Back in Black

Posted in Uncategorized on January 8, 2015 by Otto von Münchow

Back in Black

We are not Charlie, and to be perfectly honest we didn’t even know Charlie existed until we managed to get online and read the internet papers this morning. The attack in Paris is not only an attack on a French paper; it is an attack on democracy. And as journalists we feel the terrorism in France also is aimed at us. What is journalism without the freedom of expression? And what is democracy without journalism?

It’s a black day for all of us. Therefor we choose to post nothing but a black square today. It very much reflects our feelings, but no one should mistake it for a sign of surrender. We will never give up the fight for, and our obligation to do our job!

Yes They Know it’s Christmas Time, for Sure!

Posted in Uncategorized on January 7, 2015 by Otto von Münchow

Munchow_1678-033_E

DCIM101GOPRO

Bole Madhani Alem turns pink when the first beams of morning sun hits the mighty Orthodox cathedral. We are in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and the date is 29/4 2007 – according to the Ethiopian calendar. According to most other calendars it’s January 7th, 2015, and all over Ethiopia Christmas is celebrated.

It’s Christmas day, and no service today, but the square in front of the cathedral is full of people in traditional white scarves and dresses who have come to worship. For some reason my mind wanders 30 years back, to the time when Band Aid was singing “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all”. Judging from the religious activity in front of the closed church this early morning, I think “Yes They Know it’s Christmas Time, for Sure” would be more accurate. Ethiopia was christened in 300 AD, decades before Europe, which means Christmas has been celebrated here for more than 1700 years.

Sisay (24) pulls the white scarf closer around him to keep warm. The young man is on his way home after paying his respect to the Lord.

−This is a big day for all Orthodox Christian Ethiopians he explains. Normally we party on Christmas eve. Christmas day we are spending with our loved ones. My family will gather and then we’ll slaughter a goat or a sheep and prepare a fantastic meal for everyone. According to Orthodox tradition we must fast for 25 days before Christmas and eat only vegetables. So you can imagine how well the meat will taste now that the day finally has come. Sisay hurries on home and leaves us in the middle of the square.

It’s striking how silent and calm everything is. The busy everyday life in Addis seems to be miles away. A priest is sitting in the shade reading his bible. But he puts the holy book down every time someone comes to kiss the wooden cross he is holding. A beggar comes towards us on a pair of worn out crutches. To our surprise he asks us for money – in English.

−After all it’s Jesus’ birthday today, and Jesus always stood up for the poor, he reminds us. The man gets every coin we can find in our pockets. Normally a handful of change is quite sufficient to get peoples consent to have their picture taken. But the man with the crutches is not like other beggars.

−It will take more money if you want to snap me, he says with a smile. We show him our empty pockets, and asks again, but the answer is still no.

−You have to look for other victims, he says as he picks up his crutches.

−And as you are broke you might want to look for beggars who accepts major credit cards.
We will never know who the beggar was, where he learned his English or how he ended up in the street. But still he taught us an important lesson. A lesson we, Bob Geldof and all other people engaged in Africa should bear in mind: Never ever underestimate people!

Munchow_1678-056_E

DCIM101GOPRO

Munchow_1678-030_E

Pride and Position

Posted in Uncategorized on May 1, 2014 by Otto von Münchow

Old man

−I want the world to know what is happening in South Sudan right now, the old man says. The kids from the huts nearby are gathering around the old man hoping to end up in one of my photos. A young refugee woman is picking up a stick to chase them away, but the old man asks her to calm down.

− Leave them, and let them listen. What I have to say is important! I want everyone, including our own children, to understand that the brutality we’ve had the last few months exceeds anything I have seen in my lifetime.

Kuir Biar Yaak has only been in Kenya for a month. He was 12 when Sudan got its independence from Anglo-Egyptian co rule in 1956. After that Sudan was embroiled in two prolonged civil wars during the second half of the 20th century. The non-Muslim, non-Arab southern Sudanese fought the Islamic north. The first civil war ended in 1972 but another broke out in 1983. Peace talks finally led to the North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in January 2005. The south was granted autonomy for six years followed by a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan. When the votes were counted in January 2011 98.83% of the population voted for independence. A new country was born and civilians like Kuir thought the days of war were over. They were wrong.

−I never considered leaving the country during the civil wars. The soldiers fought one another and left people like me alone. This time it was so bad I had to leave. They kill anyone that’s not on their side. Kuir fears the nuer-rebels, as he is dinka himself. However the old man is wise enough to realize that the brutality is just as bad when dinkas are attacking nuers.

−So what do you miss the most from your homeland?

−My pride and my position.

−Look at me, he says. I was an important man back home. I had more than 20 cows. Now I only have the clothes I’m wearing. Here in Kakuma I am just a lousy old man, a burden to my son, who brought me here.

−Will you ever return to see South Sudan again?

−No. The wounds this conflict has given my country won’t heal in my lifetime, the old man says.

Borderland

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30, 2014 by Otto von Münchow

Refugee

It’s a few minutes before eleven o’clock in the morning at Nadapal border, in the north-western corner of Kenya. This is where the refugees from South-Sudan enter Kenyan territory.

No one so far, but give them another 30 minutes and they’ll be here, the immigration officer tells me. Ten minutes later the first ones arrive. The vehicle is bumping its way towards us, with impossible amounts of luggage strapped on top, and six refugees inside. The passengers have just finished offloading when the next group arrive. Most of them come by car, but the poorest have to walk across, carrying all their belongings with them.

