By afternoon of the tenth day, a column of army trucks and tanks and other machinery advanced towards Toka. Partly cloaked in clouds of dust and smoke, roaring and droning and puffing, interrupted now and then by the chants of victorious combatants, the convoy pressed forward towards the vacant town.
But for days before this jubilant entry, days that appeared to be endless, the small town had become a suspended vacuum, an uncertainty, as government troops battled rebels on the road to Toka, from the capital Juba.
On the outskirts of the town, Okurang, a skinny and slightly bent old man, crawled out of a bunker, a few yards from the back of a friend’s household. He got up and wobbled a little as he walked towards the house in front of him. Alam, for that was his friend’s name, followed Okurang, and the two men came to a tamarind tree – a giant one – in the middle of Alam’s compound.
Around the fenceless compound, stalks of harvested sorghum, once green but now brown and withering, jutted out, like soldiers on parade. The smell of smoke hung in the air, and black ashes floated here and there.
Okurang peered over the horizon, at the stretch of burnt elephant grass, the resultant black and rough carpet spreading out, and the dwindling fumes of grey smoke. “The bombings have been heavy,” he said, shaking his head.
“Very heavy,” Alam said.
Now, the noise created by the advancing machinery drifted towards the two men.
“Look!” said Okurang, pointing towards the main road, a winding one, “I think, the government has taken over.”
“Sure?” asked Alam.
“And what makes you think so?”
“Look at the tanks and the yellow Hino trucks …”
Okurang’s friend regarded the distant fleet for a moment before acknowledging: “Maybe ...”
“Since when did the rebels start owning such a number of tanks and trucks?” Okurang was certain.
The roaring and puffing and jubilations increased gradually as the two stood staring into the distance.
“You could be right,” said Alam.
“Thank God, for now I can have back my property, my land that was passed to me by my father, who got it from his father,” Okurang said with face and hands raised to the skies.
“Good for you. But what happened?”
“That stupid rebel thinks because he puts on a uniform and carries a gun he can take over a man’s household, including the surrounding cultivation land?” Okurang mumbled.
The rebels had been in charge of the town for nearly two years. The government forces tried to retake Toka the year before, but could not break the obstinate resistance of the Southern rebels. This time the rebels had gone out further to block advance of the government army up the road to Toka from Juba; with part of the rebel army on the rear of the town, southwards, ready to “withdraw tactically” with useful information, as well as valuable equipment. Just in case the worst happened: with the government in a favorable position.
This time round, rumors had come in waves and built up to a crescendo that Al-Bashir had mobilized the whole of the mostly Muslim Northern Sudan in the name of a Jihad, and he had vowed to crush the Southern rebellion in the shortest time possible. Recruitment into the ranks of the Popular Defence Forces – the Difaa Al-Shaabi – happened in earnest, and hundreds of thousands of young volunteers and conscripts were hastily trained in deserts camps in the North. Unconfirmed reports that these dagger and Kalashnikov-wielding Jihadists were merciless and would slaughter and cut into bits, or shoot on sight, any infidel they found on their paths, filtered to the South and reverberated in the hearts of timid citizens; so that when the first shells and bombs dropped randomly in Toka one afternoon, as the rebel and government armies tussled each other on the road from Juba, hundreds of civilians fled the town.
The few who opted to endure the suspense of a town on the verge of collapse did so with patience and resilience, as they kept in bunkers, evading shells and bombs.
“I was born here and I’ll die here,” Okurang had often said to those who were willing to hear him.
“But this is a war,” Alam replied this time, as the two stood under the tree in the middle of his compound, scanning the surroundings. “You cannot tell where you will be, and anyone can become a refugee.”
“My point is: as much as I’m a peasant now, I was a soldier in the Anyanya1 war; we started that mutiny just near this town, and we were different then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we were not grabbing land from the people!”
“But yours was guerrilla warfare.”
“Ours was a war of liberation.”
“This one is also a war of liberation; the enemy has always been the same – the Jallaba2.”
“Well, we started …”
“And this one is a continuation …”
“So, we’re all Southern Sudanese then, fighting for the same cause: for freedom of our people.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“But my problem is the rebel army, I mean some tribes within the army.”
“Aaaah … you’re tribalist?”
“No, I’m not tribalist. Tell me, why is it almost always individuals from the same tribe causing all the trouble?”
“Not always, my brother. Not always.”
“But we have had Kokora3 before, for similar reasons–”
“That’s irrelevant now.”
“It’s my property, that’s all I want.”
“Well, you’ll get yours back, my brother; you’ll get it back.”
“I didn’t tell you this before …”
“What is it?”
“About two years ago a battle raged on in this town, while we the civilians were hiding in the bushes, and when we came back after all was quiet and a new authority had taken over, what did I find? I found this drunken soldier in my house. I said to him, Comrade, this is my house and I’ve come back from hiding in the bush. What did he do and what did he tell me? He laughed out loud and said that he did not find anybody in the house, and that they had chased away and killed all the Jallabas and liberated the town for us. Was I a Jallaba who had come back for him? Was I not satisfied with the liberation? Did I want a bullet in my skull? And I had to quickly leave my house and put up with my nephew. How could I go back and face that soldier, with those bloodshot eyes?”
