to try on my brother’s shoes for size.) Undeveloped as it was, Sudan obviously offered administrative loopholes for such people to hide in. But while it played the benign host, Sudan was busily making its own political refugees for Kenya to harbour.

After weeks of contemplation, I hit on some kind of rational for such oddness – UN projects in such an environment were a moneymaking industry for plateauing professionals from everywhere. (Disaster zones are prime property.) Some UN staff were making at around $2,000 a week. The important work was being done by UN Volunteers like my brother, Enoch, who had set up a whole engineering college out of shipping containers to give people skills for life.

The administrative ‘elite’ of the South had obviously given up altogether. They were caged in that hall of broken mirrors, and so had taken to lofty conversations around beer and kebab at Unity Gardens at night. Here they reminisced about their time in Western universities, while gleaning favours from UN staff. It wasn’t easy admiring those eloquent scholars and accepting their helplessness at the same time.

After all, one also knew that they were not totally blameless – they were themselves divided along ethnic lines. In fact, the sub-divisions of Southern ethnicity and its litany of ancient grudges were so diverse that I knew that parliamentary democracy (a stupid phrase here) could not work, till a unifying revolution had taken place. An armed one, definitely – history told me so.

For that matter, I was growing restive by the day. Except, the poet in me kept dredging the alchemy of history, totems and politics, till I ended up totally surrealistic in thought and word. Pastoralism was virtually impossible here, but surrealism gave me a code to literary freedom. With it I could be very hedged in my poetry, maybe to escape the notice of Sudanese authorities. Such is trauma and poetry, and I am eternally grateful to The Sudan for this.

In retrospect, there was a simple formula: the woes of the place had turned into a caged soul, drained of adrenalin but drunk on hope, and that hope begot escapism, which in turn begot surrealism. The whole thing had come to me in the limitless plains around Juba, where I always felt alone with The Deity. I also got a palpable sense of the purer world throbbing underneath all that strife, thus making me even more restive about the state of temporal Sudan. And that insidious matter slowly made me insomniac. Or did I just go mad? This was not helped by the airlessness of night, the bitter mosquito bites, and my paranoia about waking up next to a spitting cobra.

Luckily, I had a Russian Serena radio to keep me company, and together we trawled the ether for other civilizations out there. The medium wave static was reassuring indeed, and so was the English language broadcast, mainly from Radio Moscow and BBC World Service. Those distant broadcasts made the nights rather plaintive, what with the frog and cricket songs wafting in from the Nile, suffused occasionally with drumming and singing from outlying Dinka compounds.

Pop music broadcasts were rare. One either played cassettes or spent ages dredging the radio waves, through a labyrinth of forcible Arab ditties that sounded like praise songs from a shackled troubadour. But I always ended up giving in to those excruciating airs in the end, after the little English had faded out. And I often lay there trying to make sense of it all, till the Muezzin’s Morning Prayer call took over Juba’s air space. Tired near death by then, I often convinced myself that the Muezzin’s screeching timbre was a lullaby, his hissing megaphone a lyre, and that his tiny mosque was a pulsating will-‘o-the-wisp. Except, I had no wish to convert to Islam. It was all a matter of poetic engagement, really – Surrealism.

Knowing there was a modernist cultural centre nearby made it possible to let the mind wander freely into other, exotic realms. There was also the British Council Library where I escaped into books - it was impossible to imagine a Juba without the British Council. I had hoped to do a poetry recital there, or at Juba University, but flunked out of it because I feared I might end up hurling insults at the North from the stage. I lay possum and continued writing.

Occasionally, Enoch and I had the chance to tour the magical plains in his Suzuki jeep, purposely riding the precipitous sand banks created by the French builders of the new Juba Airport. That dangerous adventure often required me to clamber out the back and dangle onto the driver’s side, to act as counterweight to gravity. After the adrenalin fix, we usually ended up in a UN volunteer’s bungalow to drink and chat, or visit a Ugandan refugee friend or the other at Africa Hotel. There I listened to the heavy tales of human suffering, while making mental notes of all the European mercenaries billeting there on route to one of the region’s wars.

