I came of age in the late 1990s, just as Indonesia relinquished control over the one-time Portuguese colony of East Timor, which in 1999 became the world’s newest country. At the time, I was studying international relations in Brazil, and I remember being fascinated by the people of this fledgling nation, who had fought so long and hard for their land, their culture, language and traditions.
Fifteen years later, I fell under a similar spell, only this time the object of my fascination weren’t the East Timorese but rather the people of another new nation, South Sudan. I had been living in Uganda for almost two years, working with grassroots organizations to produce videos and photo essays about rural communities. Around that time, I began to notice an influx of extremely tall people, their faces artfully marked with scars: South Sudanese refugees. I hopped on an hour-long flight from Kampala to Juba, the newly minted capital of this newly minted, but already deeply troubled, country.
South Sudan won its independence on July 9, 2011, wresting itself from Sudan, which until then had been the largest country in Africa. At issue was the deep cultural chasm separating the Muslim, Arabic-speaking north of the country—whose inhabitants traced their lineage to slave traders from the Arabian Peninsula—from the animistic, sub-Saharan southerners. For decades, southerners had waged a civil war to free themselves from the oppression, segregation, and exploitation of the north, which they saw as mirroring the tactics employed by the Arab slave caravans.
After my first visit to Juba, I was hooked, and would jump at every opportunity to return to South Sudan—much to the shock and horror of my Ugandan friends, who rattled off horror stories about the conflict that had erupted there just two years after independence. On one trip, I spent ten days photographing the social workers assisting Internally Displaced People who’d fled to the capital. I later returned with a Dutch organization that was conducting a psychosocial and mental health assessment in Bor, a town in the central Jonglei state. The situation there was even worse than in Juba, and it shook me to my core.
I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to telling the world about the stories I’d heard in Bor. I went to NY and studied in Documentary Practices and Visual Journalism. Just as I finished my degree, the war broke again. It July, 2016: The airport was closed, most of the foreigners had evacuated to neighboring countries and hundreds of bodies filled in the streets of Juba. Because I already had a visa, I was able to get back as soon as the airport reopened.
Working in South Sudan as a photojournalist was not an easy task — not least because the security forces often targeted journalists. But I was determined to continue my work there, and by October I’d scored my first contract with the UN. This gave me unparalleled access to places it would otherwise have been impossible to reach. I covered everything from famine to maternal mortality — South Sudan has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates — to the youth of Juba, documenting what it’s like to is come of age in a country at war. For nearly two years, I took regular trips to the Mundari people’s bustling cattle camps on the banks of the Nile. My focus had shifted. I was done with conflict and wanted to take photos that would show South Sudan in a positive light. But it was too late.
In March, 2018, national security forces seized my passports and equipment and gave me 48 hours to leave the country, or face arrest. I still have not been able to return to the country.
But I hope my photos can help change viewers’ understanding of South Sudan, showing it as very special place, filled with resilient people who are fighting for survival.