…Rumours of Lucy, Gbenga, and I leaving Jonglei State, and of Lucy and I being seen downing a few gin and tonics in Juba while toasting the women carriers of Haat are true, but not of us leaving South Sudan. We fly into Juba on a Wednesday, and are back in the field on Thursday and Friday in the Khor William and Lologo neighbourhoods where we carried out our one day wellfield reconnaissance survey in what seemed a lifetime ago.
These neighbourhoods of Lologo and Khor William were chosen for our urban water exploration program by ICRC public health monitors. They determined there is a high need based on tracking of outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, typhus, and cholera. The crowded hand pumps and continual parade of Nile River-bound bicycles, wheelbarrows, and foot traffic all carrying jerry cans and buckets is clear testimony to the inadequate water supply.
Besides the urban setting, the hilly topography, the hydrogeology and geology are completely different and half a billion years older than in the Upper Nile Basin sediments where we have been working in the north, in Jonglei. Juba is a continuation of the African crystalline basement aquifers that I am so familiar with from Acholiland in Northern Uganda.
In fact, our Juba data sets look very similar to those of our 2018 Geoscientists Without Borders program in Uganda, and are easily interpreted. We confidently site a number of new wells and improved locations for existing wells. We also site a potentially high yield production well in thick, weathered crystalline rock that is in close proximity and we interpret/assume/hope is hydraulically connected to the Nile River.
After covering the neighbourhoods of Khor William and Lologo, we carry on to St. Augustine and Block 4. Of course we can drive to the sites, which now feels a bit like cheating, but allows us to accomplish a lot with a smaller crew. We hire men and women from the communities. Local community leaders, the drivers, and John and Philip from ICRC’s Juba Water Rehabilitation team also jump in to guide us through the neighbourhoods and lend a hand. We complete all the geophysical survey lines on our checklist in a week.
In the neighbourhood of St. Augustine, the children are out of school as it is exam week. I scramble a bit of Arabic and English with my dozen Acholi words and an even smaller vocabulary of Nuer to chat with the kids while the automated data acquisition does its thing. There is a fierce frenzy of jump rope happening on the acquisition line. I am grateful that we are not doing any seismic surveys and I don’t have to recruit a local bully to shout “quiet on the line” in multiple languages and shut down all the fun.
It is startling how well the children in these multi-ethnic neighbourhoods seem to play together, cooperate, interact with adults, and carry on with their chores. Somehow I doubt that Salva Kiir or his Cabinet have taken a stroll through any of these neighbourhoods, for they certainly could learn a thing or two. In fact, it is unlikely that the children of any senior members of the government are even to be found in South Sudan…try London, the United States, or perhaps Kampala.
I have heard all the snappy clichés from foreigners. “It’s not a country with an army…it’s an army with a country..”…”it’s not a failed State, as it never became a real State…”…etc. Personally, I am getting to like South Sudan and its people. The conclusions of our report will be limited to siting water wells; but from my limited experience here, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a country very much worth saving.
Today was our last field day in the wetlands of the Sudd, and tonight is our last night, assuming the helicopter arrives as scheduled. You may think I will not miss waking up at night covered in soldier ants, the evening choice between sitting outside with malarial mosquitoes or cocooning in a sauna-like tent, bucket showers of swamp water while being devoured by various other biting insects, putrid pit latrines, instant coffee, 40+ degree heat and 100% humidity, unemployed young men with AK47s, “footing it” (African for trekking) through flooded wetlands, etc.
Actually, I do enjoy a few of the above, at least occasionally, including bucket showers and the swamp walks. The guns simply become part of the scenery and are evidence of why we are here.
What I will miss and remember is traveling 1300 km by helicopter, 450 kilometers by boat, and 250 km on foot through pristine wetlands and seeing almost no evidence of a human hand... being in a riverine environment where the only moving boats, besides our ICRC speedboats, are dugout canoes and reed rafts...the dawn ritual of letting the livestock out of the giant tukul barns, and guiding them through smoky pyres of burning dung to drive away the insects…and not a single match was used to light those fires....extraordinarily friendly and helpful villagers....toddlers crying because they have never seen a white person...flleeing, and then curious youngsters who crowded around every drone flight...learning about a place that I never even knew existed....the incredibly strong, gracious, and handsome women of Haat that did, well, just about everything that required muscle and patience. …and of course the tremendous camaraderie that was created among our Nuer, British, Nigerian, and Canadian team.