The sight of those skin-headed, heavily tattooed dogs of war lying on threadbare, bedbug-ridden mattresses, gave me a chilling insight into to the darker side of Afro-European relations. After all, those guys were not in Juba by sufferance but by invitation. As to who their hosts were, one shuddered to think. Though, I knew that an African dictator would rather bed with a hater of Africa, to soothe his paranoia, than chance it with his own lackeys.

For some reason, those dogs of war always stared daggers at me. It could have been my inquisitive eyes and full beard, or maybe they sensed my quiet gloating for catching them at it. In that case, they must have also sensed that I was ready to fight any of them to death, so they kept their distance. Little did they know I had no hatred for them at all. I understood their desperation.

Their governments may have discarded them after some inglorious tour of duty somewhere; same way the USA treated its Vietnam Vets. And they probably had children and mothers to feed back home. I understood them. I only hoped that they would wake up from that dark cycle and find themselves a home in a safer part of Africa, where they could learn to live as humans again. My father was a WWII veteran, so I knew how difficult it was to adjust to civvy street.

But my empathy was totally destroyed by a slut of an Englishman, who was obviously parasitizing on the mercenaries.. He casually elected to brag to me about how he’d fooled Sudanese immigration with a fake student card. Wiry and longhaired as he was, he smelt of death; the non-military type of death. To parry his grim aura, I asked him: “What would you say if a Sudanese did that in Britain?” He chuckled sheepishly with a shrug and turned away without emotion – death. But that was Southern Sudan, a land forsaken by politics; an open wound into which any fly could lay its eggs.

Fortunately, that kind of pernicious intercourse seemed only apparent in areas that aspired to Western pretence, including the political sector. Traditional society was way ahead of this, and so, it was free to show off its vigour, in the form of the Dinka and their kin. Bulwarks of history, their resonant voices skimmed over the wavelets and eddies of the White Nile, fusing with the guttural voices of their beautiful zebu cattle. Yet the vigorous contrast this provided only lasted till dusk, when they withdrew to their distant hamlets.

As time flowed on, I developed a daredevil attitude to journalism, and so I asked blunt questions openly, wherever possible. I enjoyed the shock in people’s eyes, which I countered it with a look of absolute innocence, causing them to relent and give answers, obviously hoping, “He is too stupid to make anything of it”. Some of my unwitting sources would soon include Catholic priests (who betrayed some revolutionary urges), highly placed foreign aid workers, and retired Sudanese civil servants. Thus, I gleaned my full measure of disaffection and apocryphal political facts about the Sudan. Being a small-time volleyball star on the UN team also helped, but I also had a very good analyst to rely on: Mr Fred Odubanjo, a published Nigerian town planner on a UN posting to help organise Juba. He also sponsored my volleyball kit.

All the while, I wanted a diplomatic incident between Ghana and the Sudan government, and I had what I thought was a good reason to be that confident. Southerners called yam nakruma because Kwame Nkrumah had given the Anya-Nya freedom fighters yam aid, during their struggle against the North, in the 50s and 60s. I wanted to be arrested for my unpublished journalism and be put away on a phoney charge like ‘incitement to riot’ or something grand like that. The idea was to create an incident that would focus the rest of Africa on the problems of their fellow Africans in the Sudan. Naïve as it may sound, I honestly felt I could trust feisty Jerry John Rawlings to send a riptide to my aid, should anything happen. Yet, I also knew that there was hardly any telecommunication between Juba and the world outside, so any diplomatic backlash would be virtually impossible.

I remember what happened when Enoch’s girlfriend tried calling London from the local telephone exchange. She was a Ugandan refugee who had been separated from her Amin minister father during the Tanzanian invasion. Urgent matter, so we all went along, well dressed and hopeful. Alas, the switchboard had no voice. It came to pass that the diligent telephonists were part of the charade. All their frenzied probing with the cables and cocked ears and hello-hellos amounted to no more than a message in a bottle. Anyone worth their salt here used high frequency ‘ham’ radio, for short messages, and telex.

