We walk 9 kilometers through the night and find nothing but Bush flies, which swarm everywhere.
“We stop here for the night, because there is no water ahead,” explains Peter.
“So we are sleeping here?” I ask.
“Yes. We will make a fire.”
There was no use for a fire. It rained heavily that night and no one slept. The Bush is a vast kingdom of trees. No doubt, we are not the only group out tonight combing the grounds for Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
A few of the Arrow Boys get undressed and hide their clothes in sacks so that they do not get wet. We sit in a circle near the remnants of the premature fire, and I take a picture of them, but their flashlights are off and I doubt it will come out well. Peter gently puts his hand on the small of my back and offers me shelter under his jacket. I thank him, but take off my own coat, look up, and let the rain wash over my face and fill my mouth. Towering trees will blot out the sun during the day, but the heat will still cause you to dehydrate if you are not careful.
I do not ask any questions, but Alison begins to speak. He wants me to understand, he says. So I listen. Much I know already, but I do not interrupt him. The Arrow Boys sit and listen, while Peter translates for them.
We are to trek through endless miles of elephant grass and wade through swirling brown rivers that twist and bend like snakes and that are infested with crocodiles in the hopes of finding one man. This is where Kony operates. The Bush is as vast an expanse as the size of California. It is so rugged it renders much of the American loaned gadgetry useless.
The Americans arrived late to South Sudan and Alison believes that much of the decision to help has to do with the regions rich oil supplies. He is probably correct, I tell him. “But they are helpful in some ways. I think this is true,” he continues.
After 9/11, President Bush declared the LRA a terrorist organization and Joseph Kony, its leader and deity, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kony claims to communicate directly with the Holy Spirit who guides this “holy war.” In the name of God, The LRA have mutilated victims in Northern Uganda, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan.
In 2008, the US supported these four countries in Operation Lightening Thunder, an aerial assault on the main LRA camp in Garamba region of the Congo, a region that the LRA had migrated to after being chased from Northern Uganda in 2005. The operation, which intended to destroy all senior leadership of the LRA, failed to eliminate the threat. Many LRA members, including Kony, sought refuge now in the Bush along the boarders of South Sudan, the Congo, and Central African Republic.
Since the operation, The LRA has resupplied and continues to prey on the nearing towns. Alison tells me the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army has not done enough to help the villagers around Nzara and Yambio.
“They are fighting a war with the north. The north is not happy that South Sudan is free because the oil is here. The oil is in the South. They vow to take hold of the region and the Liberation Army is fighting at the northern border, while the LRA is abducting and killing its people in the west.”
One boy stands up when Peter finishes translating Alison’s words. He is wearing only underwear and he begins to shout at me as water drips off his nose and down his body. He ignites a fire in the group and they all nod and shake their heads as anger swells in their eyes.
“Aliswiso is telling you about one attack on his village,” Peter whispers in my ear. His breath passes through my wet hair and it gives me goose bumps along my spine. “The LRA come in the middle of the night. They come to his house and they take his younger brother. His father tries to stop them, but they surround him and a group of boys beat him with bats. Aliswiso’s father is nearly dead when the LRA give a wood paddle with nails to his brothers and force him to stab holes into his father’s body. Aliswiso’s mother tries to stop his younger brother and they make him kill her too.”
Aliswiso continues to shout and the others are on their feet around him. “Now he must be an Arrow Boy, protector of life. He is an Arrow Boy.” And now everyone is shouting together in one voice and Peter’s voice rises to meet theirs: “We are Arrow Boys. We are Arrow Boys. We are Arrow Boys.”
Alison allows them to rage together then commands them to sit. They do.
“We are hope,” Alison says to me. Alison is compassionate—I can see that. But there are no tears in his eyes. He is the leader of the Arrow Boys and there is pride in that.
I take a picture that I know will not come out.
The next day, we are forced to move through the Bush at a much slower rate, cutting through vines and leaves to make a clearing. It is hot and I feel light headed, dirty, and tired. I did not sleep last night.
Alison instructs Jacques to climb up a tree and look out. He does not see much, nor does he see any signs that the abducted children were tied to these trees.
I ask Peter, “Why would they be tied to the trees?”
“Because they are all the time trying to run away. So they leave them tied to trees until the morning,” he says, slapping at a Bush fly.
“Do you have family of your own?” I ask.
“I am not married if that is what you ask. I have no children. But I am very much looking for a bride,” he winks and I blush.
