Dr. Geelhoed journal entry 14 Feb 2011 (part 1)

Series: 11-FEB-B-12



February 14, 2011


Weird. I just got up and had the same leisurely wakening with the rooster crowing and stood around with the others drinking coffee awaiting the new day. Why?

After a good series of tutorials and a plan of action for the coming week since it seems we will be still not getting the container any time soon, I turned in as I heard the generator still going as I looked at my watch and discovered that it was very late for that to be happening, almost 2:30 AM. A young dog was yipping incessantly at about 330 AM and John Sutter rolled over on his cot and said “Do me a favor and shoot that dog.” I got out in the cold light of the two thirds moon and peed, and came back to sleep for what I figured to be two hours. I awoke and looked at my watch—it was 6::15 AM, the time I usually hear the rooster crowing and a few birds chirping and I get on my running shoes and move out.

So, I did so. I had got out to the gate when I encountered the chained fence and everything locked up in the compound. I saw no guard. I saw no one. It is the cold light like an LED lamp with the outline of things and even a shadow on the ground behind me, but nothing clearly outlined, especially not the fence and its places where I might climb it. This could have been a good excuse to give up the run, but I continued, carefully selecting a place where I could climb over without getting torn up on the single strand of barbed wire on the tip tier of the fence. I made it over and figured I would not have to worry about repeating that in the dark since at least on my return after dawn, as usual, it would be open.

I turned on the illumined dial on my Iron Man watch and confirmed that it was now 6:25 AM and I could see that it was set for the chronometer, and shuffled off carefully picking the high and hard spots in the rutted road. The rainy season had done a real number on the road. It is this very spot in the road that was the best spot for catching big fish in the rainy season only four months before. The attempted passage of a vehicle had left ruts so deep as to lose major appliances let alone twist an ankle, especially in the dark. So I run along slowly with moves like advancing a foot to see the depth of the road in front of me—akin to wading into a river from the bank through murky water. I always start my run in the pre-dawn dark (which is why the Jonglei Marathon was so unusual, being the latest I have started a run out here with fears for the coming heat of the day.) It often takes the first half of the run, before the sky gets tinged with color, and that always happens dead east from the road making for good photos over the pond at Werkok on return, whereas on the way out I might hear the croaks of startled grey necked herons and the splash of the feeding tilapia in the pond being preyed upon by the stalking birds in the shadows. Almost always a stray dog will come out to sniff at me on the way through Werkok or a kid will see me and wave and chuckle or some sing that I am recognized for this weird behavior of running when no one is chasing. Especially through the pre-dawn dark.

Nothing. Not so much as a heron’s raspy croak. No sign of a dog. No kid. No notice of movement at the police outpost at Werkok. No woman carrying her twenty liter bidon to go for her twice daily chore from time immemorial of hauling water back to the tukul –as a mobile family appliance. No sign of life. It was still the black and white of moonlight, or more accurately, the grey and dim off-white of moon shadows. I focused on the heavily rutted road –a chiaroscuro of rugged peaks and valleys immediately ahead of me—conyonlands for a runner. It reminded me of the name for the terrain in South Dakota that was assigned by the early pioneers “The Badlands”—for “Bad land to cross.” It was not getting one faint lumen lighter.

I got out a half hour toward the tukul which marks the last in the “suburbs” of Werkok, and approached the barren bush where I had seen all the topi—the herds of antelope I had run through last year and had deceived Julie Cavallo into believing that the sound of the gunfire around us in this area was from antelope hunters, when it had, in fact, been the dawn opening salvo in the massacre of the twelve Dinka of whom ten died that day. I thought that the area is still as isolated, especially for a lone runner wearing a Jonglei Freedom Run white tee shirt which stands out like a glow-in-the-dark target, but it was even starker in contrast, since last night we could see this distant point from the MCH compound as a long rim of fire. This was the large fire front of the bush burning yesterday. I could see and smell the char along the road sides. It was here that I often turn at the thirty minute point for a one hour run.

I turned around and made it back, in the same cold light without a glimmer of improved visibility when I am usually going out in the dark and coming back in the dawn. I began to get the picture, but figured I would check it out when I returned to the gate which should no longer be locked if it is the usual 7:30 AM tie when the guard unlocks it. I got back to the cross ruts where the vehicles now cross the ruts of the road in front of MCH—the “Fishing Hole” from the rainy season in the roadway. I punched the watch to finish the run at an hour and turned the clock function back on—7:30 AM, just as predictable as sunrise. But, this time, the sun had not risen.

I picked a spot for the fence climbing, envisioning my self-getting ripped up by catching some part of my running shorts on the barbed wire as a visual picture to prevent that from happening by identifying by feel every sharp spot in the fencing before climbing it. I made it over with just a scrape on the left thumb. I came back in to the compound where no one stirred and even the ducks and the roosters were still somnolent. I crept back in where John was sound asleep and sat in bed without taking off the running shorts figuring to nap until the compound awoke.

When they awoke, it was four hours later. My watch now records 1:29 AM. Somehow, in pushing buttons in the dark, my watch had got re-set five hours ahead, and I had got out according to my Iron Man watch for a “Moonlit Midnight Run”—an early start for a good Monday operating day!