In the end, my leaving Juba was easy. It was an evacuation. There was talk of Sharia law on every lip. Someone foolish up north was planning to impose Islamic Law on the South, a non-Islamic culture. It was the final straw, and so I knew it meant civil war. In the absence of a viable radio and print media, the whole thing manifested mainly in whispers, making it all the more haunting. You could see the quiet alarm in people’s eyes, even as they smiled at you. Only, Juba University students were not that reticent; they were soon spoiling for a showdown with the government. Political graffiti appeared overnight, and the police bristled with Winchester rifles and foul adrenalin in response. Soon news reached us that John Garang, the legendary Dinka army officer, had rebelled against the Sharia and moved a quite a large armed party with him to Ethiopia, to prepare for a final reckoning.
Juba was in a state of emergency, and I would soon come face-to-face with it. Returning from a weekend trip to Yei with Enoch and one his students, our Suzuki jeep (with a UN number plate) was stopped at a random army checkpoint, smack inside Juba. The nervy soldiers demanded our papers in Arabic. I feared my forbidden scribblings had compromised us, but then I wanted a showdown, anyway, so I uttered my defiance readily: “I don’t, and won’t, understand your language!” A rifle was cocked instantly. I looked, and it was trained on me, backed by a lanky rifleman’s swearing mouth and cobra eyes. Delirium. Isaac, my brother’s student, jumped fervently between me the executioner, ‘ordering’ me to go back into the jeep. I did as I was told, watched closely by those cobra eyes. But I wasn’t finished; I continued eyeballing the rifleman with disdain, daring him silently to drop his gun and square up for the real thing – “Bloody bashibazouk,” I kept muttering. We were soon discharged, my passport not inspected.

That was Sudan, a state waiting for a war that it could easily avoid, but it was too divided to do so. Here, simple disaffection over mistreatment and disparity registered high on the unofficial scale of sedition – hence the random checkpoints. Harassment. Meanwhile, Southern intellectuals were whispering in each other’s ears now, and those privy to it felt its gravity – it had strategy and audacity built in. Why? Well, because they were dealing with an unconstitutional military government with ambitions to impose its will on a people that had no love for it. Meantime, the place was slowly dying on its feet. The UN agencies were preparing an evacuation plan, and moneyed folk were moving out quietly. Just by looking at people, you knew which one would be recruited for the impending war, maybe because they had nowhere to flee to.

The trouble with that nation was manifold; atypical even, in the blatant way the Arabists to the north liked to emphasise social schisms. Black as they were in complexion, they liked calling others macaca (macaque). Since independence, Sudan had been in a permanent state of emergency, and so it loved to create rickety laagers around its so-called ‘important people’, including the thieves, informers, philanderers and tyrants. Worst still, it had that military government headed by populist, pan-Arabist Nimeiry and a flock of sycophants, all lacking in the native verve of Nyerere of Tanzania or Jerry John Rawlings, and absolutely devoid of the unifying qualities of the same. It was absolutely impossible to imagine Sudan’s Nimiery paddling through the Nile marshes to rescue flood victims, as Rawlings would.

On the other hand, one could see how Nimeiry would help Arafat escape Jordanian and Israeli forces. This may be because Sudanese Arabists are driven by some arcane pan-Arab brotherhood ideal, which often translates into clunky heroism. Hence the separatism. So, while war fever jiggled the people, Sudan’s Arabist government was cluttering the skyline with quixotic gestures – ramshackle Russian helicopters and mosquito planes. A whole devilish bewilderment based on straw. Soon after I left Juba, that war came, claiming its full measure of human lives. The bombastic North lost dismally in the end, but its masochism was sated, and it had managed to turn back the clock further for the South.