“Well, that’s not uncommon. You should have talked to someone higher than him.”
“I did. But I was told to be patient, that this is a war.”
“True! This is a civil war!”
“But what is mine is mine!”
“Give it time, Okurang!”
“But I have no time! And my two sons are refugees in Uganda, and I have nothing to leave behind for them. Nothing! Only the small piece of land which I’ve ploughed and struggled with for years!”
The two were silent for a while.
“Okurang! Sit on that bench, and let’s forget ourselves and kill hunger with some suku suku,” Alam made an offer, smiling as he dragged a wooden chair under the tree to a proper shed. Then he went and fumbled into a small bag that was dangling from a branch of the tree and drew out a bottle and a small plastic cup; and then started pouring a little of the local gin into the cup while still standing, took a gulp, and then placed the bottle and the cup on the ground, next to the chair. “I’ll check the granary for some groundnuts, that’s all that is left.”
“I’ve always been a supporter of John Garang, and you know that Alam, and I’m still suffering.” Okurang remained standing, alternating his eyes between his friend and the road now and then.
“Everybody is suffering my friend, they took all my sorghum ... This is a revolution, just give it time,” Alam said, as he stood next to Okurang.
“Tell me; does it mean if our Southern rebels succeed, if they ever will, soldiers will take over people’s lands and get away with it?”
“No, there will be laws to protect everyone. There will always be laws.”
“I haven’t even heard of the Jallabas taking people’s land, not in this town.”
“The Jallabas have done worse and you know that.”
From where the two friends stood, they could make out a jeep in the lead as they watched the distant convoy. The jeep was a great distance from the rest of the pack and coughed and groaned abruptly as it came to a sudden halt by the roadside, not very far from the two.
“I’m going out to see, to confirm,” Okurang said, as he walked briskly to a path leading to the road.
“Wait a bit.” But Okurang was already several feet ahead.
“I’m going!” he called out.
“Well, take care!” the other said as he walked towards the granary.
“I always do!” Okurang yelled confidently.
The lead jeep could be a mile or two from the column; and Okurang saw an officer – probably a commander – jump down from the vehicle and head to a tree by the roadside. The officer lit a cigarette and started smoking as he peeked silently into the nearby woods, his right boot resting on a rock. Meanwhile the driver of the jeep, who had a bandage around his head, was opening the bonnet as grey-black smoke spread out in waves on the sides, escaping into the atmosphere.
“Fuck … fuck … fuck …” Okurang heard the driver of the jeep cursing.
As he approached, Okurang could see the officer now on what looked like a Thuraya satellite phone on one hand, uttering “Hello … Hello …” several times, but there seemed to be no reply from the other end; his cigarette fumed smoke in another hand. Then the officer grumbled some complaint as he squeezed the phone into a side pocket, and continued smoking.
“Salaam aleikum,” said the old man.
“Aleikum al-salaam,” replied the officer, who turned around to face Okurang.
Now, the old man was not good at uniforms and this was a confused war to him, for he had often seen rebels donning Sudan Armed Forces uniforms, though sometimes just plain civilian clothing. But as soon as he saw an officer with a brown complexion, he felt comfortable, assured.
“You have done well, officer!”
“And who are you?”
“I’m a civilian, officer, a senior citizen of Toka, who is ready to welcome your gallant army into our town.”
“Alright, I see.” The officer dragged at his cigarette and puffed out curls and curls of smoke into the air as he watched the old man.
“Yes, I’m really thanking Allah for sending your forces to liberate us from these rebels, who have tormented us for months.”
“Sure?” The officer continued sending curls of smoke into the skies; he seemed to be having fun with that but at the same time appeared to be in deep thought and not bothered about the old man.
“We have always hoped the government would come back, not the SPLA4,” the old man continued.
“And why is that?”
“Because … because …the SPLA … they have snatched our daughters right in front of our eyes.”
“Really? Tell me more.”
“Yes, they have fucked our wives.”
“Yes, they have taken our land.”
“That’s too much!”
“Taken our cows and goats.”
“Confiscated our chickens.”
“That’s beyond greed now!”
“Snatched blankets from our wives and children.”
“Yes, they are not fighting for a New Sudan; I think they are fighting for their stomachs and pockets.”
“I see …”
There was silence between the two for a moment.
“You did well, officer. The Sudan Armed Forces did well, officer.”
By now the advancing column and the ululations and chorus of triumphant captures got louder as the procession drew nearer. This time there were tremors felt now and again, like an earthquake was in progress, as the heavy convoy got closer and closer. Where the two stood, the fleet could be spotted coming from one side as they faced each other.
A light tank was the first to emerge from a bend and then stopped some yards right behind the jeep. The old man watched the tank, with Arabic inscriptions visible on a side, as its round door at the top was thrust upwards as it opened and a soldier’s head popped out.
“Any problem, sir?” the soldier called out from the top of the tank.