Nadapal is hot, dusty and hostile. The Kenyan immigration police have a checkpoint and an office here, the MSF a few tents and that’s about it. After having their documents checked everyone must pass by the medical staff in the tents before they’re allowed to enter. After that they have to wait until the UNHCR-trucks arrive to drive them to Kakuma camp, 120 kilometres further south into Kenya.

I have found myself an old tire to sit on as I watch the people arrive to a new country, and a most uncertain future. I have decided to start asking the questions the followers of the blog sent me. In fact I want to find a child and ask Lynne’s (sixdegreesphotography) question about the favourite memory from home. I see group after group passing until I find the child I’m looking for. Nyamal Biel is dragging a heavy suitcase across the border. The wheels have stopped rolling long time ago and are making two tracks in the dirt road. The child is happy to take break, when I ask her to stop and talk to me for a while. Fortunately her brother, Dak, is able to translate. Nyamal is watching me closely when I ask Lynne’s question, then she moves her eyes from me to her brother when he translates it.

– School, she answers, without hesitation.

– I miss school, and I hope they have got one in Kakuma too.

They have plenty of schools, darling, but why are you so eager to go to school?

Nyamal looks at me and shakes her head as if this was the stupidest question ever asked her.

– I want to go to school to learn a lot. I have to, you see, because I want to become a doctor.

Why a doctor?

– Because I want to make sick people well, of course.

The funny thing, Lynne, is that your question made perfect sense to her. Mine didn’t. I guess I need you guys to help me do my job. Keep up the good work, and stay tuned.

Journalism on Demand

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2014 by Otto von Münchow

On demand

Hi, everybody! First of all let me apologise for the lack of posts the last few days. I have been moving from South Sudan to Kenya, and I don’t think you are too keen on hearing my stories from planes and hotel rooms. But, dear readers, tomorrow I am heading up to Kakuma, close to Turkana Lake, to meet the refugees who are coming over the border from South Sudan. I hope you are ready and willing to do a little experiment with me. I have never tried this before, but I want you to post me questions to ask the refugees I meet. I think you are a fairly well equipped with empathy, if not you wouldn’t be following this blog in the first place. Just remember that the simplest questions are often the best. I once wrote a story from a refugee-camp where I asked everybody the same question: When was your last happy moment in life. The answers were incredible. So, just go for it! Get inspiration by looking at this picture of Mary, her son Nyejany and Marys three younger sisters Elisabeth (with a brown skirt), Marita (in a blue dress) and Marsa (on the floor).

Faces

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2014 by Otto von Münchow

Portrett 1

Portrett 2

Portrett 3

Portrett 4

Portrett 5

Portrett 6

In a refugee camp like Doro in South Sudan, you risk loosing your perspective seeing only hunger and apathy. That is when you have to change your focus, and start looking for faces that stand out in the mass. The refugees have more or less the same story to tell; they had to leave their homeland in search of security for themselves and their families. Now they are living here, in tents and small huts, hoping one day to be able to go back to where they came from. But there are other stories as well. 125.000 individual stories to be precise, of losses and victories, failure and success, of pride, of wishes and hopes. Have a closer look at these faces, and try to read the stories written in them. What strikes me when I look at them is what a total waste of human resources it is when people are forced to put their lives on hold like this.

Sending out an SOS to the World

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2014 by Otto von Münchow

bilde4

“If nothing happens, we’re all going to die of hunger”, Mary Saiman (33) says. Mary is the mother of six. Fortunately her two year old daughter Toma, is too young to understand what her mother is talking about.

“The children will die first, and then the rest of us”.

Try to put yourself in Mary’s situation. She and 125,000 others are living in four refugee camps totally dependent on food aid that stopped coming regularly. We are in Maban County, in the north-eastern corner of South Sudan. The refugees here are from Blue Nile State in Sudan. People up there are fighting Sudanese government troops to get more autonomy, and the civilians have moved down to South Sudan to get away from the war. When the civil war in South Sudan started, the refugees in Maban suddenly found themselves surrounded by war. The fighting still went on, up north in Blue Nile, and then the fights between the South Sudanese Dinka and Nuer people, to the west and south left the refugees with only one option to escape war: to flee east to Ethiopia, where the camps are even worse off than here in Maban.

Confused? In case you are not the only one. Find a map online, and have that page open while you read on. It is World Food Program (WFP) that’s in charge of food distribution. They usually truck the food in from other parts of South Sudan or Ethiopia, but as South Sudanese rebels have started to attack the food convoys, the umbilical cord is cut.

“We are surviving of leaves we pick from the trees and boil”, Mary tells us. It makes a bitter mash that keeps the hunger away for a while, but everyone knows that the feeling won’t last. Mary has been selling off pots and pans to try to get money for food, but the few South Sudanese pounds she made are long gone.

According to WFP the standard ration for a refugee is 2,200 calories a day, the average distributed in March was 300!

Avril Benoit, the field coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders in Doro camp, Maban fears the situation will worsen. “The malnutrition crisis caused by the war is hitting huge swaths South Sudan, and so the WFP is struggling to feed other parts of the country,” she says. “This makes the prospects for feeding the refugees in Maban even more desperate.”

Mary doesn’t care much about politics. She only wishes to be able to feed her six children, a wish that might prove very difficult, or even impossible to fulfil.