Warawar – an ominous name for a town in a country that is coming out of decades of civil war and genocide. Add to that the fact that Warawar also happens to sit near the border of South and north Sudan, and you could be excused for thinking this little town might not be the safest place to travel in the newest country in the world. These thoughts and more were bouncing along in my head as we rattled out the road to Warawar from Aweil, a long red scar that runs through an otherwise green landscape dotted with small clearings, mud huts and large spreading fig and mango trees. Though filled with massive potholes, the road was better than I expected. We passed occasional vehicles and once stopped to take pictures of a bus that had overturned in a massive water-filled ditch by the side of the road. Manal, our Sudanese colleague and soon to be American citizen wanted her picture taken with the overturned bus. We also passed a steady stream of people walking for miles between the nearest towns – women carrying vast burdens on their heads, young children herding cattle and scores of men on bicycles. Now that I think about it, I never saw a single woman on a bicycle and I wonder why that was. Nearly everyone here walks, even the police. In nearby Wanjoyk we asked the police what they do about cattle theft incidents near the border, and we were told that they only have one vehicle. Otherwise they have to walk three days or bike one day to the border. After rains the road is a red, gooey mess.
Warawar is a market town. Dirt roads lined with stalls spread out like ribs from the raised red road that runs through town, and we drove by brightly colored goods spread out onto tarps, open buckets of grain and racks of clothes. After a quick lunch of fresh pita bread, grilled goat in sauce, a dal-like lentil dish and beans (see last post) we met our hosts on the far edge of town going towards the border at the Warawar Peace Center, recently built with aid from USAID. I traveled to S. Sudan with a delegation from the US Institute of Peace led by Jacki Wilson that had come to talk about the implementation of a peace settlement they had helped negotiate between the Dinka communities of the south and the Misseriya communities of the north. Before we arrived, Jacki’s local partner had gathered together members of the Warawar peace committee who came from both sides of the border to spend two days giving Jacki and her colleagues their stories about the history and reasons behind the conflicts in the region, and as they settled into their talks a man who worked for the city administrator offered to take me around to meet and photograph the traders in town. Warawar was filled with police, and I was told without hesitation that I should not raise a camera around the police, so unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of the streets of Warawar.
But, you may ask, why did I care about photographing the traders in Warawar? Years ago when Sudan was still embroiled in civil war the government in the north had locked down the roads to the south. Nobody was allowed in or out, and gangs of Misseriya militia regularly attacked anyone on the road who tried to travel back and forth between the north and south. The Misseriya and Dinka have centuries of conflict and mistrust behind them, but they also have relied on each other for trade, and the blockades were hurting Misseriya traders as much as they were the Dinka people of the south. Eventually a group of traders from the north braved the militia and crossed the border to set up a market in Warawar, and they called it the “Peace Market”. This was the seed of today’s peace efforts in the area, peace efforts that grew from the ground up rather than being imposed from the government.
Today the Warawar market is filled with both Misseriya and Dinka stalls, and a number of shops are run jointly by Misseriya-Dinka partners. These three men are just one example. They have been working together for several years now. The two men on the left were the first partners – the Misseriya partner makes trips north to buy goods while the Dinka partner stays to mind the shop. This is a typical pattern This market is a living story of people who have overcome extremely serious grievances that stretch from the forgotten past into recent months. The conflict here has foundations in ethnic, racial and religious differences as well as land ownership, economics and even national politics. It is a conflict that has been filled with horrors that include ethnic cleansing, abduction and property theft. These are not easy to move beyond, and yet these people are trying to put the conflict aside to make their lives work. Are they friends? Ignore the lack of smiles, smiling for a camera is not part of the culture here. Many of them clearly are friends.
On my second day in Warawar I walked around the shops myself. The atmosphere was so completely different than Kenya. Almost every shop that I stopped in the people would smile and seemed happy for me to take their picture (and generally totally entertained to see the pictures afterward). One group of five merchants insisted that I sit down for tea. They were overwhelmingly friendly even though we had absolutely no shared language. They were three Misseriya and two Dinka, and they ran a clothing store. Right now these guys and all the merchants I talked with are suffering because of the actions of N. Sudan. North Sudan recently blocked the road and isn’t allowing any merchants through again. So instead of making trips by car they have to take motorbikes and travel at night often on small trails through the bush. If they are caught they can be jailed, but this is their only way to make a living.
The other problem is currency. After South Sudan created its own currency, north Sudan said that it would only take the old Sudanese currency for a grace period of a few days. That happened while I was there. Several of the merchants were trying to figure out what they could do with the cash they had in the old currency. By the time I’m writing this it might be useless already.
At the end of the day I met the group from USIP at the Warawar Peace Center and after a few photographs and much hand-shaking we climbed back into our Land Rover and headed out of town. I felt good. I’d had tea with three different people in Warawar and had spent a half hour chatting with a man who spoke english under a fig trea. I was leaving with a good feeling for the future of South Sudan.
As we drove out of town, a kid I didn’t see shouted at our car. Jacki turned to me. ”Did you here that?” She asked.
I had. He had shouted ”I want to kill you!”
We agreed that it was probably just something that he heard in a pirated American movie. Still, it left a funny taste in my mouth. As we bumped back along the road toward Wanjyok I thought back on the five men I shared tea with. They had tried hard to give me a second cup of tea. I focused on their smiles and laughs as we looked at the photographs I had taken of them.
Parting shots… a handful of currency that was going to be obsolete in three days; an ancient english reader that a young Dinka boy showed me – I sat and read with him while drinking sweet tea.