Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 28 January 2012

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Wau, South Sudan

‘Let’s visit the brewery,’ said Ken when we reached Wau. We were dusty and parched. It was searing hot. Like a character in Ice Cold in Alex, I saw before me a mirage of the cap popping off a chilled bottle. ‘Yes,’ I croaked.

We had driven thousands of kilometres across South Sudan, which seven months ago won independence after half a century of persecution and war at the hands of Khartoum. On the road, we had met friendly, decent people struggling to create a new nation despite so many hardships and continuing attempts at sabotage by the Arabs. We had driven through lands that were as close to paradise as I’ve ever seen: vast forests and grasslands, high mountains with cool streams, lakes and the mighty Nile running through it all.

But we found Wau brewery dry. The vats had been blown up in the war and were now used as lavatories by homeless children. A delivery van had been parked for so long that a large tree was growing up through its chassis. Forlornly, I sang a few lines of Slim Dusty’s ‘The Pub with No Beer’.

Ken, my guide and a veteran of South Sudan, revealed that in 1983 the White Nile factory was brand-new and ready to start production. Then Khartoum declared sharia law. Dictator Jaafar al-Nimeiri banned alcohol on pain of flogging. To show he wasn’t joking, he held a public ceremony to pour his entire drinks cabinet into the Nile.

I don’t wish to be flippant about the suffering of the Southern Sudanese, millions of whom died in the wars with the North. But the destroyed brewery stands as a symbol of the mean-hearted arrogance of the Islamists, like the ruined Catholic missions I visited, the blitzed towns, the derelict farms and factories — and the sad little town of Wau itself.

Out of the rubble appeared a little boy in rags but with a huge smile. ‘Come look,’ he urged. ‘Look, look.’ He led us into the complex of brewery offices. He pointed at the walls. I gasped at what was there, a history of all that had happened here in graffiti that ran through dozens of rooms and up and down the stairs. It struck me as a kind of Bayeux tapestry of the Sudanese conflict, written by several generations of occupiers: first the Arab forces, then southern rebels of the SPLA. They must have been bored men on guard duty who set down what they had observed or feared: fighters raping civilians, Stalin’s Organ rockets, Antonov bombers, tracer fire, chopper gunships, skulls and angels of death. Also what they admired: beautiful women, cattle, famous wrestlers and one picture of Rambo. In among the bullets and bombs I found beautiful flowers and swirling arabesques. I found a large battle tank painted in shit that was as mysterious and beautifully rendered as the cave paintings of auroch bulls in Chauvet, France.

At last I entered a room where two homeless children stood and they were drawing buffalos, elephants and owls. Perhaps there are finally children in South Sudan young enough to not remember the war. Across the wall I found scribbled esoteric messages. ‘Arab was criminal’; ‘My dear if you want to enter, be satisfied with your food’; ‘You must remember Young Dog — heroes Man’. But I also encountered one message saying, ‘Everything in the world which is to be done is been done by Hope.’

I took my camera out and took photographs of what I saw (see below). I was on the second floor of a ruined staircase snapping pictures. I took a few steps back to get a better angle on one tableau of chaos when one of the boys stopped me. I turned and saw that my heels were already over the edge of a long drop down to the floor below.

Terrified at my near-miss with a horrible death, I went to find Ken. ‘Now I really do need a beer,’ I said. Ken agreed. As we walked back to the car down a ruined avenue of vats, I can tell you it gave me great satisfaction to think about the southern SPLA rebels’ victory over the murderous Khartoum regime — and I will toast this fact every time I sip a cold brew from Juba’s brand-new brewery that is now selling to a people who have at last gained their liberty.