On November 8th 1980 I was in Rumbek. It was a Saturday. The previous day an Intermediate School boy had been injured by the northern shopkeeper he worked for, in an argument over his weekly wage of about £1. The town had been closed down, but everything seemed to have blown over. I took a walk out of town on the road to Pachong, looking for some peace in nature, as I often did. The road could be quite busy with people walking or sometimes cycling between town and the main Dinka Agar villages. I wrote this in my notebook and finished it when I got back home.
An inspiration took me out this morning to find the best piece of bush I've yet walked in. There are still people about, a lady out getting wood and some boys with cows, and the space between the road and the hard to penetrate long grass is small. But there are stacks of birds here, swallows that might have come from England, some lovely large trees and I've even seen a monkey, a Patas Monkey, the first I've seen here. And despite the noises of voices by the roadside and what sounds like gunfire from Rumbek in the distance I have some peace and privacy here and a little alone in the African bush.
Patas Monkey: Picture by Mila Zinkova, CC
And gunfire it was. As I walked away from the nice shady mound where I'd been sitting I soon found the road, where some girls ran half scared, half giggling away into the bush, "what happens when a white man comes out of the forest," as a passerby on a bike said. Coming back, I passed groups of Dinka sitting or standing under shade-trees talking animatedly and a schoolboy made a machine-gun sign to me. I passed a truck loaded with armed police hurtling along the road.
The details of the incident were never completely clear of course. This is what I wrote the next day.
It seems that, after the schoolboy died, another Arab stabbed another Intermediate School boy in the chest; then a mob surrounded a house with 3 Arabs including the culprit within, and the police couldn't control things; eventually the house was burned and the 3 Arabs speared by Dinka townsmen. Then there was a degree of chaos with shots being fired off, from different weapons in different quarters (this was what I heard from the forest). Two shops were burnt out and some looting done. Police and Arabs were the ones with guns. All the Arabs were rounded up in the Police Station where they stayed. First it was said six died, now it seems more like 4 with 2 critically ill. Last night was quiet, supposed to be curfew from 5pm to 9am, but people were out earlier this morning. A police lorry went round telling everyone to stay at home, and the electricity was on all day yesterday, but not this morning. Radio Juba only said that Monday was to be a public holiday for Islamic New Year.
On the Tuesday morning the school was closed while a search was undertaken, and rumours were circulating that the school would be closed until after Christmas. This was certainly false as the school did open on Wednesday as did the souk. However the classes were much emptier and some students started going to Wau to take part in sports. During the following weeks the school struggled on and by the end of the month the school was closed for Christmas. Some things were definitely getting worse. I had a stream of students coming to the door to complain about other teachers and their poor teaching. Teachers were spending more and more time drinking suku-suku, the local sugar-based spirit. The rainy season was finally blowing out and the once green land was turning brown. Women no longer brought little pieces of fruit to sell in town.
Southern Sudan was trying to be a democratic region at the time. There had been elections two years before which had been largely respected: there were Southerners in ministerial jobs and they had a degree of authority in their departments. The process was backed up by a radio station in Juba that broadcast political news in English. They were aiming at a model like Kenya's. There had been some problems about the Southern President, who at this time was Abel Alier, and he had taken over power in dubious circumstances. He had visited the school earlier in the year, but had stayed the night in the prison as that was where he felt safe. All this democracy of course was against the reality that the North held the real power. In Khartoum the elections had had no significance, and there nothing was ever officially announced until after the event, usually a long time after the event.