Ajak has returned after a weekend in Bor apologizing for a coincidence of absences and “distractions.” He reports that he will not detail the reasons for last year’ severe restrictions on his availability and the denouement of the involvements of his betrothal that had so unsettled last year. Despite its hopefulness, it appears that it had degenerated into the classic case of rivalry leading to both personal and public political disruption previously detailed in Feb-B-9. But now, this year’s visit has had another “incident” reminiscent of the “background” events“ of Murle/Dinka conflicts, both official and in banditry of the kind easier to sustain in a lawless environment. It is these very incidents that show how unlikely the official peace initiative brokered last year with the Murle officials in PiBor is so miraculous.

On this weekend, Ajak was enjoying a bit of the post-race glory in the wake of the successful first-ever Jonglei Freedom Run with his friend Madonki in Bor. It was close to midnight, that Madonki, Ajak, and a number of their Dinka friends were rallied as vigilantes to come to the aid of Madonki’s sister—too late, as it turned out. The whole region was under Murle surveillance. The sister was in a LOCKED tukul with a number of children at a village of Makwotchi (Sp?) between Bor and Werkok. It was midnight, and the sister of Madonki, Elizabeth by name, was a grandmother in her own right and had collected the children in the tukul and locked the door. The Murle bandits are after cattle and children, and had cased the area and knew that this tukul was inhabited by only women and children, both fair game. They tried to break through the door at midnight without success, so they set fire to the tukul. One of the children, hiding under the bed, a 6 year-old boy, began to scream. Elizabeth scooped him up in her arms and decided she was better off outside the door than inside the burning building and made a break to open the locked door. She was holding the child in her arms and was half in and half out of the tukul when the Murle outside gave the order to fire on anyone coming out. Elizabeth was shot through the head and killed instantly and her body was half burned, whether before or after the gunshot was unclear. The child was snatched from her in either event and has been kidnapped and not heard from further. That was the scene that greeted Ajak on arrival with a group of Dinka who had all armed themselves almost by osmosis, since AK 47’s were suddenly materialized and thrust upon them as they got into the vehicle. They had pledged that anyone on the road would be an enemy at that hour and no friend so they were going to come in shooting. But by some miracle, the roads were clear and they saw no one until they got to the burning tukul and saw the grisly scene.

Madonki, understandably, was out for blood and wanted to give chase and engage the perpetrators. Ajak prevailed in urging calm and foregoing vengeance. These are bandits and not official Murle who are under the embargo of violence in the promise made last year. The official Murle position would be as anti-violence as the Dinka involved since they both have a very great deal to lose—especially with the container of supplies and the promised medical education redevelopment overture about to arrive the very next week. It was difficult, but through the night, Ajak talked the hot blood of revenge for the death of an innocent sister and the kidnapping of a grandchild into passive acceptance, without revenge. We will bring up incidents of this type with the Murle Commissioner when we meet him next Monday and see if they can ferret out the perpetrators, and it can be expected that Murle officials will deal with such violence more harshly than even the posse of vigilantes let loose from the Dinka Bor might do since they have a lot more to lose if any such official condonation occurred of such lawless raiding for which the peace initiative was promised to prevent.

Figure and Ground: it would be easy to say that no mass violence has taken place between Murle and Dinka because the whole tenor of the time has changed and that the referendum might have brought about a reduction in violence. Yeah right! This incident underscores as the exception that proves the rule the tinder box crucible in which these two cattle cultures are in abrasive contact, and would be at each other’s throats in wholesale were it not for their mutual interest in improvement in health care to assure some improvement in their fertility. That would be not just for themselves, but also for their cattle—which they are not at all far from worshipping, using deity terms in the description of these beasts that put them into the “range wars” familiar to those who have romanticized the wild lawless West in the early USA.

My own relief is that Ajak was not caught up by chance association in a firefight. We have far too much to use and almost no reward from armed conflict between the groups we seek to serve as honest broker, and much as the USA in negotiating peace between the Arabia and Israeli sides in the Middle East, it often is seen as a No Win situation—a classic “self-fulfilling prophecy.” If Ajak had been caught up in a firefight by direct encounter with the “Dacoits” there would be NO benefit to the entire peace process that could result. As it is, he has gained some further currency as a peace broker by getting his close Dinka friends from foreswearing vengeance, even under the heavy goading of the provocation of the death of a sister of a close friend. It just may be true that “Every year Dr. Geelhoed comes by at a critical time of distraction by major events which could dissuade us from our ultimate goal, but we continue to seek the longer term benefit of a peaceful independence, rather than the shorter term balance of scores on a never-ending hostility scale that has plagued us for centuries.” It may be that the very distractions that befall Ajak on each of my visits are the very “cases in point” that add the credibility to the peace initiative and show that the likely outcome of peace and development is a contingency and can hardly be assumed as a given in automatic progress. It is hard. It is also worthwhile.


These reverent terms for the adulation of their cattle are indicators of the esteem in which these beasts are held. They are more than totems, as potent as those are in representative culture. It might be easy to trivialize this at a distance to say that I am over hear trying to resolve disputes between competitors for grazing or water rights. No. This is not trivial. An attack on owned cattle is an attack on the heart of the Culture, be it Dinka, Murle Nuer or Misereri or other Nilotic peoples with whom we are dealing. I can become frustrated in their fixation but that does not change it. Even a Dinka Lost Boy living in Fargo or Washington, or Grand Rapids, or Skaneateles or Atlanta or Edmonton is going to have the same fundamental currency for the things he most values—and that happens to be literally embodied in cattle. So, there is nothing trivial about an affront to the Murle or Dinka pride by saying it is just a squabble over livestock. It is as real as a half burned sister’s corpse and a missing six year old who is crying tonight in some strange tukul facing a life of change into a new language, a new culture, both revolving around the “God with a wet nose.”

Read More Stories