The stench of dead bodies

N. op 't Ende
December 28, 1998

Only when the plane has landed and my feet have touched the ground I know for certain that the Nuba Mountains are still there. Dusty, hot and poor like before. I see a gawadja sigh with relief. He smokes one cigarette after another.

The situation is more dangerous than a year ago. Commander Ismael Khamis Djelab makes it quite clear: my plans to go to Miri in the North West are out of the question. He is expecting enemy activities in those areas. I can go to the east if I like, to Heiban and Kowalib. While I'm preparing to go there, a Government convoy occupies Koya, a few hills in the South somewhere between Ngorban and Heiban county.

If the government army could make a garrison in Koya, it would split the SPLA area in two, it would put Kerker airstrip out of business and it would close the ring of garrisons around SPLA headquarters. Yet the convoy of 500 soldiers with heavy artillery and three tanks had met no resistance on entering the place. It is November 28. While commander Ismael plans a counter attack, the government troops dig in.

I decide to stay in Chanagru, close to Ismael's headquarters, just to see what happens. Except for a few short trips to Totjo, Jageba, Serf and Achrun I won't go anywhere. The wind blows the daily sound of shelling to Changaru. Life seems to go on as usual but it sounds hollow. Voices of women and children are returned by the mountain slopes.

December 10: the first attempt to drive the government forces out of Koia. It fails, after initial success, because of 'communication problems'.

December 20: the preparations for a second attack. Sandmodel, handing out the ammunition, inspection of heavy artillery, instruction of the soldiers.

December 21: the attack begins at 05.17 hours. From a relatively safe position I watch the flashes of grenades and the light trails of heavy machinegun fire that spreads over the hills of Koia. A BM mounted 20 meters behind me fires in clouds of dust and smoke. The smell of gunpowder, the explosions and the flashes of light make me think of an early New Year's celebration.

In the first daylight we see that the government troops have abandoned their headquarters between the hills. They are making a stand just outside Koya. One of the tanks tries to silence the BM, the grenades are off target by a few hundred meters. I walk two kilometers to a small hospital to see if I can take any pictures there. The operation room is just being prepared when the first heavily wounded men are brought in on angarebs.

One of the soldiers has been hit in the upper right arm; the bones are shattered. Doctor Abdallah carefully cuts skin and muscles, clamping the veins as he proceeds. Suddenly the medical assistant is holding an arm in his hands. He is looking for a place to put it away while doctor Abdallah sews the remaining tissue together. The soldier has lost a lot of blood, he says - but the guy would be al right.

By the end of the day the battle in Koya has taken another dramatic turn: with the support of the tanks, the government soldiers have recaptured the hills. Their determination to hold on to this strategic place is stronger than expected.

December 22: the government forces withdraw to their garrison in Mendi. Noone understands why. Did they run out of water? Did they realise they couldn't possibly withstand another attack?

Koya. Foxholes and people looking for anything useful between the ashes of burned out store rooms. Scattered pages of a Qur-an, distorted Kalashnikov magazines, a college card of a 36 year old student at the university of Umdorman: faculty of medicine. A bloody handkerchief, toe slippers, stones outlining a mosque - the place of worship filled in with clean sand. X-ray photographs, packagings of freshmint toothpaste, a huge empty water tank and so many boxes of heavy calibre bullets that there are not enough women and soldiers around to carry them al to headquarters.

Roaming this surreal terrain with its traces of destruction, its faded resonances of agony and fear, the only thing I miss are dead bodies. Someone says there aren't any: the government forces have taken al their dead with them, the SPLA has had no losses in the second attack. But another tells me that at least one SPLA soldier has been killed: he has been cut to pieces after his death, the remains have been buried. I follow the soldiers up a hill, they point at rocks stained with blood and ask me whether I have something to cover my mouth with.

One of the men tears aside some grass and branches, uncovering a corps that had been lying there for days. Despite the toilet paper pressed against my face, the stench hits me like an unexpected squall. I nearly loose my balance on the steep slope. Trying to focus my camera I have to fight nausea and an immens sadness that is expanding in the putrid air.

They take me to another corps. The many colours of decomposing flesh. We pass a pile of rocks marking the place where the cut up soldier lies, there are no thoughts in my head. Half an hour later I have also seen the graves of fallen government soldiers.

On the way back to headquarters the smell of death dogs me, whichever direction the wind blows.