What it was actually like during the middle of a military coup in South Sudan

Every now and then, travelling throws a grenade at you. In Brian Ceci’s case, this wasn’t far from the truth.

One of my closest friends Brian Ceci has just been caught in the middle of a military coup in South Sudan. Luckily, he was unharmed, but that doesn’t make his story any less frightening. His story highlights just how anything can happen to you when you’re on the road, and it highlights the darker side of travelling.

Brian, a Canadian cinematographer and photojournalist, was in South Sudan documenting a not-for-profit NGO’s relief project in the country. The NGO, Obakki Foundation, funds two major projects at once; educating people in Cameroon, and providing a safe, reliable water source in South Sudan. As the Obakki Foundation says; “With clean water, communities in Africa can do more than just survive; they can thrive.”

Often, the media is used to document and tell the stories of the foundation to the public; this is Brian’s job:

Being Brian’s second time to South Sudan, he was better equipped than ever before at bringing the foundation’s beliefs to the Western world, but nothing could have prepared him for the turmoil that tore through his trip.

On Tuesday 17th December 2013, it was reported that South Sudanese rebels had attempted a military coup to take control of the capital city Juba.

Being caught right in the cross fire, Brian tells his experience of bullets, tanks and turmoil in South Sudan.

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Did you know about the problems in South Sudan before you left?

South Sudan has quite a few problems in their political infrastructure – mainly corruption – but it has been relatively stable since it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. I didn’t think much about any uprisings happening before I left, but like a lot of countries in Africa, it can be very unpredictable.

When did things first start to go wrong?

I travelled with two co-workers from the Obakki Foundation, a photographer and the field director, from Rumbek (where the foundation is based) to the capital Juba where we were supposed to catch a plane back to Canada for the Christmas holidays. The ride was a taxing 11 and a half hours for only a 370km journey, without a doubt one the worst roads I’ve ever seen. There’s no pavement in the entire country, so you can imagine how awful the roads are.

Anyway, when we arrived, we had one day and two nights in Juba before our flight left on the 17 th December. On the night of the 17th, heavy gunfire was heard throughout the night and all through the morning.

We stayed in our compound that day hoping our flight would still take off, but there was news of the airport closing as the rebels seized the area.

We ended up staying an extra three days, waiting out droughts of gunfire, artillery, mortar and tank fire. Our compound was a steel gated area with barbed wire, so we were pretty safe in there.

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What happened the next day?

The first night the gunfire started in the middle of the night. The power was off, and it was so silent and you could hear AK47’s on and off for the entire night.

In the morning it was much more prevalent. It was far at first – it almost sounded like fireworks in the distance – but when it got closer you could definitely tell its gunfire; once you’ve heard it, it’s a sound you never forget.

That first morning we all waited in our courtyard just seeing what would happen and if it would stop. We thought maybe it was a quick petty crime thing, but obviously not. One of the Sudanese men staying at our compound was a former general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). He was on the phone the whole time, and basically kept us updated as we had no power, water or mobile phone reception for most of the time in the compound – the Government turned off all the mobile phone towers in the city so the rebels couldn’t communicate with each other.

So basically, we just waited. Gunfire would be sporadic – sometimes it would go for hours straight, other times it would be a of couple hours before it started again. We kept track and told ourselves that two hours is the mark that we could run out and try and get some food, so that’s what we did.

Did you ever think things would get as bad as they did?

I didn’t really know what to think at the time. We were watching the news when the power came on in our compound and the report on the first day said there was “nine deaths and 120 injured,” which seemed completely crazy given the amount of gunfire we were hearing all day and night. Obviously it was propaganda to prevent civilian uprising.

Were you scared?

For the most part, no. It was intense, but there was only a small amount of times where I felt nervous.

The first was when we ran out to a half open store which sold drinks and things to eat. On the way out, about 20 soldiers rumbled by on an SPLA tank, followed by gunfire and people running and ducking.