The officer did not say a word; he was regarding the old man for a while.
A Hino truck was the next to pull up after the tank, with troops piled up at the top, some with bandaged heads or hands, and waving their AK-47s and chanting: “Wulululooo … Sala abuk ... Adiu talaga! … Sala umak ... Adiu talaga5! … SPLA oyee! … SPLA oyee! …”
The officer threw down his cigarette butt at that instance and squashed it with his boot on the dirt road. His hand went to the pistol by his side, but he did not draw it.
The old man began to say something, as he looked over his shoulder, but the words that came out were: “Atatataa … You mean … you’re different? Atatataa … Me, I’m a dead man!” He just raised his hands as if he was surrendering to the officer.
The soldier jumped down from the tank and took some steps towards the officer and then stopped just a few feet away, his AK-47 in one hand.
“Comrade!” the officer said
“Comrade!” the soldier replied.
The officer fumbled into his pockets again, and then picked out a stick from his packet of cigarettes in one of his chest pockets and placed one in his mouth. Then he tried his lighter but it failed him: “Yaaaaak … everything is not working now,” he cursed as he threw the lighter into the nearby bush.
“Please, officer, it was just a slip of the tongue,” said Okurang, grinning. “In fact, I’m just an old man, a mad one I believe.”
“Comrade!” the officer said again, his voice firm, almost commanding, “Can you throw me a lighter?”
“True, I had malaria … Just a slip of the tongue –”
“What is it with this old man?” The soldier interrupted, tossing a matchbox to his senior officer.
“A very big problem,” said the officer as he lit his cigarette, creating a cup with his hands to keep the wind away. Then he blew out the fire on the match stick, threw the stick away, took a puff, blew smoke into the air and regarded the old man again briefly in silence; and then repeated, slowly: “A very, very big problem, comrade.”
“Must have been the malaria …” The old man’s hands were now spread out in front of him as he begged for mercy.
“If you were in my position, what would you do to anyone who stabs you in the back?”
“Sir? I don’t get it! But I would shoot such a person in the head, sir! Just like you’ve always done! I swear I would do that, sir!”
“Shoot him in the head!” the officer echoed the words. “You heard that, old man?”
The soldier cocked his Kalashnikov.
“Kai! … My son, please! Please have mercy!” cried the old fellow.
“Soldier! I didn’t say shoot him, did I?”
The soldier uncocked the gun.
“Running a rebel army is no planting maize or sorghum, see, old man?”
“Have mercy, sir! … Have mercy! … Must have been the malaria …” Okurang was now down on his knees.
“Do you know that it’s not about killing and killing that we fight; that it’s about winning the war, or reaching a compromise, and then changing the politics?”
“Sir! What did you say, sir?”
“Do you know that when you have the power to shoot someone, you also possess the power to save that person?”
“I don’t get it, sir … Maybe not in the battlefield, sir!”
“Old man! Get lost before I change my mind!” The officer said suddenly.
Okurang got up quickly and made for the path he came from, amid the chants of ecstatic combatants; his face contorted, his head bowed and back bent. His hands and knees were trembling, and he was muttering: “Just a slip of the tongue … Just a slip of the tongue …”
1. Anyanya: Name of the Southern Sudanese rebel group that fought successive Khartoum regimes during the first civil war from 1955 to 1972.
2. SPLA: Sudan People’s Liberation Army: the military wing of the Southern Sudanese rebel group that fought successive Khartoum regimes during the second civil strife from 1983 to 2005, before an independent republic, South Sudan, was formed in 2011 as part of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
3. Kokora: A word from the Bari language of South Sudan, meaning “division”; a term used in 1983 by a group of politicians in Southern Sudan as a slogan in support of decentralization of the region into the three original provinces of Bahr-el-Ghazal, Upper Nile, and Equatoria; when Southern Sudan was already running as an autonomous regional government (from 1972 to 1983), with centralized powers, and the government seen to be dominated by one ethnic group.
4. Jallaba: a term widely used by rebels in Southern Sudan during the second civil war to refer to the enemy (that is, the government, the government army and sometimes extended to northern Sudanese citizens).
5. Sala abuk ... Adiu talaga! … Sala umak ... Adiu talaga! These are phrases in the Arabic spoken in South Sudan, literally meaning: “Even your father ... Give him the bullet! … Even your mother ... Give her the bullet!
David L. Lukudu is from South Sudan. He has lived in Uganda and Kenya for nearly fifteen years, mainly during the second civil war period in the Sudan (1983-2005), when South Sudan was a region of the country referred to as Southern Sudan. He studied Medicine at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and recently earned a Master of Science degree in Tropical Medicine and International Health, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, in the UK. While pursuing his Master’s degree, he took a short course in Creative Writing at the London School of Journalism. He has published short fiction with the BBC Focus on Africa magazine (2001), the online Cook Communication magazine, AuthorMe (2004-2010), the Arabic website sudaneseink.com (2008), warscapes.com (2011, 2012), and McSweeney Quarterly Concern (Issue 43, 2013). Currently, he works with the World Health Organization in Juba, South Sudan.