That camaraderie almost fractured when GBenga, our logistics officer, was passed the word from the Thuraya satellite phone that our return flight would be postponed as the helicopter would have to overnight in Akobo. He exploded into a fit of completely unintelligible, heavy accented Yoruba Nigerian English, and a wailing for Juba as if it was the Jerusalem of East Africa. Out of mercy, the prank was exposed.
In the morning we boat 30 minutes upstream to Yaakuach. Unfortunately, it has the two types of people I am simply forbidden to photograph, and in abundance. As we approach the bordering wetlands, there are perhaps 50 or so naked boys seemingly frolicking in the wetlands. I then realize they are diving to cut and yank out marsh plants to clear a narrow canal for our two boats to enter. There is the usual large village entourage to greet us and get a good laugh when I debark and nearly do a faceplant in the mud. GBenga can pull out the dance moves to break the ice; I just need my own innate clumsiness.
Besides naked boys, photographing any type of military is forbidden. Yaakuach is full of rebel soldiers, largely hanging around waiting for progress in moving to a transitional government and a unified military.
The acknowledged two most challenging conditions of maintaining the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement are integrating the Nuer and Dinka under a single military command structure, and the establishment of State boundaries. The current and only government South Sudan has ever had wants to maintain the current 10 States which will maximize the demographic advantage of the larger Dinka population. The opposition wants to break up the States into 32 smaller States, and thus decentralize the power of Salva Kiir, the President.
Of course, an even more fundamental problem is that the President, Salva Kiir, is associated with the ethnically and politically driven ethnic cleansing and mass murder of his own population, while the leader of the opposition, Riek Machar, has a similar resume. In both 2013 and 2016, the Kiir government attempted to kill Machar, even while he was officially Vice President. The bullet holes in the compound wall shared by ICRC and the Presidential residence suggest that the feelings are mutual.
There is no flag flying in Yakuach, but there are an anomalous number of young men, some wearing an assortment of uniforms, and a few carrying AK47s. If there is any doubt about who is a rebel and who is a villager, I simply have to reach for my camera and Buzbon, our ICRC Nuer South Sudanese Protection Officer, gives me the eye and a few words. Flags can be misleading as some rebel groups have no flag, others have their own motif, while still others fly the official flag of South Sudan.
We run a 600 m survey directly through the village and well into the bush. Like every other village, Yaakuach has no water source other than the wetlands. Unlike other villages, though, the sanitation here is unusually atrocious, with few or no latrines.
While carrying out the geophysics survey, I GPS our line locations and a few village landmarks – paths, trees, shoreline, fences – so as any proposed drilling locations can be easily located. We will later overlay all our line locations on to Google Earth for easy georeferencing. But with the flux of people abandoning the villages during the violence, others returning (“returnees”) from the North after independence, and the general cycle of repair and disrepair of the village tukuls, the village architecture on the ground can vary quite rapidly. So as to have access to the most current urban plan, I quickly collect drone imagery at each location. Surprisingly, the Yakuach village leaders OK a quick flight as long as I fly well away from the village center and a few hundred meters up where the sound of the drone cannot be heard.
We return to Chuil for a lunch of Nile Perch and rice, and then head downriver to Wuneget.
“Are you a journalist?” The customs officers in the ramshackle arrival terminal in Juba, South Sudan, ransacked through our 10 bags of cables and electronics, but their only concern seemed to be my cameras. Think quick and try the truth, I thought. No country in civil war likes journalists I reasoned. “No, I am here on a mission with the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide water to villages in Jonglei State…I need photographs to document our locations for drilling.” Though I thought I did a good job hedging my bets, I chose the wrong door. I was informed that only journalists are allowed to take photographs. Fortunately, ICRC local staff showed up, and with a bit of negotiation and a few phone calls, we were on our way.