After all, Sudan has an important precedent to its name: “A prehistoric burial discovered in northern Sudan reveals what is believed to be the world's earliest indication of warfare, dating to the twelfth millennium BC [1]” ( And, curiously, its numerous wars have always taken the guise of racial struggle, despite the apparent preponderance of melanin on all sides. Those of us who have lived there know better than fall for that trick. The fact is the South has all the oil, gold and steel deposits and wildlife, not to mention and supreme intellect, and the North is pretty much bereft.

But let’s stick to the aforementioned social schisms for a minute. Let’s acknowledge that ‘social’ also implies economic resource and anything that humankind relies on to excel and uphold its dignity on a level playing field, for the South had none of those. And while we are it, let’s also assess that ‘all-important’ Arabism of the North more closely. Put bluntly, the northerners are not Arab in origin, though largely Muslim in faith. Their lineage is mainly that of the Funj, whose ascendancy and decline in widely documented, Berbers (Hausa), and Nubians. They are in essence, Arabic speaking Africans. There is an iota of latter day Arab blood here and there, but never enough to for them to lay claim to any true Arabic Peninsular orientation, i.e. Bedouin. They are a Hamitic, not Semitic people.

If my memory serves me right, the original name of the Sudan was Bilad Al Sudan (land of Blacks). But this weird, self-denying phenomenon happens all the time, from Hitler to the KKK and to some extent the Afrikaners of South Africa (many of whom are also Jewish in origin). Shamefully, you see the same identity nonsense in Tanzania’s Zanzibar. Logically, this kind of schizophrenia turns these genetic objectors into racists against their genetic kin. As in the case of Hitler, the idea is to remove any evidence of one’s ancestry so as to dovetail into another. That way, one gains exclusive ownership of the genetic attributes of that original ancestry as a means with which to dazzle those that do not have it – Black Widow Syndrome.

One often hears Egyptian and Algerian friends refer to themselves as Mediterranean, while hogging the magnificent histories hewn by native Africans, such as Nubians. Thanks to such people, the Hamitic has become Arabic, and the Moorish has become Arabic, etc. Little wonder their countries acquiesce the mis-placing of Egypt in the ‘Middle East’ by Western tourism agencies. As to what is wrong with being an African, one cannot tell; especially because those who know African history can only admire Africans. Surely, the urge to hate an African must either stem from a materialist interpretation of ‘civilisation’, or from a deep-seated inferiority complex.

Apparently, the Janjaweed of Darfur are pursuing the same self-illusory credo, which makes them natural allies of the Khartoum ‘Arabists’, indeed. The background is simple: Khartoum did lose a war to the Southern Alliance, and was compelled to concede power sharing to the Southern commander, Garang, but Garang soon died in a helicopter crash after visiting with his university friend, Museveni, president of Uganda. Most people suspected foul play, of course, but the peace held. Just then Global Warming was making the nomadic Janjaweed get with the fact that a rolling stone gathers no moss, and that one does not navigate the desert by the North Star and faith alone. Sadly for them, all the water wells and pastures were on the lands of the smarter, sedentary folk of Western Sudan. Nebulous as their geography is (spilling over the Chad-Sudan border), the Janjaweed decided to grab land.

Khartoum would naturally exploit such friction. With the Janjaweed, it would inherit a ready-made protean guard – a rape here, a pillaging there, a massacre here, a wild immolation there – to do its bidding against those redoubtable Southerners. In other words, Darfur constitutes a rematch away from the scene of Khartoum’s last military ignominy. It hopes that Darfur offers it an opportunity to regain its self-respect. Of course, it also knows that it will fail dismally in the end, again, as the Southern Sudanese are superior soldiers, but it also knows that it will have taken thousands of lives before succumbing to another roundtable accord. It also knows that the Southern armies are not stupid to be drawn wholesale at a time when they are busily rebuilding the economies and infrastructures of the South East. So the mayhem continues.

