Last week I travelled to the southern town of Juba. As I left Khartoum our plane was half empty, yet I noticed many people on a waiting list, desperate to get on it. So I enquired to the pilot who helpfully explained that it was normal, that landing strips are rather short in that part of the country, that the plane would most probably crash if it reached its full capacity. Suddenly, I felt less guilty about the poor guys who were refused boarding that morning.
Juba is a bit of a cowboy town. A wild wild west, only with flip-flops instead of boots, gin & tonic instead of whiskey. As if someone had found gold and rounded up all their friends to join the party. As the new capital of the autonomous region of Southern Sudan, Juba abounds with relief and development workers. This part of the country is one of the most under-developed areas in the world, and as such most NGOs and UN agencies have set up camp there.
The first thing that strikes you as you arrive in Juba, is how different the place is from Khartoum. It literally feels like a different country. No more white turbans and long jallabiyas, no more mosques and calls to prayer, no more dust and desert and overwhelming dry heat. Here people look like NBA players, wear jeans and short sleeves t-shirts and are often spotted reading their Bible. Juba is green, humid, surrounded by swampland, with only two tarmac roads that meet at a central roundabout. The town is built on one side of the river Nile, probably due to the fact that apart from the one bridge that links it to the opposite shore, the next bridge is located further 400 miles north, in the town of Kosti.
Part of my visit brings me to the Bangladeshi Military Demining Company who take me to a nearby minefield they are clearing. Landmines have been laid in Sudan for the past 40 years until the civil war ended in 2002, and people here are accustomed to them.
As I carefully follow my guide through the cleared lanes (gulp!), I marvel at the work of these men who work relentlessly from 7am to 2pm by 40 degrees’ heat, cut and clear the tall grass, scan the ground with their metal detector and prod the earth in search of the lethal device. Since there is so much junk in the ground (broken glass, cans…) the metal detector will signal almost anything irrelevant. However the men still have to remove the soil meticulously around the signal to make sure there isn’t anything dangerous left there. One man clears on average 12m2 a day and it will take them 2 years to complete their work on the minefield.
We drive back to the camp and I enjoy the green scenery while praising the maker of Toyotas, that enable us to make it safely though the mud and ridiculously huge potholes. I go back to my hotel and consider getting a drink. Since I am now “khartoumised”, there is something almost indecent about sitting in a bar with loud music and ordering myself a cold beer. But tonight, I will shove my morality down my throat.