I bend on one knee and focus the lens upward to capture part of a small hill where the sun is setting in the background. I take the first picture, then tell everyone to push closer together and again some groan. But ignore them and focus on Fresnel who is smiling now eagerly.
“Okay. Last one, everybody…ready—”
But then I see her. She is sitting in a narrow clearing on the hill just to right of Fresnel’s ear. I zoom in on her as much as my camera will allow. And what I see make me nearly vomit on myself.
“There!” I yell. “Alison! There!” I point.
The men I am photographing turn in unison. Alison and Peter rush to my side. “There! In a clearing. On the hill. Look! She’s sitting,” I say handing Alison the camera. He looks for a brief moment and pulls his eye back from the lens. From the look on his face, I can tell he is thinking what I am thinking: her face.
The men grab their things quickly and we on the move, racing the setting sun. We are practically sprinting and I am having difficulty keeping up, but no one slows. The clearing is not too far and you can see the outline of the girl without the camera, which makes it even more surprising that none of us had noticed.
Peter must have realized that I was not by his side, because he comes doubling back for me.
“You must not come into the clearing.”
“What? No. Of course I’m coming. I have to come. That’s why I’m here.”
“No. You must not. It could be a trap. You will stay hidden in the trees. If we die, you are to run back to the river. Cross and run east. Run east and do not stop running.”
“I’m coming with you,” I say, panting as we climb hire up the terrain. “I’m coming.”
Peter shakes his head then sprints back up the hill, back to the front with Alison.
I catch up with the men who are crouched by the outskirts of the trees, peering through the leaves. I take a picture of Alison, who swallows, then runs out with his gun drawn, the men at his heel. And I am clicking violently as they charge and in the back of my mind I am praying that they will not die. The girl jerks in surprise, but does not have time to move. Alison is at her side first and he is safe.
Veronique, the boy who clears our way through the Bush, passes by me as I approach and vomits on his machete. He has enough time, however, to move away from the girl so that she does not see. Veronique is not the only one who becomes ill. By the time I reach her, there are only a handful of people there, Alison and Peter among them.
Her face, if you could call it that: No nose. No lips. No ears.
Alison is talking to her, but she does not appear to understand. Alison begins to speak French to girl and she looks up at him.
“What did she say?” I ask when they are finished talking. Alison sits with her. He is expressionless, but he is holding her.
“Her name is Grace. She is from the Congo. She was taken from her mother when she was 12 years old. She was to be one of Kony’s wives. But she escaped and was caught. Kony would not have her anymore and so he gave her as a gift to Vincent Otti, Kony’s second-in-command, who raped her with a pistol to her head. She bled until dawn and she became his ninth wife. When she became pregnant he mutilated her so no else would ever be with her. She escaped again the other day when the LRA came in contact with the army,” Alison turns to her and says something in French. She nods. “And she is still pregnant with his child.”
There are moments in South Sudan when you cannot think. Standing over Japhet’s body was one of those times. And standing in the clearing with Grace is one of those times. Your brain goes numb. Your mind tries to fight away the dark truth, but it can only delay it. Slowly, reality will trickle through the defenses and seep into your consciousness. It will build there. It will consume you. It turns on a carousel of images you want to burn away but can’t.
I raise my camera like a shield.
“Yes. You must take a picture,” I hear Alison say in what feels like my father’s voice. “They must know.”
But that is not what I am thinking. I want a filter–anything–between her and me. But the carousel is starting up already.
Take a picture…she is pregnant…take picture…she was raped…take a picture…she was mutilated…take a picture…she is hideous…take a picture. Take a picture. Take a picture. Take a picture. Take a picture she’s pregnant.
If you don’t see something, how do you know it happened?
I don’t want to know what happened. I am taking a picture so I don’t have to look directly at her anymore.
A Bush fly lands on the hole in her face and crawls up where a nose should be. And I vomit. Alison takes Grace away.
Grace tells us that we have gone the wrong way. That the LRA have crossed back over the river because the army has stopped their progress north. Alison brings Grace with us. We will not sleep tonight. We will keep moving through the dark with flashlights on our caps.
We arrive back at the river, but not where we crossed. It is much wider here, but Alison does not wish to waste anymore time. Walia taps me on the shoulder before he goes. He hooks his fingers together then snaps his hands back and forth like crocodile jaws. He laughs and pulls me close in a reassuring way. Alison is the first to cross, followed closely by Peter. Once again, I lag behind to try to capture a photo despite the dark and, to my surprise, Grace stays with me.
I struggle to look at her. I put the camera down. It’s no use.
“I’m pregnant too,” I finally whisper, but she doesn’t understand so I point to my stomach. Grace grabs at my shirt, lifts it up, and rubs my belly.
“Correct. I am pregnant too,” I repeat and we cross together through the murky waters.
We patrol along the banks of the river, looking for fresh prints. It doesn’t take long before Jacques finds a series of children’s footprints, the center of which are still moist. The Arrows Boys are excited, but Alison seems unsure. Peter explains that now the dilemma sinks in our leader’s heart. Do we go forward with our flashlights on, announcing our presence, or do we turn them off and risk loosing the prints all together. In the end, Alison decided to keep them on and we follow.