It is true that belligerency often uses religious and ‘racial’ identities as rallying points, but the bottom-line is usually simpler than that. For that matter, current journalism’s persistence in calling Darfur a racial/religious war is beyond comprehension. But, sensationalist as things are nowadays, it is possible the media wishes to jog itself to the idea of ethinic strife, for some bizarre kicks, as if internecine mass murder were not genocide enough. It is also possible that most journalists have fallen in love with War on Terror lingo – that new shibboleth subsisting on the notion of Mullahs versus Christian laity. Dangerous language. It has added to the notion that the whole world is fighting the Crusades again. Worse still, Christian and Muslim leaders are too weak at the knees to stop this nonsense, giving way to neo-fascists on both sides to take over the religious mantle (same way Hitler did).

And while this macabre whirlwind churns, everyone seems to forget that, though Garang’s armed struggle had been triggered off by Khartoum’s plan to impose Sharia law on the South, he wisely dismissed religion as a mere ploy. For that matter, his sponsors would include Libya, a largely Muslim country. But then Garang was no ordinary thinker. For him, the bottom-line was the North’s hunger for Southern oil wealth, compounded by its vain wish to join the big boys of the Arab oil block, and that Islam was but be a fine means of corraling peoples for sound exploitation.

Darfur is the new Rwanda. The poorer relative paradigm is here again to test us, and the world is failing again. Could it be because we don’t have a collective nostalgia for peace? Or, are Africa’s own endemic divisions to blame? Does the First World really fear accusations of neo-colonialism, or is it just waiting for natural selection to finish its job? Whatever it is, the world has to know that no Northern Sudanese government can be trusted to relent to verbal admonition alone. They have always been aggressors against their own peoples, and they will do so again and again, till they are taught a very harsh lesson, as usual. Sarajevo must be the model to test our probity as moderns – Margaret Thatcher of all people did exhort the world to give arms the Muslims of that country to defend themselves, and NATO responded resolutely. Why not Darfur?

Khartoum’s recent incarceration of British teacher Gillian Gibbons, for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed, is the kind of thing to expect from that perpetually fledgling government. Of note is that ‘masterpiece’ of a rebuttal by the spokesperson of the Sudan Embassy, Khalid al-Mubarak, on BBC Television: “We don’t have any teddy bears over here, so in Sudan, for us, it is a fierce and dangerous animal”.

Britain's decision to send Muslim peers to beg an attention seeking Khartoum for Gibbons’ release was not sensible. It only served to heighten the false tensions between Christians and Muslims, and it failed to press home the Darfur problem. The implication is that Khartoum did manage to lure a sophisticated nation like Britain into a social visit led by Muslims. Britain fell for a simplistic PR gambit. Next time, any such child play must be met with the same kind of rigour meted out to Belgrade. The well-meaning world has given its mandate for that.

People often say that every nation gets the government it deserves. In that case, we must act when one half of a nation does not get the government it deserves. It doesn’t take a prophet to know that, unless the international community acts more resolutely against the Sudan, the Darfur problem could trigger off something of even greater magnitude than the localised slaughter of civilians. After years of watching the molestation of their brothers and sisters by Arabs and Arabists in countries like Egypt, Sudan, Algeria and Morocco, it is very likely that native Africans may well decide to turn and beat Arabists and Arabs off the African continent altogether. World history predicts that. It did happen in Spain.

ADDENDUM: While we mull it over, we must try and remember the massacre of Sudanese refugees in a makeshift camp in Mohandiseen, Cairo, Egypt In 2005. Someone should ask President Mubarak about the outcome of his vaunted independent commission of enquiry into the matter.
Also by the author: Leaving Juba Before the War
Important Links:
Genocide in Slow Motion By Nicholas D. Kristof
( a review Darfur: A Short History of a Long War by Julie Flint and Alex de Waal and Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide by Gérard Prunier) :
Save Darfur:
Human Rights Watch:
Eyes On Darfur (Amnesty International):

Photo: Child soldiers released in South Sudan. Photo: UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Sebastian Rich

Graphic Design by Ishmael Annobil/  Web Development by Ruzanna Hovasapyan