Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Tensions in Gorilla camp

Following is a review of 

A Forest in the Clouds: My Year Among the Mountain Gorillas in the Remote Enclave of Dian Fossey. by  John Fowler,  Pegasus Books, Ltd, NY. 2018

An animal loving undergraduate, John Fowler signed up for an adventure - to serve as a student researcher with the famous gorilla lady Dian Fossey in the wilds of the Virunga Volcanoes.  He went off naively, but encountered a situation fraught with issues;  most of which were caused by the erratic personality of Ms. Fossey.  This memoir is a candid recitation of the year with the gorillas- and contains some marvelous reflections of interactions with great beasts -  but more of the book focuses on the unpredictable actions and moods of Dian.  By the time John arrived at Karisoke camp, Dian had spent over ten years in the field. Her physical health was poor and her mental balance questionable.  Students like John posed no academic threat to Dian and she shamelessly intimidated and bossed them around. They rarely knew where they stood, but stoically went about the tasks laid upon them. 

Readers will get an honest portrait of Dian Fossey.  In reality she was much different from her glamorous public persona.  As one quote from the book says “to not know her, is to love her.” Dian was a very troubled and difficult person as this memoir reveals, yet she still must be credited with bringing the endangered gorillas to the world’s attention and thus, by extension, setting into motion the extensive programs now in place to safeguard them.  But Dian never embraced those programs and in fact fought against them.   

The book is a bit of gossip, and is only a yearlong snapshot of  Dian’s career, yet it does truly portray what was happening during that year.  It must have taken much soul searching for John to write this book as it does certainly demolish at least part of Dian’s myth. 

Readers interested in gorillas, Rwanda, and Dian Fossey will find this an interesting read.  I can personally testify to the accuracy of the recitations because I was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kigali at the time, and involved in the effort and arrangements  designed to get Dian off the mountain and into Cornell University in order to review her notes and write her book

South Sudan in Crisis

a short story

Not My War

The plane rocked as she slowly lost altitude. My ears popped. The vast dun colored landscape below suddenly gave way to strips of green laced with a great muddy river down the center, the Nile: a river of mystery, of historical lore, of intrepid explorers, of elephant hunters and slavers.  Born in the mountains and lakes of Central Africa, it is the lifeblood of the continent, flowing northward to Egypt and the Mediterranean thousands of miles distant.  More recently the land below was scarred by ethnic conflict and civil war, but from altitude, it looked exotic. At least that was my mind set.  A scattering of dwellings below expanded into a virtual crosshatching of houses and roads, then boom, the wheels touched down with a screech and puffs of smoke.  I had arrived in Juba, new capital of the world’s newest country, South Sudan.

A tree hugging, liberal optimist by conviction, I come to South Sudan to do my part, to try to make a difference - not in the global scope of things - but in a very direct human way.  Perhaps still na├»ve, nonetheless I know rural Africa. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I taught English in a boys’ secondary school in Minaki, Tanzania for two years.  I relished the experience, especially contact with the kids, the opening of their horizons and the light in their eyes when they realized that dreams might come true. Back home in Virginia I taught for another year in Rockingham County junior high, but it wasn’t the same.  I yearned for Africa. When the chance came, I eagerly signed on with Children United, an Episcopal Church linked non-governmental organization that performs good works for children in South Sudan, many of whom are victims of war, most of whom go to bed hungry and all of whom want to hope.  CU runs a couple of orphanages and works in displaced persons camps.  I am ready.

I spotted a guy with a Children United sign.  Adam expedited me through the airport and drove me to the CU compound. There two matronly English women, Matilda and Margery – M&M in my brain’s registry – welcomed me to South Sudan.  They were delighted to have another hand on board and quickly sketched out plans to post me to oversee operations in Bar el Gazal.  Two days later, Adam again whisked me through the airport to a waiting World Food Program plane scheduled for Wau. (NGO practice is to book space on UN flights such as those operated by WFP.)   In the intervening two days I learned about CU programs and operations, accounting systems, money transfer arrangements, personnel policies, etc.  For a small organization, it was well organized and efficiently run.  I also got the chance to spend a few hours at the Juba orphanage, playing football with kids, reading to them and listening to their stories.  Indeed, they were victims of senseless violence. Families destroyed, fathers and brothers murdered, mothers raped, homesteads pillaged and burned.  The children’s resilience in the aftermath of such violence is astonishing.

