Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Places can have such cruel histories. Rivers of blood, cities of fire, deserts of bone: these are not romantic locations in a sword and sorcery novel. They are concise descriptions of reality in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and Yemen. It wasn’t always the case. Before the rivers turned to blood, the cities burned and the deserts filled with bone, there were villages where generations grew up and passed on, where men and woman married and had children, where there was as much joy as grief, as much boredom as drama. We’re not talking paradise, just life.
So much of geography is sadness.
Mention Sudan to anyone who pays attention to international news, and the response is predictable. A shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulders, and what else to say? This week, several aid agencies spread the word that civil war may return to a country that has just begun to recover from the previous one, a 22-year struggle between Muslims in the north and Christians and animists in the south. That civil war claimed the lives of an estimated two million people.
The general cause for concern, as so often in Africa, is an election, the first multi-party elections in 24 years. In the wake of those elections, next year, Sudanese will have the chance to vote in a referendum to decide whether or not to remain a single country. People in the south have always voiced skepticism that the government in Khartoum would allow a legal secession, and given the track record of government-sponsored terror against tribes in the south for decades, it seems the only sane position.
More immediate anxiety stems from continued violence in the region. Around 2500 people were killed last year in various smaller conflicts. It’s not hard to imagine the outbreak of a larger war in a place that already suffers from a palsy of lesser skirmishes. To get a sense of what that might mean, I finally picked up a copy of Dave Eggers What is The What, published in 2006, a tale of survival that is both unbearably sad and surprisingly uplifting.
It’s a story about lost boys, or rather, the Lost Boys, as the group of children who escaped the war by walking out of Sudan and into Ethiopia came to be known. Eggers gives voice to the story of Valentino Achak Deng, who came to the United States after his ordeal in Africa and found himself in a bizarre, labyrinthine exile. Deng is the very real narrator, but Eggers fleshes out his account with a novelist’s eye for detail and dialogue.
I opened this post with a few words about rivers, cities and deserts because my son won his geography bee last night and got me to thinking about the world he will inherit, but also because one passage in What is The What has stayed with me and won’t let go, an account of a slaughter on the Gilo River. Some of the questions in the bee touched fleetingly, like the hand of an angel, on places where unspeakable events occur every day. Eggers book brings the horror and the humanity out of the shadows.
In this excerpt, the inhabitants of a refugee camp in Ethiopia are forced at gunpoint to leave, and in the ensuing chaos a massacre begins:
“The area near the river was marshy and the group was soaked, wading through the heavy water. The river, when we arrived, was high and moving quickly. Trees and debris flew with the current. The first shots seemed small and distant. I turned to follow the sound. I saw nothing, but the gunfire continued and grew louder. The attackers were nearby. The sounds multiplied, and I heard the first screams. A woman up the river spat a stream of blood from her mouth before falling, lifeless, into the water. She had been shot by an unseen assailant, and the current soon took her toward my group. Now the panic began. Tens of thousands of us splashed through the shallows of the river, too many unable to swim. To stay on the bank meant certain death, but to jump into that river, swollen and rushing, was madness.”
Scenes like the one above are not fictions. They tend to happen when the rule of law gives way, and the rest of the world averts its eyes. To the extent possible, in a difficult time, we should all be keeping our eyes on events in southern Sudan.
There are plenty of happy geographies, of course.
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