It was the third IDP (Internally Displaced Person) site I’d visited in two days, all within a two hour radius. Though the dusty, sparsely forested scenery had not changed, the number of people at each site seemed to grow exponentially. 900, 1500, 6000.
Each IDP site shouted the same story: too many people living under little to no shelter with little to no food – all of them exhausted and unsure where, or whether, they would get their next meal.
Sitting on that stray log transformed into a mangled seat, my mind was in two places.
While Majok spoke, his words were so vivid that they became tangible – tugging at my nerves and swelling into my tear ducts. I felt ready to burst.
Simultaneously, my brain sent out an extensive Morse code of warning signals: “This isn’t real”, “Where are you?” and “Why are you here?”, “No one should have to suffer this much”; my subconscious attempt at emotional self-preservation.
His bloodshot eyes appeared a vacuum of emotions. Without a hint of expression, they spoke directly to me.
As soon as he heard there was fighting in his village (Mayom County, Unity State), Majok wanted to see for himself.
“At that time when the fighting broke out I went to roam,” he told me. “Then the fighting got worse so I fled with other people. My family was left at home.”
Running for hours, Majok was eventually picked up by a UNMISS (United Nations Mission in South Sudan) truck full of people and carried to an IDP site in Warrap State.
Majok left his home in mid-December. I spoke with him on February 13, nearly two months since he last saw his family.
Stoically, as if routine, Majok shared, “When I came here (the IDP site), people told me they didn’t know whether my father and mother are alive – even up to now.”
Still to receive an IDP registration card, Majok has not been given any rations of food and non-food items. He has made his new ‘home’ around the circumference of a tree; its gargantuan roots tell stories of 20 years of civil war and human suffering.
Welcomed by a group of group of women who left his hometown of Mayom, Majok sleeps in good company. Unfortunately, though it’s been two months, no one in this family unit has obtained a registration card.
“I don’t know how to get food. The women I stay with beg for food from other people who have registration cards. Sometimes we eat the leaves from this tree,” Majok tells me, gesturing upwards.
Wandering around the massive IDP site, already overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, I was floored to see that a significant portion are without any form of shelter.
According to some sources, out of the estimated 6,000 people at this site, around 1,000 have not been registered.
“We don’t eat every day. Maybe we will if we can get dura (a local grain), but I last ate four days ago,” says Majok. “I cannot sleep because I left my father and my mother. I worry about them because I don’t know whether they are alive or not. And I worry about me because I don’t know where I will get food or where I will stay.”
Majok’s narrative is not isolated. His currently crappy (I’d like to replace this with a stronger word if it were appropriate to do so…) situation is one in one million (sources claim the crisis has displaced over 900,000 people).
Serving in communications for an organization whose mission is to go to the end of the road and stay there, my working hours translate into spending time with hundreds of individuals who all have equally heart-wrenching stories.
Despite the fact that Majok and I were surrounded by a hundred plus people (it’s difficult to do an interview in IDP camps without serving as entertainment for the entire population), 200% of my attention was on him. Well, more like 200% of me – emotions and all.
I may still be figuring this whole interview-process thing out, but I’ve managed to fumble my way into remaining focused on gathering the story at hand while concurrently expressing sympathy and humanity.
I’m working on finding that magical spot between acting as a ‘Q&A robot’ and a ‘blubbering sob-fest’.
But there are times when the tears must, and should, come. And there are times when they must be stored away.
More than in any interview before, I wanted nothing else than to reach out and hold Majok’s hand.
I wanted to grasp it and squeeze it and tell him that maybe I’m just a little person with a big camera, but I have a big heart and it is all his.
By the powers of my magical hand hold, I wanted Majok to know and believe that his story is important and it will not be forgotten.
I longed to promise him that I will tell other people that there are things in this world, that are beyond me messed up, that are hurting acutely innocent people. And on behalf of Majok, and the other 1 million displaced people in South Sudan, I will not be quiet.
Majok is an 18-year-old boy, he is not an IDP. His IDP status is merely the product of a fragile country (still the newest in the world) in the state of a horribly violent crisis.
Keep informed. Don’t stop reading. Pray without ceasing. Give. And share.
“This is something I have to reconcile with every day because I know that if I ever let genuine compassion to be overcome by personal ambition, then I know I have sold my soul.” – James Nachtwey, War Photographer