Uganda and South Sudan

The small plane taxied to a stop on the grass run way in Adjumani in Northern Uganda near the South Sudan border. We were met by representatives of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) with whom we spent three weeks working in refugee camps and centers for rescued child soldiers.  We performed for groups of children who had been abducted by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  Organizations and individuals would risk their lives to rescue these children and bring them into homes to help rehabilitate them or as one nun told us, “welcome them back into the human family”.  These children have lived in the bush as soldiers and sex slaves forced to perform the unspeakable, often beginning with slaughtering their own parents at gun point then leaving them to go with the LRA who becomes their only ‘family’.  “Your magic invites them to laugh and smile again, your magic helps them heal, helps them feel human again” JRS said.

One particular day in South Sudan still makes us weep when we recall it.

At breakfast one morning, Father O’Brien S.J. told me about a village up in the mountains called Jelli.  About six months earlier the Lords Resistance Army had attacked Jelli, and abducted about 20 children, boys and girls, to serve as porters, sex slaves and soldiers.  The village was terrified, and most of them came down to Nemule to live in the relative safety of a larger town, also having a South Sudanese Army base. About 70 people stayed behind in Jelli; 40 of them children.  Father O’Brien asked if I’d like to go up there that day to do a show for those 40 children.  I said I’d love to, and we set out shortly after breakfast. As we headed out of Nemule, we turned off the road and began to climb higher and higher into the mountains.  At one point we pulled over were, a couple thousand feet above, a beautiful valley through which the sparkling noon day Nile snaked it’s way. Twenty minutes later, we pulled into the village of Jelli, now only a dozen or so tukles with an open-sided, thatched roof school structure beyond.  We got out of the Jeep, and walked toward the school.  When we were about 30 feet from the school the children began singing a beautiful song welcoming us to Jelli.

The teacher came out and welcomed us as the children continued to sing.  Maya pulled the Jeep into the shade of some mango trees, and he took the table from the back of the truck.  We began setting up for the show as the children gathered sitting on the ground in a semi circle.  As the show unfolded, one by one, the children came up and helped me with the magic.  The smiles and squeals made it clear that the show was going very well, and the children were loving seeing, and being part of, the magic.  The final trick, as usual, was holding up a piece of white paper, tearing it into pieces, as I talked about how difficult things can happen in our lives. Holding up the shredded paper I said, “But if we have hope, faith and love maybe all these difficulties will become like bread, and make us stronger.”  And I started eating the torn pieces of paper. Some of them looked a little shocked, some disturbed, some thought it was funny, all the usual responses.  And I said again, “Our difficulties and sufferings can make us stronger, and more beautiful, like this” as I began pulling out of my mouth a 40 streamer of colored paper.  The children began squealing with laughter and delight.

Maya, whose juggling was getting better and better started doing some juggling for the children as I packed up. I also began juggling and invited one of the older children to take 3 balls to practice.  Another boy came up, and a girl, and pretty soon 3 or 4 of them were learning to juggle and catching on pretty quickly. They brought us some mangoes and bread and a soupy kind of stew.  Together we ate  our simple lunch under the trees.  After lunch we juggled some more and did some magic, and eventually it was time to leave.  The children, once again, gathered in a group and sang a song of gratitude for our visit.  It felt like a perfect visit, to the perfect village of Jelli.  We talked about what a wonderful time we had as we descended the mountain back down to Nemule. We had another show to do at the brand new school that was created for all the children who left Jelli and came down to Nemule.

We drove up to the school out in the open.  It was over 100 hundred degrees with not a single tree close to the school.  Talking to the head teacher and pointing to a grove of mango trees about 50 yards away.  I asked him if we could do the show underneath them. He said that would be fine and that he would bring the children over in about 20 minutes.

We drove over to the mango grove and when we got out of the truck we found a group of South Sudanese Liberation Army soldiers sitting around a small fire where they were cooking up a kind of moonshine.  They were all drunk.  We told them we were going to do a performance for the school children, and would it be ok if they moved their fire.  They said that it would be no problem.  As they moved their fire we set up for the magic show.  What we didn’t know at the time was that earlier in the day some soldiers from the North had infiltrated the South Sudanese Army and killed 4 friends of these soldiers sitting under the mango trees. They were sad, angry and drunk. Also, an important event in South Sudan’s history had happened less than a month earlier.  John Gurang, the George Washington of South Sudan, who had fought the North for 20 years, was finally recognized by the Khartoum Government.  He was appointed vice president of Sudan, and this was a tremendous victory for the South.  Three weeks after his appointment, John Garang was killed when his helicopter crashed. It appears to have been a very untimely and tragic accident.  And yet most people believed it was engineered by the North.

The show was set up for the 200 students gathered in the shade of the giant mango tress. Again, one by one the tricks unfolded with the children coming up and helping me.  There was great awe and laughter, and squeals of delight as things appeared and disappeared, as things changed colors, books caught on fire and sponge balls multiplied in children’s hands.  But something dangerous and sinister was beginning to stir among the soldiers.

Maya came up to me and said the soldiers were getting upset, saying they thought I was using the magic to entrance the children in order to kidnap them.  “We may have to end the show quickly”  he said.

I only had a couple more tricks to do, but when I picked up the Chinese linking rings I handed them to the soldiers to examine.  I thought I could calm them down by involving them.  I was wrong.  I took the them back, and in front of the soldiers and the children, began linking and unlinking the solid steel rings. At this point the leader of the soldiers, a tall Dinka man, maybe 6 foot 6, in a drunken voice said, “This is the kind of magic that brought down John Garang’s helicopter.”  They turned around and walked over to where their AK-47s were.  Maya jumped in the back of the truck, knocked me down into the bed, jumped into the cab and we spun away.  No shots were fired.

In ten years of doing magic, in many different cultures, many of which believe magic to be real, this was the one and only time it ever turned violent.  And, it had as much to do with their belief in magic as the grief, the anger and the alcohol.  But word spread quickly through the small town of Nemule that there was a dangerous sorcerer in their midst. Father O’Brien asked me to stay in the compound for the next 3 days until things calmed down.

That night at dinner, I heard something that made me as sad as almost anything has in my life. We got word that the Lords Resistance Army had once again attacked Jelli, and took 10 of those 40 children who had been delighted and squealing with laughter and amazement that same afternoon.  All of a sudden the war Joseph Kony’s LRA was waging became very personal.  That night as I was falling asleep I kept seeing those little faces and wondering who among them were now in the Bush, being forced to do unspeakable things.