The boat dropped me off on a Sobat River sandbar. The Ethiopian border was fifteen miles away and if you looked on the map, you’d find my location to be on the southern edge of the Greater Upper Nile region. There were 600,000 displaced Sudanese on the march. The Mengistu government had fallen and all of the safe-haven camps on the border were now closed. The Sudanese had to go home and so they left by the hundreds of thousands, crying and complaining; grieving over the lost protection of Mengistu, who happened to be one of the world’s worst dictators at the time. He’d eventually be found guilty of genocide and the death of 2,000,000 people, but due to the winds of Africa, he would avoid arrest and float down to a luxurious life in Zimbabwe.
Poetry and music were of no help to the Sudanese fleeing Ethiopia. Thoughts about laughing with lovers, playing games and eating ice cream were useless. Getting ahead with a cushy job was simply not in the cards … no bank accounts, no reflections on plate-glass windows, no friends meeting at bars. The white world was on another planet. A few of them would become refugees and someday wake up drunk in a London flat or rush to punch a clock in the American mid-west, but that was going to happen only after betrayals, deaths, illness, starvation, and pure fucking luck.
As I watched the boat head up river to another gathering spot, I looked at the group of mothers and their babies. They were lying on the sand. Each mother with a baby, maybe two or three, I didn’t bother to count, and there were flies everywhere. The mothers tried to brush them away, but it was impossible and the babies became numb to the flies and the heat and there was not much anyone could do.
I will tell you a secret, maybe you know depending upon who you are, but when all hope is gone, people turn into wax or paper figurines, statues, cutouts. Everyone devoid of feeling. Masks for faces and fate is accepted, even for those who cannot speak, who can only breath. Politics are unknown to babies, yet they understand in the depths of their senses that there is no longer a reason to cry, to reach out, and they fall into an ice hole of hunger, they stretch themselves across the waterless ground, they wonder why mother is so distant. Their eyes are revelatory and their looks become cold beneath the sun.