Today however the crowds gathering will be much happier. Already – its 10am – there is a rising swell of crowd noise drifting into the compound from all directions, shouts, trumpet blasts, and occasional chanting and ululating of women, increasingly frequent clusters of happily animated laughing and shouting people hurrying past the compound walls with Flags and music, increased numbers of bikes and motorbikes, a sense of building excitement and anticipation. I am not sure what exactly has been planned for the Square but peering over our razor-wire topped wall I saw a cluster of men jog past wearing tiny leopard skin sort of skirts, some crude white body paint, long poles in their hands and chanting as they ran, so I daresay there will be lots of local colour, traditional dance and song.
Unfortunately, all this excitement and nationalistic fervor is seen by our MSF leaders as representing an increased threat to foreigners. We have all been confined to Barracks since yesterday, and forbidden to walk outside the compound for any reason. When we need to go to the hospital we have to be driven there, and the route has been changed so we don’t go anywhere near Freedom Square. Its thought there may be an influx into the hospital of accident and trauma victims, and if people move into Aweil from surrounding towns we may even have some extra babies to deal with.
To be excluded from participating or even witnessing all this of course is very disappointing , but its easy to understand why such a risk averse policy is so rigorously applied: there is a long sad list of MSF workers worldwide who have been beaten, kidnapped and even killed while in places like this, doing humanitarian work. Right now two MSF workers remain hostages somewhere in Somalia, and this very week threats of murder have been made against MSF right here in Aweil! These were made by a local person formerly an MSF employee who was dismissed when found to be a thief. Similar threats were made last month by another disgruntled former local employee who tried to set fire to our compound, and drew a knife when tackled in the very act of sprinkling petrol about the place!
The brutality and horror of civil war is very fresh in the minds of the people here, and violence, for so long a part of everyday life still seems to be close to the surface even now. No doubt there are still many guns around, many knives, many unsettled scores, grudges and grievances. I have spoken with people who have personal experience of atrocities and war crimes, some committed by the notorious “Koni” who operated out of neighboring Uganda and also in Southern Sudan, not too far from Aweil which apparently at one time was in the centre of much of the appalling violence. A lovely woman on the hospital staff told me a horrifying tale of how she came to be raising her brother and sister-in- laws children – the children’s parents were murdered in random violence – the grisly details are too ghastly to repeat, but believe me they would make you shudder.
So I can easily understand why today must be a day of huge celebration for everyone, the miracle of Independence, the end of so much horror and uncertainty, a chance to make a future and to be at Peace. Never-the-less, Independence Day is also a reminder of what went before, and for many it must be a day of very mixed emotion. Hopefully they wont get out of hand.