When I landed on the tarmac in Juba, South Sudan, in August 2018, the airport was nothing more than a large army-green canvas tent held up by wooded beams. I was here because the journalism-training organization Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) had invited me to visit as part of a culture and knowledge exchange with South Sudanese journalists. The skeleton of a new airport sat a stone’s throw away but, like many things in South Sudan, construction had been interrupted by five years of civil war. Three days before I landed, peace was declared, not for the first or last time. There was hope but it was tentative.
I’d never been to South Sudan before, or to any war zone. Before leaving Canada, I watched and read everything I could about the country — professional media, illicit video posted on YouTube, personal travelogues. I sifted through cautiously because as an Indigenous woman, I am sensitive to implicit bias. Not that I’d be any less subjective myself. No one can learn the soul of a country by parachuting in and out on a 10-day visit.
South Sudan voted by referendum to secede from Sudan almost a decade earlier. Independence Day, July 11, 2011, was still a passionate memory for many people I would meet. They told me how they remembered that day and described the massive crowds in Freedom Square. Celebrations in the streets lingered long into the night. Many people I met still had photos on their phones showing thick crowds, smiling faces, selfies posing with a miniature South Sudan flag. It had been a time of hope and possibilities. The country sits on oil and gas reserves. Warm, scenic and culturally rich, South Sudan seemed a natural destination for tourism.
Instead, South Sudan was barely 17-months old when a power struggle broke out between President Salva Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar. The state separated into factions, two at first, then splintering further along tribal lines. The civil war saw 400,000 people die, four million flee the country and more than three million displaced. Civil society organizations documented widespread human rights abuses and brutal violence, especially against civilian women. JHR, operating in the country since 2011, had to emergency-evacuate its staff once during the civil war. At least six South Sudanese journalists were killed between 2015 to 2017. The country sat at 145 on the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Our orientation contained instructions on what to do if the hotel was breached by armed militants and what to expect in case of an emergency evacuation. There was an 8 p.m. curfew. I was cautioned against going out on my own and advised to cooperate and hand over money if mugged. The most challenging rule for me, a broadcast journalist and photographer, was the ban on taking photos because I was not registered as a journalist with government authorities. Even snapping a picture on my iPhone could cause trouble. JHR trainers told cautionary tales of tourists who snapped photos of soldiers only to discover quickly and harshly how much the soldiers did not appreciate it.
Despite the warnings, my visit unfolded in a secure bubble. I never felt unsafe. Shortly after I arrived, two JHR trainers, Juma and Laura, took me to a hotel restaurant. We ate from an American-style menu in the shade of palm trees with a full view of the White Nile, its tree-lined shores and big sky. The thermometer peaked over thirty degrees. The air smelled like flowers. About a mile offshore, a rusted, half-sunken ferry, which has become an iconic landmark in Juba, made me itch for my iPhone camera. Here, in a shoreside café, five years of civil war seemed so far away.
Reality came back as we returned to our own hotel. Roads that were once paved had since cracked, broken and deteriorated. They were mostly ungraded, with deep tire ruts worn in. Hard rains left washboards, potholes and pits. We jerked, swayed and occasionally popped out of our seats. Along the roadside were shacks made of scraps of corrugated metal and repurposed bricks that had been cobbled together by people displaced by war. Down other streets were shops, fruit stands and restaurants. Men dressed in three-piece suits despite the heat and women wore bright prints. It was a land full of contrasts, and it felt familiar to me.
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In the global imagination, Canada is a pristine and moral country. But it was the parts of South Sudan where First World and Third World conditions overlapped that reminded me of the Canada I knew.
The roads reminded me of my home community, Pikwàkanagàn, back in the 70s. We’d pull off the highway, open a rusty metal gate with a sign that read “INDIAN RESERVE NO TRESPASSING” and drive down a dirt hill with a dip that always made my stomach lurch. Once my dad missed a turn and the car tipped sideways, nearly rolling off the shoulder into a ditch. My mother swore in fear.
The makeshift homes reminded me of Kitcisakik, an Algonquin community in Quebec. Pushed out of the way by loggers, relocated by governments and court orders, the community finally established a village in a provincial park. They had never ceded their land, signed a treaty or negotiated for a reserve. They lived as squatters on their own land, in abandoned logging cabins and shanties patched together from particleboard and tarps.
I was not knowledgeable enough to always follow the political conversations swirling around me in South Sudan, but I understood the connection South Sudanese saw between journalism and human rights. I met a half dozen young people hell-bent on pulling together a magazine called The Voice that would cover youth and women’s issues. They were a mobile unit, traveling by foot or bike with computers and cameras in their backpacks. They could not afford an office. A hotel let them use tables on the restaurant terrace so long as they didn’t take space from paying customers.
Joan Winnie, the editor-in-chief, was confident, outspoken and serious about her work but irreverent and funny when off duty. It rained on the day we met and the roads washed out. Winnie apologized for being late. I was surprised she’d made it at all. The pooled water in some streets was thigh high. She was wet and shivering even though the temperature was still comfortable for me at 22 degrees. I lent her my raincoat for warmth.
Winnie had a cache of stories for the first issue. She’d interviewed women living among the hundreds of displaced families residing in Juba’s Hai-Malakal Cemetery. The women told how they used kerosene to keep snakes out of their shanties. They complained of drunk and abusive husbands. There was no medical care for the injured, the sick, or the pregnant. What bothered Winnie most was the lack of school and the young girls who became pregnant by consensual sex or rape. This idea inspired another article for which she interviewed high school students about the societal tradition of pushing girls to marry while barely in their teens. The youth were openly critical of the practice.
Another story had an environmental spin, focusing on an abattoir that had been polluting drinking water in the town of Gumbo, resulting in cholera outbreaks. Pieces of hooves, intestines, dung and chunks of rotten meat regularly washed up on riverbanks. It was the only story without photos in the magazine. When I asked why, the photographer said he was worried the abattoir owner might kill him. I took it seriously. Even back home in Canada, there are dark places for journalists. I was then running the news department at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. One of my reporters had recently been run off the road by a chief’s son who demanded her camera.
I suggested alternative photos, such as the waste washing up on the shore, or someone fetching water from the river. Nevertheless, the next day the photographer decided to take the risk and photograph the abattoir. He was careful to not be seen.
Violence was, and still is, a fact of life for South Sudanese journalists.
“This is not like in your country. Journalists are killed here,” one journalist at a radio station told me — more than once, as if he wasn’t sure his words were sinking in. He was right that my brain lacked the experience to process his reality. I was tear-gassed at a roadblock once, but I have never known the fear of being killed.
Since I visited, The Voice shut down under financial pressure. Other media outlets pushed on. JHR continues to train reporters in South Sudan; to date they’ve trained at least 185. JHR has also trained hundreds of South Sudan’s security sector employees on press freedom. It hasn’t been perfect. Journalists are still harassed. Two journalists were arrested in 2020 and only one has since faced trial and been freed. Still, no journalist has been killed in South Sudan since 2017. JHR also supported the establishment of a media authority to reduce conflict by acting as broker-mediator between news organizations and government, rather than having journalists summoned to national security offices. Most of the time, it has worked. The country earned a seven-point bump on the World Press Freedom Index, but it still sits at number 138.
During my time in South Sudan, and in lingering Facebook friendships since, I found other connections with South Sudanese. Our peoples are musical, artistic and tribal. And, however differently they’ve played out, colonial legacies have left us longing to change the world we know into the world we imagine. Journalism is a way of expressing that vision that seems to always hover elusively just beyond our eager fingertips.