Friday September 9 2016

VIDEO: The faces of South Sudan war part II

By Raymond Mujuni

When the bulletin opened that evening, a suited Brian Mulondo would inform the audience that in a short while, they would be connecting to us, who were, by now back to the Elegu border.

We had fidgeted with our machines in the dark and found a bank from where we tapped power to light up the set for the evening.

Kaweesa, my colleague, who doubled as the cameraman that evening kept gesturing at me to find the right position before the studio in Kampala switched to us.

Whenever NTV would come live to a location, the procedure was straight-jacket. You would power up a live unit machine and be ‘seen’ by the studio in Kampala first before they cleared you to go on air. A producer from the newsroom would call the producer on the location and you would go over the details of what you intended to say. Then, you would wire up an earphone through your back to the ear and from then on, the production team in Kampala ‘took over’.

I had gathered a couple of numbers on how many refugees had crossed the border and had heard the harrowing stories of how they escaped the fighting, which by now, was in its fourth day.

I would start the evening broadcast that day by giving details of how the situation at the border was. On the face of the screen, I looked confident and energised but on the inside was a frightening breakdown I was experiencing from hearing stories from the camp all day.

Immediately after the live broadcast, I received a phone call from someone who identified themselves as being from the UPDF. They said they had watched our story and were ready to ‘take us’ with them.

“Where is this you are taking us?” I asked.
“I cannot confirm to you, just be ready to go somewhere new,” he clarified and hang up the line.

My heart raced. I hadn’t been ready to go South Sudan, if that is what his idea of “somewhere new” meant. The highway was deadly. I had just filed a story of a Somali national gunned on the highway. I had heard of the various stories of planes being brought down and certainly all indications were, the escapade would be a deadly one.
We drove back to Gulu that night with back and forth phone calls with the newsroom in Kampala. Eventually, it boiled down to – if we could go, our newsroom had no problem with it.

We slept without a decision on it.
At about 4am, I was woken by a phone call, this time, from a private number. A deep baritone voice on the other end of the line said in quick succession “Boss, be at the 4th Division barracks in the next 15 minutes”.

I woke Kaweesa up and in a split second we decided, where it was they would take us, we were ready to go.
We drove to the barracks, strapping ourselves in bullet proof jackets along the way. Our car was always a mobile unit. Water bottles were spread underneath many seats, we kept cans of Redbull and packs of glucose biscuits too. One soldier at the gate, while checking, wondered if we were always war-ready.

The Fourth Division barracks made little impressions in the wee hours of the morning. Our car lights lit up a decaying wall at the entrance (called quarter-guard by the army). As the morning sun lit up more buildings, we began to get a feel of what was going on.
Army trucks were being readied, and soldiers ran around in drills. Some trucks were filled up with basins, jerrycans, and personal effects.

I kept dialing back the number that had called until - from the back of our car, three figures emerged. In the middle of two well-dressed soldiers, I noticed, Brigadier Kayanja Muhanga, under his green camouflage helmet.

Muhanga had commanded UPDF’s last incursion into South Sudan. He was a versatile soldier with a penchant for jokes. He liked to joke off many things. His tufts weighed heavy on his moustache and as he approached the car, his smile peered out.
“Raymond, these are your escorts,” he assigned soldiers as they hopped onto our pickup.
We exchanged pleasantries and it was in that moment that we learnt, we were bound for the war-ridden South Sudan capital of Juba.

We were driven to a detach in Bibia, which really was a makeshift stick blockade and a few huts and stationed there for much of the day.

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