Story Publication logo June 29, 2007

Tolerance for Risk

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English

Gabriel Deng, Koor Garang and Garang Mayuol, Southern Sudanese "Lost Boys" in the U.S., were forced...

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David Morse, for the Pulitzer Center

There was no armed convoy leaving Kakuma for Lokichokio this morning, so we left the sprawling refugee camp the way we had arrived - by taxi. The harrowing drive along the two-lane blacktop began. Garang, who has the longest legs, was in the front passenger seat, and the other four of us were crowded into the narrow back seat, as the taxi driver sped past Turkana tribes people herding goats or carrying loads of firewood on their heads, increasing his speed whenever he could to 140 kph along the straightaways and negotiating the occasional S-curves with the aplomb of a professional race car driver, knowing that our safety lay in speed.

To drive at any less than maniacal speed on this section of highway is to court banditry.

It occurred to me with some irony that after a month in Sudan, where so often it seems that human life hangs by a thread, this 90-something kilometer stretch highway was possibly the most dangerous for us.

Every seemingly random obstacle - the cattle or camels lumbering across the road - every muddy detour from the blacktop, could enable a hijacking. The shepherds all carry Kalashnikovs. Hence the advice to travelers to ride in armed convoys.

And now, having taken off from Loki and arrived here in Nairobi, where we will spend the next few days before making the final leg of the trip back across the Atlantic to JFK - now maybe it's safe to talk about physical risk and what it means in the context of this trip.

Yes, there was risk. There were the risks we knew about, the water-borne parasites, the militias still operating in South Sudan, the bandits, the opalescent snake the color of abalone that I could have stepped on running across a field in an effort to startle white herons from a tree so Jen would have them on film. And there were the risks we could not know, the risks that inhabit any field of choice, wherever we are in the world.

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting is set up partly to help journalists negotiate some of the S-curves of crisis reporting. Included was an insurance policy of the sort I wished I had the last time I went to Sudan. There is also the sense of an organization that knows your whereabouts, and for independent journalists and filmmakers that offers some modicum of security.

This said, what I want to emphasize that for all of us who made this trip - the three young men and their hangers-on - our situation was something we freely chose.

And though it should go without saying, I will say it anyway because it is something that has impressed itself on me powerfully on this trip. Most people of the world do not have that luxury of choice. They risk their lives every day because of bad water, nonexistent medical facilities, malnutrition, and the commonplace killers like Malaria that surround them.

A young man of twenty, a refugee at Kakuma named Akot, told me how he had seen his parents killed before his eyes, how he had fled to Kakuma. How badly he wants an education. And he is afraid. Every day it seems the security situation in Kakuma deteriorates. As refugees are resettled, as the camp loses population, security becomes more critical. Recent months have increasingly seen raiders from outside the camp attack those within, stealing and murdering. Most of the raiders are Turkana, themselves malnourished and angry at the resources allotted to the refugees.

A mother of three children tells us that she has decided to move to Akon. I am touched upon learning from Garang that it was partly his own corroboration of the new clinic built by Jumpstart Sudan that prompted her to put her name on the waiting list for repatriation. She apparently sees the clinic - 'our' clinic, the one we helped supply with medicine - as a harbinger of some improvement in Akon. It seems such a slender hope. What is disquieting, though, is that she fears Kakuma camp, the violence and the lack of opportunities for her children.

Risk. Our choice. Other people's choicelessness.

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