Friday, October 2, 2009

Into the Bush

Finally, after an exhaustingly long day traipsing all over the State of Jonglei monitoring distribution of mosquito nets, I was able to crawl under my mosquito net at the Freedom Hotel and collapse into bed. Sleep came quickly, deep, and long. Until first light when my subconscious started picking up something in the distance. I have been in Sudan long enough to know when I hear that noise that it is NOT fireworks, and apparently I was still not tricked in my half-asleep, half-awake state. Granted, I very, very rarely hear that noise. But no, these were definitely gunshots. Still not wanting to open my eyes I listened to the pattern. PA PA PA PA PA. Then after a few seconds’ pause, from a bit farther away, pa pa pa pa pa. Then even closer, PA PA PA PA PA.

At this point my mind shook off the rest of the sleep and I opened my eyes. Oh right! Today, May 16th, is SPLM day. “Into the Bush” day. Commemorating the day in 1983 when the South took up arms against the North by going into the bush (basically the wilderness) and fighting back. And how do we celebrate holidays in Sudan? By firing our weapons. Oh yes, on Christmas, New Years, and, apparently, SPLM Day, soldiers and civilians everywhere shoot their AK-47s off with glee with complete disregard to what happens to the bullets once they are fired up into the air. At 6:03am in Bor Town, the capital of Jonglei State and the home town of many of the SPLA leadership, it sounded like everyone was getting in on the action. The number of guns being fired increased, always in a call-and-response pattern.

My boss (the head of our office) as well as someone in the HR department from my organization's DC Headquarters was also on this trip, but staying at another hotel on the opposite side of town. Just to be sure, I sent them a text: “Please tell me this is because of SPLM day, right?” a few seconds later came the response, “Oh right. I hadn’t thought of that. Good I’m glad it sounds like it is really close over here.” I should mention that I was staying in a room in an actual building that the hotel had just opened the week before – usually hotels in the field are really just tents. My boss and the HR guy were staying in tents. Not somewhere you want to be when bullets are being shot up into the air!

Now this hotel had very good security – several guards on duty at all times. One of these guards happened to be stationed almost directly under my window (the building only had one story). I heard him audibly stretch, very loudly hock a loogey, spit, scrape his plastic chair across the concrete as he stood up, heard the metallic click of his AK-47 being cocked, and then he joined into the firing. Don’t worry it was away from the building of course! But damn, was that thing LOUD!!! There are basically no furnishings in the hotel building, just concrete, wrought iron window bars, and glass in the windows. The guard firing right next to the room made a very loud BOOM echoing around the room and it felt like everything rattled – nothing to absorb the noise.

At this point only about 5 minutes had gone by since the first gunshots. It dawned on me that what goes up must come down. I looked over at my window, realized my bed was directly under it on the other side of the room

(please refer to this incredibly high quality rendering of the floor plan to my room), decided that was not a very prudent place to stay should a stray bullet come through the window, and crawled out of bed over behind this weird outcropping that will one day house a bathroom (had not been installed yet – everyone still was sharing pit latrines) and made myself comfortable.

That’s when I realized I had to pee.

Seriously, that timing was SO BAD!

About 15 minutes passed, just sitting there, waiting. The gunfire began to taper off. It was then I realized that I had a video camera in my bag. We were doing a mini-documentary about the distribution, and the consultant we hired gave all the staff in the field digital camcorders to document some of what went on. So I crawled over around the outcropping, grabbed my bag, and turned on the camera. All you can see is the window, but you can definitely hear the gunfire. There is not much of it left, but still. Unfortunately I no longer have access to the footage, but I will definitely try to get a copy, at least for posterity.