The tracks have suddenly gone very cold and there is no water up ahead. “We are not going to find them,” Alison determines. Instead we head back to the villages outside Nzara. The Arrow Boys are visibly upset.
There is a refugee camp near Nzara called Makpandu. Alison, Peter, and two Arrow Boys take me there for the day. “Arrow Boys will not be going out again tonight. Tomorrow we can return and we will continue the patrol,” explains Alison.
We arrive to Makpandu by motorcycles and a group of boys hurry out to greet us. In this camp alone, there are more than 4,000 displaced people because of the LRA. The camp was original set up for men, woman, and children fleeing from DR Congo. Peter introduces me to one boy named Japhet, while Alison and the Arrow Boys search the market in the center of the camp for cheap supplies they can use on the next patrol.
“Where is your family?” I ask as children climb on the motorcycles. Peter picks one girl up, throws her in the air, and catches her like she’s a ballerina. The girl laughs and I take a picture.
The boy understands me and points to the field on the outskirts of the camp where a man is cutting wood. “There is father,” he explains. The boy leads us to him and Peter and I follow.
I introduce myself to the father, whose English is more polished than both Peter’s and Alison’s.
“I was a secondary school teacher. The LRA came in the morning to arrest the children. They had already attacked the village near by. They killed my older brother, my wife, and all my children, except Japhet,” he says grabbing hold of his son. “My younger brother they took with the other children they arrested. 150 children they took. They tied ropes around their neck and with machetes to their bellies, marched them away into the Bush. I could do nothing, but find Japhet hiding in a tree near my village.”
“Yes. And they will never come home. If they do, they will be ruined for life. It is almost more humane that they die in the Bush, Jessica.”
I do not know what else to say. I ask him if I can take a picture of him and Japhet. Japhet is happy to be in the picture and his father is happy to see his son smile.
I’m not sure whether my pictures will accomplish anything if I do not find the LRA and Kony. But I do know that at the very least it can remember those who are forgotten. Japhet is smiling up at his father. For those few seconds, he feels special. My battery is low, but I keep snapping. I keep snapping and when the camera is dead, I am still clicking because Japhet is smiling up at his father.
“Do you want to return to the Congo?” I ask Japhet.
“No,” answers his father. “There is nothing in the Congo anymore. I will stay here and Japhet will stay with me.”
We stay through the evening and Japhet gives me a tour. There is little water and minimal food supplies in Makpandu, which is nothing more than a collection of mud huts 44 kilometers north of Yambio. But when it is time to eat, the people gather together what resources they have near the market square. Japhet and his father help build the fire, which the women stand over, rigorously mixing pepper into a large pot of fumbwa or vegetable stew. When they are finished, a tray of green cassave leaves and fufu dough are placed on the ground. Japhet sits with me on the floor. His fingers are dirty and there is sweat in his hair. He reaches down and grabs a small piece of fufu. I run my fingers through my own hair, wondering what I must look like.
“You,” he nods at me to copy. I thank him and take a bite-size piece. Japhet rolls his into a ball then makes an indentation with his thumb. One of the women pours a small amount of fumbwa in the center. “Now eat.”
It’s peppery, hot, and soothing. “Delicious,” I say and Japhet smiles.
Peter takes some as well. “When we are back in Nzara, you will have Kissra. Is made of cornbread. And we have Asseeda and Kawari—is made with sheep’s—I don’t know how to say in English—” Peter points to his foot.
“Yes! Sheep hooves’ soup. That is truly delicious. Goldilocks porridge and sheep hooves,” he laughs at his own joke. “Much better for you. It will make your baby grow strong,” and he continues to laugh, placing his arm around my shoulder.
There is a festive joy in the air throughout the night: the comfort of being together and sharing in pain.
“They do not need to speak of the horrors to one another, but not because they are hiding their sorrow. If you ask they will tell you because they will hope you will show your pictures to the world and then the world will bring back their sons and daughters,” Peter says to me after we eat. I am sitting on a log, changing batteries, and taking pictures of a group of teenage girls dancing near the flames behind Alison. He puts his hand on my leg and shakes his head at me as if to say that such notions are foolishly idealistic. That, at best, the images will encourage a few passing remarks over Sunday night dinner tables or, more likely, will be diverted by a concrete canal of collective consciousness into a cistern labeled African problems, or even more disheartening, an amalgamation of images stretching from Rwanda to Darfur—a collage of nothing at all.
