Written in June 2011
The Vice President’s wife or, more to the point, one of the Vice Presidents wives owns a plot of land out the back of Juba. Well owns may be a bit of a stretch, as it appears that all someone in the Government has to do is declare a piece of land his and it is so. Who said running a military dictatorship doesn’t have its perks?? South Sudan might be running under the illusion of a freely elected leadership; however the ruling party are all Military Officers and tend to govern in this manner. Want to travel from your rather large compound to the airport?? No worries just get the army to close all the roads so you can get there without all the hassle of traffic. To be fair though they have just come through 20 odd years of war and the mistrust runs very deep here, so I guess a little healthy paranoia can be excusable.
Speaking of the Army closing roads I had a rather fun encounter with this. I had left my accommodation in order to get to the office to pay my deminers. After driving through at least 5 intersections I started to take notice that there were an awful lot of soldiers out this particular morning, far more than usual. I barely had time to ponder the reasons for this increase in activity when I was abruptly stopped at the next intersection. Normally I will drive through such things with a casual wave and an “It’s all right mate, I’m Australian.” however this particular soldier seemed a little more aggressive than usual and was actually pointing his AK-47 (they actually use the rather less robust Chinese rip-off but nobody knows that one) at me.
“Go back!” I was told rather sternly.
“I’m trying to get to work mate, what’s going on??” I enquired rather politely. Nothing brings out the polite in me like having the wrong end of a weapon pointed in my direction.
“Go back!” came the reply, a little more forcefully this time.
I wasn’t really expecting a lucid response. Most of the Sudanese in the lower ranks of the Army don’t speak English and as my Sudanese Arabic is limited to “Hello, thank you, good morning, how are you, stop and white man” I felt that the conversation could deteriorate quite rapidly. So I turned my vehicle around and started heading back to my accommodation. This was where I ran into problems, as the 5 or so intersections I had travelled through before without trouble were now all closed and manned by rather pissed off looking soldiers.
“Go back!” I was told, once I reached the next checkpoint. I tried crudely explaining that the soldier at the checkpoint 50m behind me had told me that exact same thing and I was now trying to get back home like a good boy.
“Go back!”, again a little more menacing this time. Juniour ranking soldiers rarely know what is going on, especially in this part of the world and I am sure they had been told that nobody was to come through their particular intersection, no matter what. So I turned around and went back to the first soldier I encountered.
“Go back!” only this time rather pissed off. I tried explaining my predicament in the only way westerners know how to talk to people that don’t converse in English. By speaking slower, louder and using rather amusing but pointless hand gestures.
“Go back!” so I did. In fact I parked half way between the two checkpoints and started to ponder my next move. I was just considering taking a quick nap in the car until whatever the hell the road was closed for had finished happening when there was a tap on my window.
“You can’t stay here, move!” once again reinforced by pointing a gun at me. I would be quite happy to oblige these people without the threat of having part of my head removed by a high velocity bullet, but it obviously gets the job done because people rarely argue. So I was now stuck between two checkpoints and not allowed to sit in the middle. This I felt would need drastic action so I headed back towards my accommodation again, reached the checkpoint and got out of the car.
If you are ever in South Sudan and get stopped at a randomly set up checkpoint manned by pissed off soldiers in the early morning, my advice to you is to stay in the vehicle. I swear these boys reacted as if I had just rolled out of my window and started popping caps into asses like a Bruce Willis movie. It was time, I felt, to turn on the charm.
“It’s all right mate, I’m Australian. I just need to get back to my accommodation and we can put this whole mess behind us.” I said, with my best I’m really not here to mess you up smile plastered across my face and my hands raised. I then squatted down, ignored the ever increasing number of weapons and shouting Sudanese surrounding me and tried drawing a map in the dirt to explain my dilemma. Fortunately an Officer was amongst this group and wandered over casually with a rather large grin on his face.
“Good morning” he said in flawless English “You are not allowed to pass through the checkpoints. You need to stay in your house”.