Two things; When people are running and ducking in a country like this, you also run and duck. And also, when you see one of these tanks roll into an urban centre and crush the pavement with its tracks, you know that shit is going down.

Another freaky moment was during lunch at a compound outside our hotel. We were sitting around a table in a well gated courtyard when we heard an extremely loud bang. As was walked over to where we heard the sound, we realised a stray bullet had flown over the roof and compressed into the steel gate behind us. We sat in the corridor after that.

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What’s the worst thing you saw while you were there?

I can say I’m lucky to walk out of there without any strain of post-traumatic stress disorder – the worst thing I saw were dead bodies from afar after the SPLA blocked some of the streets where fighting was occurring.

What happened when you tried to leave the country?

A few days after all of this we learned the airlines were running again, so we just packed our bags and made for the airport as quick as we could. The US embassy was evacuating all personnel, so one of our staff got on that flight. I learned that my flight to Cairo was holding 30 seats for people who missed their flights, so I tried fending off about a dozen people mobbing into the office for those seats. Unfortunately, I didn’t get one so I had to wait another day.

How did you leave South Sudan in the end?

After I couldn’t catch my flight to Cairo, I looked for a taxi or anyone to give me a ride back to the compound. I had heard at the time that it wasn’t safe to go back, but I didn’t want to stay at the airport when the fighting came closer either.

I randomly walked by a group of people and the US embassy was organising their evacuation flight. I walked by another co-worker (who I recognised from his large cowboy hat he was wearing) and he mentioned that foreign nationals to the US would possibly be able to get on the flight to Nairobi, Kenya, so I wrote my name down and waited until they finally said they had enough room for us.

I tell you what, it was a nice feeling once that flight took off. I know that I would’ve been in Juba for at least another week had I stayed as the next day a plane crashed at the airport, and another was shot at. Scary, eh?

What did you do when you finally got back home to Canada?

I was way more happy to land in Kenya, but when I got home, I walked through the terminal and a large “Welcome Home” sign was there – not specifically for people on the flight or anything, but it was a cool feeling to see it. The weird thing about it is like most trips to Africa, the minute you leave that continent, it just appears that most western countries just simply don’t know what’s happening over there. It’s a real shame.

Is there anything you would have done differently, and if so, why?

I think in situations like this it is very stupid to make irrational snap decisions. The best course of action is to determine the risk of what you’re doing , and pick the option that has the lowest risk. It’s not worth your life.

At one point the plan was to hire a driver and drive to Kampala in Uganda to try and fly out from there. That would’ve been such a dumb idea – the borders were heavily armed and we would’ve been in a very seedy spot, on the border, with no place to go. I’m glad we just waited it out.

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What would you say to other backpackers and travellers who are caught in the middle of a conflict while they’re on the road?

The best thing you can do is stay calm and wait it out. It might seem like a sketchy situation, but they’re not out to get you – the biggest issue is you might just get caught in the crossfire, which obviously could be devastating.

Don’t get involved, and be kind to the people you’re with – you’re all in this together.

When you read about the conflict in South Sudan now, how does it make you feel?

I feel for these people tremendously – especially meeting them and seeing them every day. They are incredibly kind, warm people. They definitely deserve the unity that has come from their independence, so hopefully this situation resolves soon. I really would like to go back again; it’s a wonderful adventure.

What’s going to happen to the Obakki Foundation now? Can people still support them?

The field staff were briefly evacuated a few weeks ago, but they are on standby now. I know just yesterday a borehole was drilled, so the light is at the end of the tunnel. I will say that being part of this foundation has been absolutely wonderful – it is incredibly impressive what we’re accomplishing as a team – and I can proudly guarantee that 100% of donations go directly to the foundation.
indexThere are a number of ways you can get involved with the Obakki Foundation, from donating a small amount of money to buying one of their products to becoming a partner. Both Brian and I highly recommend you get involved in some way, shape or form in the hope future conflicts like these are avoided as the country gains stability.

If you’d like to donate directly, you can do so here:

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