This post is from the first trip for my ENEMIES Project.  

I love the airport in Aweil, South Sudan. A thatched grass hut, with a giant hanging fish scale to weigh the luggage. Wouldn’t it be great if our airports could be so simple?

South Sudan was nothing at all like I imagined. Maybe because of it’s proximity to the arid north Kenya, I had imagined South Sudan as infinite stretch of arid semi-desert. So as the airplane was descending towards Aweil, the third largest city in S. Sudan, I was surprised to see a sea of lush green surrounding the airport.  Hundreds of acres of flat and flooded land that sparkled like the new green of freshly planted rice paddies. But after leaving the luxurious Aweil airport waiting area, we stopped by the local Ministry of Agriculture on our way to the hotel, where we found out that none of the land we had flown over is cultivated.  In fact, very little land in South Sudan is cultivated.  Now that South Sudan has gained independence after decades of civil war, the people of South Sudan are coming back from the north or other places in the region where they had been hiding. But they have largely forgotten how to do agriculture. The UN Food Programe is predicting a serious potential for famine in this newest nation for the next year. So the sparkling green of these vast fields seem like a cruel irony.

I went to South Sudan with a peace-building mission from the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to get images for my ENEMIES project.  The USIP group, led by Jacki Wilson, was there to follow up on a peace-building project in a grazing corridor on the border of South and North Sudan east of the contested Abyei region. Jacki has been trying to help negotiate a peace settlement here for nearly five years.

In this part of South Sudan / Sudan, the main conflict is between the Dinka people who are black Africans related to the Luo tribe of Kenya and the Misseriya, who are Arabic Africans more closely related to tribes further north.  The Dinka and Misseriya have been in conflict for generations – as long as anyone can remember.  The Misseriya are nomadic and historically they have moved in and out of Dinka territory with the wet and dry seasons. Unfortunately the Misseriya also have a long history of abducting Dinka children as slaves and Dinka women as wives.  The most recent abduction of children happened two years ago. The Dinka and Misseriya also have a long history of stealing each other’s cattle and reprisal raids for cattle theft. This year a few dozen Misseriya cattle were stolen, and we heard that the Governor is in the process of trying to have them returned.

Mixed ethnic couple in Wanjyok, South Sudan | Photo by Nelson Guda © 2019
Mixed ethnic couple in Wanjyok, South Sudan

Aweil was only a stopover, we were actually going to a town on the border called Warawar. I dont think you could have invented a more ominous sounding name for a city in a country that has recently come out of twenty plus years of civil war and genocide. On the way to Warawar we passed through the village of Wanjyok, a town almost entirely comprised of people who have moved back to South Sudan from Khartoum after fleeing from the decades of civil war in the south. In Wanjyok I photographed Nhial Deng and Fatima Ali Ahmed, a mixed Misseriya/Dinka couple in which the wife was Misseriya and the husband Dinka. Normally Misseriya never allow their women to marry Dinka, even though they regularly take Dinka wives for themselves. This couple met when they were living in Khartoum, and Fatima’s family was happy for them to marry. Soon after marrying they moved back to S. Sudan and settled in Wanjyok where Nhial’s family had been from.   Both the Dinka and the Misseriya pay dowries in cattle (more on this later), but Fatima’s family accepted a dowry of cash.

I talked with many people about the conflict between the Dinka and Misseriya and what they think of it.  Most of the people I talked to said that they don’t trust the other group, but they do have friends who are different.  They trust their friends. This was particularly true among the traders I talked with and photographed in Warawar.

Handstand in rural S. Sudan
Handstand in rural S. Sudan

I’ll write more about the other people I photographed later, but in the meantime… of course the kids in the villages went crazy over my camera.  It’s fun to be able to be so hugely entertaining to people.  🙂   This guy just had to have me take his photograph doing a handstand – he was great!  This was in a little village near Wanjyok where we were staying in a hotel owned by the governor.  The governor of Bar El Gazah state is reputedly one of the most powerful men in South Sudan.  He’s got 70 wives and according what we heard people who oppose him don’t stay around for long. The hotel had good food, but the rooms were totally filled with dirt and in fact, some of the food had sand grains in it as well.

One of the evenings when we were then I went out into the village with Manal, a Sudanese woman from the U.S. who is contracting for USIP. Manal wanted to show me a small place next door that was making a local alcoholic drink made from sorghum. I took a few pics of them pounding the roasted sorghum, and then a drunk policeman came in and started hassling us.  I don’t know what he was saying, but his tone was aggressive and he was waving an ak-47 around.  Manal hustled us out of there, and he followed.  Finally Manal gave him one S. Sudanese pound, and he went away.  As we were walking back to the hotel, Manal told me what happened.  Apparently she told him we knew the governor (which was true), and then he was said we should give him a pound for a drink.