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FT: South Sudan's Road to Independence

Author: Barney Jopson
March 20, 2010

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Barely an hour into a journey that was about to get longer and second lieutenant Thomas Bakata's Chinese motorbike was handling as it usually does on the route from Juba to Yei: like a bucking bronco. It jerked and jolted over sandy ridges and stony pits as the rabbit-ear flaps on his green hat flailed in the wind and the Wellington boots trussed to boxes on the back wriggled to get free.

On Bakata's number plate was a flag belonging to a land-locked country-in-waiting at the rawest end of Africa's wilderness spectrum. This is south Sudan, and the dirt track its lifeline to civilisation - a road so rough that drivers say taking it more than three times a week will scramble your internal organs.

Bakata, a regular traveller, lurched around another bend and squinted through his counterfeit Ray-Bans: a rope-and-streamer roadblock had been thrown up. He sighed and applied the brake, bringing the Senke 125cc to a halt. "How long will we wait here?" he asked, showing off a gap between his front teeth. The answer was 30 minutes, time enough to talk. "This land of ours," he told me, "we have been many years fighting. Some of our fathers fought, so we have been fighting too." He became a soldier 20 years ago, joining the then-guerrilla ranks of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) six years into the second phase of Africa's longest civil war. The marginalised south was rebelling against a brutal Arab-led regime in Khartoum - the latest in a succession - and the bullets and flames of a scorched-earth campaign had arrived in Bakata's village. He was 18 years old.

It was a war that killed two million people - equivalent to 20-25 per cent of the region's population today - either in raids or battles, or through the hunger and disease that spread around them. The road where Bakata had stopped was a key fighting ground in the mid-1990s, when Juba was a garrison town controlled by Khartoum and surrounded by the SPLA. That is how the path and its hinterland came to be peppered with landmines - and why Bakata's journey had been delayed. On the other side of the barrier, personnel from MineWolf Systems, a Swiss- German demining company, clomped forward in suits that were half-astronaut, half- beekeeper, clearing the last vestiges of the civil war from beneath the soil.

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