Five humanitarian/UN aircraft were on Wau’s  full sized tarmac when I arrived. James, the driver, and Ibrahim, head of the local CU office greeted me warmly.  Although CU is Episcopal, Ibrahim is Muslim, as are many of Wau’s inhabitants.  The city itself has a population of about 150,000, more than half of the State’s 250,000 inhabitants. Several ten thousands of those folks are housed in several UN supervised Protection of Civilians (PoCs) or locally controlled Internally Displaced Persons  (IDP) camps.  Wau is dusty and run down, yet it is South Sudan’s second largest urban center.  Vehicle traffic was light, but pedestrians were many, as were donkeys. Commerce was well underway.  The temperature was well over one hundred degrees. Wau’s infrastructure, which includes the terminus of a now defunct railroad from Khartoum, is attributed to the fact that it was a bastion and entrepot of the Sudanese government during the decades long civil war.   This also explains the relatively large number of Muslims. The governor’s palace is a stately colonial era building situated on the banks of the Jur River. The spires of a grand mosque and a stately Catholic cathedral face off several blocks apart.  The CU office, and my not-air-conditioned lodging, is tucked away in a dilapidated house not far from the cathedral.

I got oriented to my small team.  I visited the program sites in the protection of civilian camps where CU provides nutritional supplemental feeding for malnourished kids.  You can tell an at risk child. They are skinny, have protruding bellies and often reddish hair. There were several dozen in each locale sitting on mats and slurping a healthy porridge out of red bowls.  Ibrahim told me however, that Dinka children, no matter the state of their health, often fail the skinny test because although long, their arms and legs are quite small around.  Many, however, grow to be towering adults. Dinka men often exceed 6 and a half feet and a number – like basketball player Manute Bol – get well over seven feet tall.

I made my official call on Governor Benjamin Baak in the late afternoon. He received me in his plush office with elaborate gold colored easy chairs and red rugs.  The governor reminded me of Jabba the Hut. He is a big jowly man, with a deep voice, but he welcomed me warmly and let me know that he is in charge.  I got the message. I know that foreigners have to stay on good terms with officials.  I will make sure not to run afoul of his writ.

After a few days in Wau, I decided to visit Raga, a town one hundred miles west where CU also had a small feeding program for which I was the nominal supervisor.  Ibrahim arranged for me to jump on a WFP plane for the trip, so off I went.  Raga was a pitiful version of Wau. It was smaller, dirtier, dustier, and sadder. Even the people seemed to sense they were really at the last stop on the road to nowhere.  Even so, it was a good visit. Our staff are doing their jobs, kids are getting fed.  Rather than wait another week for a return flight, I opted to join a three vehicle convoy headed back to Wau and got a seat in a MSF Toyota.  That would prove to be a bad decision.

My partner for the trip was Alain Henri.  Grizzled, 40 something, with a MSF cap jammed low on his brow.  Alain was a veteran of MSF operations in the region. He’d done time in Darfur and was in Bar el Gazal for the past two years.  Not a doctor, Alain was a logistics specialist – the man who moved supplies to where they were needed.  He had driven to Raga two days earlier, “no problems” he said toting stuff  for the MSF clinic at the IDP camp.  Our driver was named Vincent.