It had been about 48 hours of planes, airports, and little sleep to get to Juba, but it was straight to the Air Ops to weigh our bags for a two hour helicopter trip north to Haat in Jonglei State. Prosthetic limbs on a pallet also heading north did not reinforce my confidence, already a bit shaky with the fatigue, heat, time changes, and the general state of affairs here in the world’s youngest of the 193 countries at the UN. It is the country also predicted to most likely fail. Famine, floods, war, and especially weak governance are a bad combination.
I was informed, apologetically, that we were 200 kg over capacity for the helicopter. My colleague Lucy’s first reaction was to cut some of the equipment. No way, as all those duffle bags provide the only reason we are here. And we are only about 375 kg total, including our body weights, so we were not even close. I would rather they cut the food and water. We let logistics figure it out and carried on with our other preparations. We will see what happens on takeoff in the morning, though the prospect of ending up like John Garang, the rebel and founding political leader who died in a helicopter crash in 2005, was in the back of my mind.
How does one find and map mass graves from more than 75 years ago? As with Daesh (aka IS or ISIS or the Islamic State) and the Yazidis, the Nazis were both thorough and secretive. In many of the shtetls (small Jewish villages of Eastern Europe) of Lithuania, there were simply no survivors to provide eyewitness accounts. 174 Holocaust mass graves have been documented in Lithuania by the Catholic Priest Patrick Desbois, more than 200 by the Jewish community in Lithuania, and there are likely many more undocumented mass burials. What survivors that may still be alive today would certainly have been very young in the period of 1941 through 1944. Similar to the situation of the marooned astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) faced on Mars, we are simply “going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Each site will be quite different, but we have laid out a multi-step process for ourselves. We will try to throw everything at the first and largest of these sites, Fort IX in Kaunas, where an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 Jews were executed. And in some ways, the approach will not be much different from any old geoscience investigation.
When the Soviets had the German Army retreating into the Baltics in 1944, the Luftwaffe carried out intensive aerial photography over Lithuania and elsewhere along the Russian front. The Western allies captured about 1,250,000 of these photos, and all were declassified after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. So, air photo interpretation is an early step.
Reading testimonies, interviews, and eyewitness accounts is a second step. In Fort IX, not only do we have the accounts of the 64 Jewish slaves from the 1943 Christmas day escape, but we have other obscure but astounding accounts such as “The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry.” The Black Book is a collection of diaries, testimonies, and letters compiled during the war by two accomplished Russian authors, Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman.
At Fort IX, in the 1960’s, the Lithuanians carried out limited excavations of the mass graves, and even assembled a map of the burial trench layouts…though without a scale, coordinates, or even the cardinal directions. We (actually, a Lithuanian Professor in Calgary) are presently translating the excavation notes, and trying to make sense of the maps.
From July 8 through 13, we hope to throw everything we have, geophysically, at the euphemistically Nazi termed “battlefield” of Fort IX…an air and ground assault….radar, magnetics, resistivity, electromagnetics, sensors flown from drones, etc…
At Fort IX, there will be no excavations, but we hope to do a soil geochemistry program that will act as a proxy for exposing human remains, something that is forbidden in any of the Jewish Holocaust burials. By correlating the testimonies to the air photos to the limited excavations of the 1960’s, and all of that to the geophysical images and soil chemistry, we are hopeful that we can precisely delineate the 15 burial trenches described by the surviving members of the Burning Brigade.
Seequent, whose 3D geological visualization software we (Alastair McClymont, Colin Miazga, Eric Johnson, Paul Bauman, Chris Slater) used for our 2017 water exploration program in the Rohingya Refugee Camps of Bangladesh, wrote a short piece looking back at the project for World Water Day. What is particularly nice about the article, though, is that they embedded some of the 3D visualization interfaces so anyone can take a spin and not only get a sense of the process, but take a look at some of the geology, geophysics data, existing water wells, and aerial drone imagery as well. The link to the article is:
Of course Alastair, Colin, Chris, and myself are hurriedly preparing for our departure to Lithuania and Poland this Saturday, July 6. And Eric is girding himself to do all the work that we will be avoiding while we are in Europe.
Our Geoscientists Without Borders project has expanded beyond the mass grave mapping in Lithuania to a few truly iconic sites within the boundaries of what was the Warsaw Ghetto. Poland is planning to begin building a Warsaw Ghetto Museum in September, and is scheduled to complete the museum by 2023, 80 years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The very fact that the museum is being built within the perimeter of what was the largest Jewish Ghetto in Europe at a time that is now a very politically sensitive period in Poland has placed the project under great scrutiny. As such, we will be investigating the grounds in a pre-construction survey to find what "features" may still exist before excavations begin.
