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Airport chaos in Juba

South Sudan, July 7, 2011

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I’d heard the airport in Juba, the capital of the soon-to-be nation of South Sudan, is chronically disorganized. I should have been mentally prepared for the chaos that awaited me yesterday morning. I wasn’t.

The flight from Nairobi was uneventful. The scenery was beautiful — incredibly vast — but even from thousands of feet in the air South Sudan’s challenges quickly become apparent. Our Africa Director leaned across and pointed out the window: “When you see there aren’t any roads, that’s when you’ve crossed into Sudan.”

The airport looked fine albeit sparse from the outside, but inside was a whole different story: a single room filled with several hundred people crammed elbow to elbow. Everyone was in good spirits — it’s a happy time in South Sudan — but it was at least 110 degrees, and there didn’t seem to be much of a system in place. Luckily I was with someone who knew the drill, and was quickly guided through a scan of my carry-on bags and immigration.

Baggage claim was a bit more complicated. There’s only one baggage claim area and several flights had arrived almost simultaneously, creating a back-up of bags. Incoming luggage — from who knew which flight — was put through a scanner and sent down a “conveyor belt” consisting of a couple of conference tables strung together. The crowd gathered tableside pushing each bag along — until it landed on the floor, in a pile.

A two-hour hunt for baggage ensued. My frustration was exacerbated by the fact that it was difficult to gain a good vantage point from which to view the luggage claim process. The South Sudanese are, generally, a tall people, especially those belonging to the majority Dinka tribe. At 5’ 2” I was almost dwarf-like, trying to peer over the shoulders of guys — and ladies — who were all over 6’ 2”.

The airport chaos was somewhat indicative of the overall scene in Juba: tremendous excitement but some anxiety as the city braces itself for a huge influx of people — many of them international VIPs — and activity. The rumor mill of what’s going to happen in the next few days is churning: 2,000 journalists are expected, the official “independence day celebration” was set up for 1,400 people but 5,000 have been invited; all flows of traffic in Juba will be halted at 2 P.M. today (Thursday).

The Government of South Sudan has planned a first-rate day of celebrations for July 9th and I’m sure all or much of it will run like clockwork. But after my baggage claim experience, I won’t be surprised by anything.