We bumped and jostled along the dusty track, never able to exceed thirty miles an hour.  Only several miles out of Raga, the number of homesteads along the road diminished, before long there were none.  We were the lead vehicle, which provided a distinct advantage because even at the slow speed the Toyota kicked up clouds of dust. Alain and I compared notes about our jobs and complaints about the heat and dust.  I noticed a gap in the road ahead, evidently a washout still left over from last year’s rains. Vincent braked, engaged four wheel drive, turned off the road onto a sandy trace that wound around bushes, then across the wash and back toward the road.  He stopped suddenly.  I looked up to see four armed men guns leveled standing in front of us.  “Merde,” Alain exclaimed, “I hope it is just a robbery.”  We were ordered out along with four persons from the trailing Toyotas.  One of the armed guys barked an order.  Vincent translated, “Empty your pockets, he wants money, watches and phones.”  We complied, but not quickly enough, the troops rained down blows and a few vicious whacks with gun butts.  Alain had a trickle of blood leak out below his cap. This little introduction to our captors was to repeat itself irregularly over the next few days.  After the thrashing, I spoke up. “We are humanitarian assistance workers, in South Sudan to help, to feed hungry people and care for the sick.”  The band looked befuddled. “Tell ‘em, Vincent”.  Vincent said a few words, but was harshly cut off.  “No interest,” Vincent muttered as we were marched off into the bush.  We walked about a half mile and ordered to sit.  Given an order translated as no talking, two of the bandits stood guard.  We sat for an hour or two, then jerked attentive when we heard a truck or trucks grinding up the road from Wau.  Shortly gunfire and explosions erupted back towards our vehicles.  Black smoke flared up into the sky.  Our guards exalted and danced around.  Maybe this is over I hoped. But no. Within minutes, a larger band of marauders tramped through the bush.  The obvious leader came over to us.  “A great victory,” he said. “ Seven SPLA dead. Now you come.”  “Wait,” I replied. “Let us go.  We are of no use to you.”  Major John, as he later told me to call him, was blunt, “no, you come.”

We tramped off.  Seven captives – Alain, me, Vincent, and four other South Sudan folks.  We walked for hours through the heat of the day. Ordered to be silent, the seven hostages were kept together with guards fore and aft. Other men in the group scouted ahead, ranged behind and out to the sides. Obviously, this was an ingrained, well-practiced movement through the landscape.  To me the landscape all looked the same. Flat land covered with scrub brush about ten feet high.  There was nothing different to see and no discernible trail.  And it was hot.  I stumbled along, thankful at least for a decent pair of shoes and a long sleeved shirt, but I had no hat and no water.  We finally arrived at a clearing with a round mud hut in the center.  Major John approached. “Camp”, he said, “we will rest here tonight.”  He motioned us into a lean-to type structure.  At least there was shade and we could talk a bit.  Being foreign to the heat, Alain and I suffered the most from the tribulations of the day.  One of the drivers confirmed that our captors were Ferrit, as was he.  He overheard conversation about us. They were puzzled about what to do with us – shoot us or let us go.  The group had no contact with headquarters so could not get orders, thus Major John decided to walk us to his general.

Just before dusk one of the soldiers brought us a couple of plastic bottles full of awful looking water and a half dozen roasted corn cobs. I drank thankfully, and munched a few rows of parched maize. 
We were roused before dawn. John came over. “Today, we walk early while it is cooler. We rest another day, then get to headquarters. ”  Off we went.  Same drill as yesterday, but it was easier. We walked for hours, Got bashed a bit during one of the brief rest stops, apparently just for the joy of the power of it. Our destination was similar, an isolated homestead, but this one had a family in it.  A woman brought water and porridge for us.

After a restless night, especially when the screaming shits hit, I felt weak when the morning trek began, but steeled myself to the ordeal, hoping that it was the last day.  Headquarters camp was indeed bigger – a virtual small village.  John went to find his commander.  An hour or two he came to us. Sheepishly, he confessed that the general was irritated that he captured us.  His task was to attack the SPLA, not take hostages.  While we’d been walking, WFP officials had contacted the general  through an intermediary.  For months WFP and the general had coordinated food deliveries to hungry villagers in  rebel territory.   Because of lack of communication with his men, the general could not confirm custody of the missing foreigners.  But now that he had us, he would deliver us to an agreed upon food delivery site.  Unfortunately, John noted, “it is another day’s walk away.”  

I asked John, “Why are you fighting?”  “Mostly we defend,” he replied,” We fight back when we can, then run and hide. Our leaders have decided this. I do as I am told. Yeah, I want peace, but is not my power.  Maybe war is fate. Elders say it has always been so.  Why are you here?” he asked, “this is not your war.”

Whoa, I paused, thought briefly about a platitude about helping victims, but no…

“Agreed,” I replied, “not my war.”