I have not seen the plans of the museum, but after taking in a wonderful Canada Day Klezmer concert in Invermere with Frank Rackow and Frank Rackow and The Black Sea, one early suggestion would be for the Warsaw Ghetto Museum to expand their three language explanations (Polish, Hebrew, and English) to four, by including Yiddish of course.
From 1941 to 1944, about 45,000 Jews were shot and buried alive in fourteen 100 m long trenches here at Fort IX in Kaunas (or Kovno in Yiddish), Lithuania. The killing continued until 75 years ago, almost to the day, as the Kovno Ghetto was liquidated from July 8 through 13, 1944. Even after three years of mass murder and deportations, there were still 30,000 or so Jews living in the Ghetto. About 400 survived the liquidation.
"Liquidation" meant blowing up every brick building, block by block, and setting fire to the wooden buildings and whatever else was standing on July 12, 1944. Later photographs of the Ghetto showed only scattered chimneys remaining. This final act of destruction of the ghettos, the Lithuanian Jewish community, and much of the remains of an entire culture was precipitated by the approaching Soviet army and the Nazi's perverted persistence in completing the evil task they had set for themselves. Few Lithuanians, though, would describe the Russians and the 45 following years of oppression as liberators or liberation.
Wednesday, July 10, and today, Thursday, July 11, thirteen of us have been trying to figure out exactly where the burial trenches are at Fort IX, how the site was altered by the Soviets after "liberation," and what methods are effective in identifying and mapping mass graves.Geoscientists Without Borders is the main supporter of our work, along with University of Hartford Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studieswho have supported us in past projects. Alastair McClymont, Colin Miazga, Paul Bauman, and Chris Slater are the four lead geophysicists from Advisian - Worley Group. Harry Jol and his six undergraduate students from the UWEC (University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire) are here to learn with as well as to assist us as co-investigators. The students are in the departments of Environmental Geography and Geospatial Studies. Dean of Science from Duquesne University, Dr. Phil Reeder, a cartographer by training, is helping with the mapping. And Professor Richard Freund, formerly from the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, and recently relocated to Christopher Newport University in Virginia, is the historian and archaeologist providing an overall direction to this project. Paul Bauman Geophysics is of course providing, at no cost, an unusually large suite of geophysics instruments....18 pieces of 23 and 32 kilograms in fact. Every day feels a bit like a university field school, except instead of looking for minerals or oil, we are mapping what I like to think of as history.
Josie Bauman Photography is not only documenting our work, but providing some documentation of artifacts and journals in the Fort IX archives, and shooting some photographs to promote the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto, being memorialized this weekend at the Ninth Fort.
Over the next few days, there may appear the largest concentration of "Litvaks," that is, Jews of Lithuanian origin, anywhere in the world outside of Israel or the United States.
Yesterday, while we were working, an elderly but robust man with a group of 25 or so much younger people interrupted me to ask what we were doing. I was very pleased to lower the 25 kilogram lead marine battery from my shoulders and to describe our project. I assumed he was a tour guide and Kovno Ghetto survivor. I was wrong. Of the 5000 or so Jews who were imprisoned in the Siauliai (Shavli in Yiddish) Ghetto to the north of Kaunas, he was one of about 500 that survived the liquidation, was transported by train to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, and survived that as well. He was traveling through Kaunas on his way to the 75th year commemoration of the liquidation of the Shavli Ghetto also in July 1944. He was accompanied by, and leading his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
We carried out geophysical and drone imagery surveys at Fort 9 in Kaunas last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, July 10 through 12. But we drove the 90 minutes back to Kaunas and Fort 9 on the Sunday for the commemoration of the liquidation of the Kaunas (Kovno in Yiddish) Ghetto 75 years ago.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and entered Lithuania. One day later, on June 23, the Germans entered Kovno, leaving no time for the City’s Jewish population of 35,000 to flee. On July 10, the mayor and military commander of Kovno declared the establishment of a Jewish Ghetto in the impoverished suburb of Slobodka on the north side of the Neris river from Kovno. The Jewish population of Slobodka swelled from 6,000 to 35,000.
