“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.