No one talks; we are listening to the Bush. There are over 400 bird and 100 mammal species in South Sudan and all them seem to be awake. Each step I take is with a heavy leg. I try to refocus myself by taking pictures, but all I can think about is capturing a ghost. On more than one occasion, I think I hear the Bush whisper, crack twigs, cough, pee. But it’s the crickets exchanging news, the brook babbling through rocks, my own breath, the shutter of my camera–a ghost in my mind. I am not the only one unnerved though.
Peter’s flashlight zips with each noise and I begin to follow his light. I hear it whisper, crack twigs, cough, pee: the wind stirs. Whisper, crack twigs, cough, pee: Fresnel bringing up the rear. Whisper, crack twigs, cough, pee: hallowed out tree. Whisper, crack twigs, cough, pee. But Peter’s flashlight has ceased moving; it’s stuck on the hallowed out tree. Whisper, crack twigs, cough, pee: a gun in the hallowed tree.
But it’s too late. Bullets explode and rip through our lines. Peter is down. And I fall over him, though I am not hit.
Things are moving so quickly. Everyone is yelling and I can hardly hear myself speak. I’m feeling over Peter’s body for the hole. My hand is wet over his stomach. “It’s going to be okay, Peter. Listen to me. You are going to be okay, Peter.”
“Run,” he says.
“Peter you are going to be okay.”
I stick my thumb in his hole and look around. I can’t see anything but a blur of light that seems to be pushing ahead and for a second–for a second–I clutch my camera. The picture. The LRA. The picture.
“Run,” he says again.
I let go of the camera and touch his face instead. “You are going to be okay. We are going to get you out of here and take you to a hospital. They will help you, Peter. Just stay strong.”
I look around again and the lights are definitely moving away. The ringing of bullets is getting fainter, mixing with the other Bush noises. I don’t know what to do. All I know is I can’t let Peter die in the Bush.
“Help!” I scream. “Help! Help!”
And then movement. I take Peter’s flashlight off his head and wield it around. It’s Grace.
“Help me, please!” Grace comes forward and looks over Peter’s body and lays her hand on top of mine and we push hard on Peter’s stomach. We wait. Peter’s eyes begin to close and I yell at him to hang on. “Help will come,” I say. But as time passes and his eyelids begin to fall, I am not so sure. “Help will come.”
I don’t know how long it takes. The lights are returning. They are getting stronger again. I look at Grace, but I can’t read her. If it is the LRA, we should run. I know that. But I don’t care. I will not leave Peter to die.
It isn’t. Fresnel is the first to come to our side. Then a handful of Arrow Boys. And then Alison. He tells us that they will take him from here, but I tell them that I am staying with him and I tell Grace the same, who seems to understand me.
Alison nods and the men carry him with me trying to keep one hand on his wound. No one speaks and time is hard to measure. All I am focused on is keeping Peter alive. And when we exist the Bush and when Fresnel and Alison hurry us to the health house and when the doctor comes and when Fresnel and Alison pull me outside and when I am finally alone, I fall to the ground and weep.
I want to be alone. But Grace comes forward from the shadows and kneels beside me. She strokes my hair while I cry and begins to sing a soft melody. We sit together for a while and when I manage to compose myself, Grace smiles slightly. She reaches out and touches my stomach and looks at me. I understand her meaning.
“I’m not hurt,” I say. “The baby was not injured.”
She touches her own stomach and smiles more broadly now. I am looking at her directly but I don’t shutter this time. I can see where she would have been a pretty girl once. I lift my camera off my neck, put my arm around her, and motion her towards me. Grace leans her head on my shoulder and gently rests her hand on my neck. I turn the camera towards us.
“Thank you,” I say. I think back to Lauren and my family. I’ll share the picture with them when I came home and I will tell them that Grace is one of those women doing incredible things that I had imagined before I left for South Sudan, but didn’t know what she looked like then.
Over the next few days, Alison leads fellow survivors back into the Bush in search of fallen Arrow Boys. They return grimed faced. According to Alison, Kony was not with the group. It was a small, reconnaissance team. Not more than three or four people. But they caught us off guard and we lost at least seven of our group, most from Makpandu, but all Arrow Boys. Peter meanwhile clung to life and Grace and I stayed by his side, nursing him slowly back to health. Peter faded in out of sleep for most of that time, and on the fourth day he came around long enough for me to say goodbye.
“The doctor says you are going to be okay, Peter,” I say changing his bandages. “He says that you’ll be able to leave in a couple of weeks.”
“Did we get Kony?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell Peter that we were never close; that we lost 7 Arrow Boys.
“Sshh. Get some rest. I want to say goodbye, Peter.” Peter’s eyes start to close and I kiss him on his forehead.
The journey back to the capital the next day is a long and tiresome trip. I pass much of the time by looking over my photos. I’m disappointed that I didn’t put a face on the ghost. But I look at a photo of Jasphet peering up at his father, smiling, and can’t help but grin.
What do you really hope to accomplish in South Sudan? It is not about accomplishing anything. It’s about moving again. You can run from a ghost or you can chase him. I chose the chase. I’m chasing ghosts with Arrow Boys.
“Excuse me,” I say to the driver.
“You need to urinate again?” he laughs.
“It’s a long road ahead.” I shrug and he pulls over.