As a ghetto, the Jews were sequestered as slave labour in horrendously overcrowded conditions. In late October of 1943, the conditions became much worse when the Germans transformed the Ghetto into a concentration camp. As a concentration camp, any fantastical Nazi pretenses of cloistering Jews for their own protection were discarded. The very young and elderly were transported to Auschwitz and gassed. 2,800 young men and women were deported to slave labour camps Estonia. Only Jews capable of working, were kept alive in the Ghetto.
At the same time of the transformation of the Kovno Ghetto into a concentration camp, the Nazis used 64 Jews from the Ghetto, from Jewish POWs in the Red Army, and fromJewish partisan groups, to begin to exhume the 50,000 or so mass burials at Fort 9, to burn the bodies, to crush the bones, and to bury or scatter the ashes.
As Soviet forces approached Kaunas, and being intent on not leaving a single Jew alive of the surviving 8,000, the Germans found resources to deport remaining Jews to the Dachau and Stutthof concentration camps. On July 11, the Germans began to systematically destroy Kovno, shooting anyone that tried to flee the Ghetto. On July 12, they set Kovno on fire. Each of the approximate 400 survivors had stories of hiding themselves in secret spaces (malinas) dug below the floors or in basements, smuggling themselves out of the Ghetto, or simply fleeing on foot. The Red Army entered Kovno on August 1, 1944.
At the ceremony, a few survivors of the Kovno Ghetto, largely from Israel, returned to the killing site at Ninth Fort where we have been working, and where the ceremony was held. There were also a few hundred children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of these survivors. Many Lithuanians, including from Kaunas, from the Fort 9 Museum, and from the government were also present.
Of all the speeches…and of course we understood none of the Lithuanian, very little of the Yiddish, most of the Hebrew…the most powerful for me was from the first resident Ambassador from Israel to Lithuania, Amir Maimon. Besides speaking in English, Maimon also gave a personal anecdote which clearly explained why we were carrying out geophysical surveys at this place of death. Some time earlier Maimon had come to Fort 9 with his son. “I saw with my very own eyes a newly married couple coming here to take pictures. How can it be that a couple, on the happiest day of their lives, come to this place of tragedy. The answer is very simple; they simply do not know.” And so here we are, trying to better understand, if not why, at least exactly where these mass murders and burials occurred, so that they can be demarcated, protected, memorialized, and perhaps serve as a cautionary narrative.
Yesterday, August 25th, I was at the computer preparing a talk for a Symposium at Duquesne Universisty on Global Sustainability. My working title is: “Water, Refugees, and Geophysics – Are Humanitarian Water Problems 'Our' Problems?” Nevertheless, when WhatsAPP started buzzing on my phone, and I saw the call was coming from Bangladesh, I still had to think for a moment whether or not this was "My" problem.
On a very scratchy connection, that might as well have been coming from a phone under water in a monsoon flooded ravine in a remote corner of Bangladesh, was Sattar Islam Nirob. Sattar is a Rohingya aid worker and Rohingya youth representative (to UNHCR). We met in Cox’s Bazar in November, 2017.
Being Canadian, my first question of course was “how is the weather?” The monsoon rains had stopped for the moment.
He had called to remind me of the 1 year anniversary of the August 25, 2017 beginning of the latest round of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the mass exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, the murders, the rapes, the orphans, and the protests. “What protests?” I asked. And what are they asking for? Sattar said thousands of men and women were protesting in the camps, requesting not for food nor housing, but with only two demands…secure human rights, and international protection. “Send me pictures?” I asked. And here they are.
I am willing to ignore the “cultural appropriation” seen in the photos. “Never again” was likely first widely used in association with the last stand of the Jews against the Romans at Massada, and of course became part of the lingua franca in association with the Warsaw Ghetto, Dachau, and the Holocaust in general. Given that last week in Singapore, on August 22nd, the honorary Canadian citizen, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alluded to transforming the Rohingya’s Rakhine state into a beach resort for foreigners, how many more UN and Canadian envoys must be sent to Bangladesh before the words Never Again are put into action?