It takes nearly 17 hours to travel the 372 km from Juba to Nzara, but when I arrive Alison wastes little time in introducing me to the villagers he is trying to defend.
“They cut your body and put oil inside like magic and it is to change your mind. What you are seeing in not human beings no more, but animals. And if you say you see human beings still, they come again at you and cut your body until you see what the magic tells you to see.” Alison stands by the threshold of the storehouse, which is nothing more than a straw hut where food and weapons are stored side by side. I can see from his shadow stretching across the dirt floor that he is shaking his head as the boy who escaped from the LRA two years ago recounts the torture he was forced to commit. But as I have learned from past experiences, images like these cannot be shaken. Instead, I ask the boy in a loud voice so that he can hear me despite the damage to his eardrums if I can take a picture of him and he says yes.
“You may come, Jessica,” says Alison on our way out of the storehouse. “But you may only come on my patrols so that I will know where you are most safe. We go into the forest along the border. They disbanded into small groups these days, which is bad because they moving like shadows through the forest.”
South Sudan’s tropical forest stands in stark contrast to arid desert in the north. For years, the Lord’s Resistance Army has used this terrain to their advantage. The swamps, the wild game, the tangle of trees, the ivory of elephants are all at their disposal. But they cannot survive forever in the Bush and so they come to villages around Nzara like Siimbii, Buretiki and Baguga to pillage, rape, kill, and abduct new recruits: children, who, like the boy who escaped two years ago, they will teach to see animals in place of humans.
I nod in agreement and I thank him for his hospitality. He looks at me and laughs.
“The driver says that you are pregnant. He says you need to stop many times along the way from the capital in order to urinate.”
“It took us 17 hours,” I shrug.
Alison laughs again. “That is good.”
I’m not sure whether he is referring to the time we made or the pregnancy, but I smile all the same.
Alison introduces me to the patrol group I will be traveling with. They are nothing more than a band of farmers; fathers, brothers, and husbands who have volunteered to chase ghosts through the Bush. “The LRA move quickly and to track them can be much difficult, if not impossible in the night. But the women says they have seen footprints and so we go shortly. I will like you to stay close to Peter,” he adds pointing to the tallest man in the pack. Like Alison, Peter is one of the few who is fluent in English. He is an attractive man: strong and charming. He welcomes me with a broad grin and offers me water from his canteen.
I am tired and would have liked a chance to rest before we moved out, but I will be in Nzara for little over a week and so I will need all the opportunities I can get. The patrol unit—if you can call it that—is armed with bats, rocks, poison darts, spears and, of course, bow and arrows, which is where their name originates from: the Arrow Boys. One or two fortunate ones carry locally made rifles, which can be fired only once before reloading, and Alison proudly carries a handgun issued by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.
Th Arrow Boys say I carry too much. I will not be light enough to travel through the Bush. I tell them the bag I am carrying is filled with cameras. I take a picture with my hands to demonstrate my meaning. They laugh and repeat that I will be too heavy to move quickly through the Bush. I am three months pregnant and think that I have managed well so far. Peter offers to carry my bag for me, but I do not want to slow him, so I take two cameras, wrap them around my neck, and leave my bag with a group of beautiful young girls who have come to wave the Arrow Boys off. I take a picture of a girl kissing one of the Arrow Boys on the cheek.
“If the LRA make it to Nzara, these girls will become sex slaves,” says Peter matter-of-factly.
When I was twenty, I took what little money I had and bought myself a computer and camera and tried myself as a freelancer. I was willing to go where few would volunteer. I started in Afghanistan where I was supposed to stay three months; I stayed instead nearly three years, where I was one of the few photojournalists to meet the Taliban face to face. From Afghanistan, I went to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Somalia, Columbia, Guatemala.
A man I loved once asked me if I am ever scared. “Sometimes. Sometimes yes. But if there is time for fear then it is already too late.”
South Sudan’s Western Equatoria is no place to be late. I put my eyes to the lens, but scarcely any light can penetrate the tangle of branches and leaves that hide the secrets of the new nation’s struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army. But as Arrow Boys push deeper into the black forest, they flip the flashlights attached to their caps on. Batteries are one of the Arrow Boy’s most prized possessions and I am told that I am fortunate to have arrived when I did because a fresh supply had finally reached Kassia today, a small village near Nzara.
I am certain the light will attract gunfire should we encounter the LRA, but I do not say this. For one thing, it allows me to photograph them on the move. For another, I think they want the LRA to know they are here. We enter the Bush and one man leads the chorus of chants. Peter translates for me: “The war is serious. And we are serious too!”
Alison adds proudly that “over the past six or seven months, chiefs of Yambio has collected over 21,000 Sudanese pounds from their communities, 89 buckets of maize corn, 108 buckets of dura, 150 buckets of cassava flour, 129 buckets of groundnuts, 19 bottles of termite oil, 10 packets of table salt, and 18 bottles of honey. They give much of this to us to protect life. That is what the Arrow Boys are: protectors of life.” He picks up a pinch of dirt and plays with it in his hands. “They are fighting for their land, Jesicca, and so they are not scared to die tonight.”
Over the years, I have learned that taking the picture is not the difficult part. In photojournalism, it is positioning yourself for the image that is most challenging. And I not only want to capture the LRA; I want what the Arrow Boys want: Joseph Kony.
Peter tells me that the LRA come in the dark; machetes in their hands, their bare chests crossed with red oils and mud. Kony has taught them that these crosses will protect them from the army’s bullets.
I run ahead of the Arrow Boys, squat between trees, and lag behind for the picture. I can tell that Alison does not like me straying, but he allows it. One thing that I learn quickly about Alison is that he rarely smiles while on patrol: “The war is serious. And we are serious too!”
We come across the point where the women say they saw the tracks. There is blood on the ground, but Peter says they are not sure whether it is human or not. A young boy name Jacques who is no older than fifteen, sticks a cigarette in his mouth and reaches down to touch the blood. I take a picture. The boy says something to Alison, who appears to agree and we pick up our pace.
The Arrow Boys are quick and the rush of getting lost in the story is starting to return to me. I remember sitting on the couch in my sister’s living room a few weeks before I left, telling her that I accepted this assignment.
“So soon, though?” Lauren says, her head tilt in the same way my father responded the day before. I look away.
“What would you have me do? What does everyone want from me?”
“This isn’t about what we’d have you do…don’t roll your eyes…you’re pregnant for Christ sake. You’re pregnant. This isn’t about going to a dangerous land. This isn’t like the other times and you know it,” she pauses, seeing I’m on the verge of tears, and grabs my hand. “Are you really going to put your body through that?”
“There are millions of pregnant woman around the world doing incredible things,” I say wiping my eyes. “Why not me?”
“It’s not a question of why not you. It’s a question of what you are really hoping to accomplish in South Sudan?”
I shake my head at her and look away again because I don’t have a response.
“Jessica, look at me. Please, look at me. If you are trying to lose the baby…”
“If you are trying to lose the baby,” she continues, “you can do it safely, here, with me by your side. There isn’t anything wrong with it. You don’t need to carry that pain.”
She waits for me to respond, but the words are stuck in my throat and I can’t.