“That’s great mate” I replied, thankful to talk to the only person who wasn’t actively wondering if they would get into trouble, or a promotion, for shooting me in the line of duty. “But I am trying to get back to my house now. I just need to get there and I’ll stay put I promise.”
“Where are you staying” he inquired.
“The Bedouins, it’s just down the road on the corner.”
“OK my friend, you may pass through, please hurry and have a nice day.”
So I was through, I was really happy with this outcome until I hit the next checkpoint a further 50m down the road,
I took my the best part of an hour to travel the 250m back to where I was staying, I ended up going back to the Officer who had let me through the first time and asking him to help me to get the rest of the way back. He found this quite funny and was rather enjoying being the man who helped the stupid white boy get home. I bought him a beer for that one. And the reason for the road closure?? They wanted to search all the foreigners in town to make sure we didn’t have any weapons on us. As I said the mistrust runs rather deep between North and South Sudan and the government was worried that the North had planted a western assassin in town to take out key party members during the independence celebrations.
Any way this plot of land owned by the Vice President’s wife was being used as cultivated land. She had decided she would spend some time planting different crops to see what would work best for this part of the world. This is actually a commendably sensible approach to agriculture and one that should be taken up everywhere. I have never been able to understand why they plant rice in Australia, for example, the driest continent on Earth.
So things were going along swimmingly until the tractor being used to plough the field struck and detonated an Anti-Tank Mine. These are the bigger cousins to the Landmine and operate on the same principle. When enough pressure is exerted onto either the pressure plate or tilt rod, the device functions and creates all kinds of mayhem to the unlucky vehicle currently attempting to traverse its position. Now these mines are designed to take out and disable tanks and other heavily armoured vehicles, so you can imagine the damage it would do to a tractor. (Incidentally it takes about 95kg of pressure to activate some AT mines so if you are a heavy individual, or are carrying a rather large pack then you could be in for a bad day). This particular driver was incredibly lucky in that the front wheel of the tractor functioned the mine, so the majority of the blast was taken by the engine. He managed to live, and keep all his parts intact, but I have no idea just what state he got to hospital in. I was then tasked with destroying another AT mine that was uncovered but hadn’t functioned. Normally we would defuse these and keep then for their excellent explosive fill found on the insides, however we had been told to destroy it. So I wandered out, fitted my charge, came back to a safe area and made it disappear in a rapidly expanding ball of destruction. Nice and easy.
We later found out the reason why we needed to destroy this particular mine. For it seems they were hell bent on proceeding with the ploughing of this land before the rains really kicked in. The only minor inconvenience they were encountering was these pesky AT mines. As we had discovered two of them in a line we could safely assume that there was a line of AT mines in this particular patch of ground. (I am sure I have told you before, but my job is not rocket science!) We therefore wanted to start doing some exploring to ascertain if there was any more threat to the local population in this field. As this was going to delay the ladies plans, they put another tractor into the field in order to continue ploughing whilst we weren’t there. This second tractor however was not so lucky and detonated a mine with his back wheel. This caused the explosion to travel up through the seat on which the driver was sitting and scatter parts of him over a rather large area. This second tractor was discovered the next day by Uran who had been given the job of investigating the area.
Now while the clean-up of this job was less than fun, the local authorities were far more concerned with retrieving the remains of the tractor and continuing with the work. It was pointed out that now they had lost two tractors and one man that maybe they should put a halt to proceedings until Uran could declare the area safe.
“No way” came the reply. “There are only 6 mines in this area and we have already found three so it is safe. We must keep working.” It took high level meetings to convince the VP’s wife to put a halt to things. She was convinced that no more accidents would happen and that she should be allowed to continue. I believe Derek suggested that if she was that confident perhaps she could drive the next tractor through the field. She relented at that.
Russian TM-46 Anti-Tank Mine
What happens when you drive a tractor over one.
At the last count I think Uran had found 26 AT mines in that area. All destroyed in a big explosion to prove a point to the locals.
This shit is dangerous.