The wheels touch down, the roar of the engine falls silent; I’ve landed in a war zone. While I have had 24 hours to think about it on the long journey from Halifax to South Sudan, it doesn’t quite set in until the moment I walk off the plane and into the scorching heat.
It’s not my first trip to Africa. I visited Rwanda in 2006, but it is my first time in a country in the midst of conflict, and I am instantly and instinctively aware of my surroundings. I have come to Juba, South Sudan’s capital city as part of a partnership between CTV News and Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a media development organization whose mission is to help journalists in some of the world’s most challenging places.
South Sudan boasts the title of the world’s newest nation, but it is also the poorest, most undeveloped. Following decades of conflict with the north, it gained independence in 2011, but the hope and optimism were short-lived. Fighting erupted in December 2013 and South Sudan was suddenly at war with itself. Tens of thousands have died. Another 1.5 million are internally displaced, living in United Nations protection camps, where toddlers run free, many of them dirty, flies pitching on their often naked bodies.
Why go to a place burdened with so much hardship, a place the Canadian government considers to be one of the world’s most dangerous? JHR is in South Sudan because immediately after or during conflict is often when the media can have the most impact in demonstrating the importance of human rights to nation building. I am in South Sudan because I believe when the media is silenced, everyone is silenced. Journalists in South Sudan work in incredibly challenging circumstances, often risking their lives to uncover truth.
One day there is breaking news outside the television station where I am working. Many gather to watch as flame bursts from a motorcycle after it collides with a car. As I am taking photos, a solider aggressively punches me in the back. He hollers something in Arabic, and continues on his way. When I report this to my team, they shrug, “That’s just the way it is.”
It is one of a seemingly endless stream of sad realities.
In a workshop I am conducting I quickly learn that human rights stories are closer than we think. Arou David is a young journalist with a compelling story of his own. During a discussion about how to report on honour marriage, he speaks up to share a firsthand experience. When a man asked his 17-year-old sister to marry him, she declined, saying she wasn’t ready. The man didn’t listen, and went to the girl’s father.
“Because Dad needs some wealth, he accepted,” says Arou David.
He tried to convince the man to wait, tried to convince his father not to force his sister. Nothing worked. The marriage was to proceed, but in an unprecedented, and even taboo, move in South Sudanese culture, Arou David took his own father to court.
“To me, I think this is against human rights,” he says. “It’s a broad human rights violation.”
The siblings’ father eventually gave up the court battle, but it was not without cost.
“He has disowned us because of that issue,” says Arou David. “The relationship is broken.”
Still, for the young journalist, it’s worth it.
“I’m not fighting for myself. I was fighting for her right.”
Highlighting human rights is what this trip is all about, but for me it is so much more.
The journalists have shown me the power of one story. I have tremendous respect for their pride in a nation that has not always been kind to them. Their drive and determination to make it a better place is inspiring. Their love of life when people are dying around them is refreshing.
They always find reasons to laugh. They make me laugh too.
In an attempt to illustrate the importance of pushing through live television even when things are going wrong, I use the expression, “Never let them see you sweat.”
One journalist asks, “What if the air conditioner is broken and you can’t stop the sweat from rolling down your face?”
Shame on me for using such a phrase in a place where 45 degrees Celsius is a common occurrence!
They also make me cry.
As I am leaving, many of them say, “Please don’t forget us.”
As my plane speeds down the runway, airborne toward safety, I know I never will.