“But when they are together, when they move together,” he points at the girls. “That is when hope is born. That is when their pain is mixing into one and so there is no need to speak on it to each other, let a lone a deaf world. There is just the comfort of being together with pain. Comfort in just moving again.”
I stop taking pictures, turn, and look at him for sometime.
Peter has beautiful eyes that remind me of the man I once loved. Three weeks from today was going to be my wedding day. I smile at Peter holding tears back with words stuck in my throat.
I stand up, join the group of girls dancing, and let myself begin to mix. They are dancing with me and they are excited and the men and women seated around the fire see us and join too. I wave Peter over and he hurries forward. Japhet and his father throw more logs on the flame, though the fire does not need it yet. But we are living for now and there will be time tomorrow to collect more logs. Time tomorrow. And so the fire grows and the cheer is loud and I think of the boy I first met when I arrived in Nzara who is nearly deaf and I scream so that if he were here at this moment he could mix with us. The older women, who are not dancing clap their hands and someone begins to play a beat, a drum—a drumming that makes my feet lift off the ground like I am floating—floating towards Peter and his beautiful eyes. And Peter takes my hand and we are moving together and he is touching my body and I am holding his neck in my arms. He rests his lips on my skin and I close my eyes and go with him. I want to keep mixing; I want the drums to beat faster, the fire to grow. I want to feel his breath on me because I know that when the dancing stops and tomorrow comes our pain will drift apart and I will not be able to hold back the tears. I will be pregnant and alone and then it will flood over me—a flat image, easily passed over, easily made a statistic. I put my lips on Peter’s ear—
The drumming stops. Peter jumps back. There is the crackling of engines and the heavy sound of tires on dirt roads. The people are rushing off. Japhet’s father grabs the end of a log sticking out from the fire and rolls the flame off. Peter takes out a gun I did not know he had. I hear a woman scream and grab one of the teenage girls.
“Quick! Into the forest!” Peter yells at me. “Go!” I don’t move. Japhet’s father grabs me and pulls me toward the field, toward the forest. Peter is not coming. He is staying and I want to yell, but the words won’t come. My camera falls; I turn my head, and see Japhet coming up the rear, scraping it off the floor. His father shouts something to him, but we do not stop. We are moving into the forest and it is dark.
“We are going to the safe house. There are weapons there. You must use them,” says Japhet’s father to me. But nothing is making sense now. Where is the safe house? In the forest? There are knives, bow and arrows, handguns and some food waiting for us when we arrive. Japhet gives each of us a handgun.
“If you hear them. Shoot. But save one bullet for yourself,” says Japhet’s father.
“Not to let them capture you,” Japhet explains.
We wait in the dark for hours; each splash of sound causes stiffness in my back. When the sound finally ceases, I picture the teenage girls as spoils of war being presented before Kony as wives; the boys’ metamorphosis into LRA soldiers; the men and woman murdered by their own children. I look at Japhet. His gun does not shake like mine.
And then the snapping of dried branches breaks the silence.
“Hold until you see whites of eyes,” whispers Japhet.
The footsteps are getting louder and we can hear voices coming from every direction. We are surrounded. Flashes of light shoot through the leaves. One rests on Japhet’s foot.
“Hold until you see whites of—”
I whip my gun around…but I see no one except Japhet’s father, who drops his gun to the floor and hurries over to his son’s dead body.
The footsteps are here and I hold my wobbling gun up. The light intensifies. I see the whites of eyes and know I should shoot, but I can’t. I will die. I will die, but I can’t shoot.
“Jessica! Don’t shoot! Jessica!” It’s Peter and he is with Alison and the two Arrow Boys who are holding flashlights up to my face.
I shield my eyes then look to Japhet and his father and drop the gun. Alison goes to Japhet’s father, whose body shakes as he shrieks uncontrollably. Japhet’s eyes are open, staring at me from the floor, while blood pours through the side of his head, mixing with the dirt. Peter picks my gun up and kneels beside me. I pull away.
He’s killed his own son.
My brain is spinning. The tears flood over me carrying with it the familiar images stained in my mind: I can see blood in the bathroom, on the sink, on the floor, on the toilet, and I can see it all through the shower curtain. I am watching the man I love die and begging the man inside me to call for help…
Peter pulls me from the safe house. I don’t resist. Cool air reaches my sweat, but it hardly registers. I feel numb. I shake my head, but the images won’t leave me. Past and present chase each other around and around and around.
“Stop!” I cry. “Stooop!” And finally the carousal screeches to a halt. Peter stops pulling.
I shake my head. He’s killed his own son.