So it turns out that being in a country while there’s an alleged attempted coup, and being in a country that’s on the brink of civil war isn’t as dramatic as it first sounds. Or rather, past tense, wasn’t as dramatic as it first sounded. I’m now no longer in South Sudan so can’t speak for what it’s like now.
It turns out that, for the most part, it was actually rather boring. It involved a lot of sitting around, a lot of waiting and a lot of surfing the net for news. (And I would far rather that than the tension and drama that you might imagine having when in a country at war.)
When the fighting started on the evening of 15th December, I was safely stowed away in little Yuai, aka the bush. The previous night we’d had our Christmas party with all the local staff, eaten nyama choma and danced a lot. On the Sunday, dancing had continued for most of the day and by the evening everyone was pretty tired. Early night all round. Noone knew about the fighting that had errupted in the capital until the Monday morning when messages from Juba HQ and families of national staff started flowing in.
Al-jazeera got turned on and stayed on until we were able to leave a couple of days later.
The party atmosphere lingering from the weekend abruptly halted.
News came in that the airport had been closed. Curfew in Juba was imposed. The 3 remaining staff in Juba (the rest had already left for Christmas) reported sustained heavy artillery fire. Phone networks in the capital were intermittent.
But in the bush it was all second-hand information. Life in the village continued as normal. The only thing we knew was that there would be no plane coming to collect us the following day to take us back to Juba in preparation for Christmas break. We could be stuck in Yuai for a while.
Noone wanted to do much work. Staff were understandably very concerned about their families. Instead the couple of days we were grounded in Yuai became very long. We sat infront of Al-jazeera, playing scrabble to pass time, inbetween checking to see if phone network had come back and making half-jokes that weren’t so funny about being stuck in Yuai for Christmas and whether we had enough food in the store to last us (our food gets flown in from Juba every couple of weeks).
Really, while an ‘attempted coup’ was going, we were sat restless with not much to do and not much going on miles away from it all in the middle of the bush.
On Wednesday things in Juba had calmed down a bit. Enough for the airport to reopen. Enough for a MAF charter plane to come and collect us.
We arrived in Juba and there were lingering signs of the violence that had been occurring the past couple of days.
We flew over a whole tukul up in flames on the outskirts of the city.
We could see from above that the UNMISS base was crowded with people, displaced due to the fighting that had occurred.
Tankers were based within the airport.
The 6pm-6am curfew was (and still is) very much in place.
Sporadic gunshots could still be heard, especially in the evenings.
But other than that, daily life seemed to be continuing. Shops were open. People were walking around, going about their daily business. Life was continuing.
Meanwhile reports of rebels capturing the city of Bor were coming out, some were hinting that the country was on the brink of civil war, and some media were talking of mass graves.
People ask me if it was scary. People tell me how brave I am. People think I’m tough. But in reality, I knew very little of all that was going on, and continues to go on. In Yuai, life was quiet. In Juba, fighting had stopped by the time we had arrived. I am so grateful for that.
And yet, even without experiencing the violence first-hand, it exhausted me. I arrived in Nairobi more broken than I’d realised. I felt terrible about leaving people behind, shattered from following the news 24-7, and desperately saddened by the whole situation. A bit of a wreck. So don’t go picturing me as a hero just yet. I’m not as tough as you might think I am.