Around 10 a.m., Carlos came riding his bicycle leisurely. He wore white trousers and flowery, navy-blue shirt. Many people ran towards him. "I will come back to you," he assured the surging crowd. He then disappeared inside the many security rooms at the airport. When Muslims were going for their afternoon prayers, he reappeared from a narrow gate with two long lists accompanied by two military police officers. About two hundred people were waiting to hear their names from the lists. "The first group will board at 2 p.m. while the second will travel at 6 p.m.," he announced. We had given our money to someone close to him. I and two of the youths in our group were among the second 6 p.m. batch. Since we had plenty of time before boarding the plane, like a herd of goats we milled around the airport except for the military site with several tunnels. Some trenches were like underground houses. Below the airport tower, was the officers' bunker.

By John Oryem (Sudan)

For Innocent Ujah Idibia (2Face Idibia) - African Queen.

"You boy! What is in that envelope?" asked the gigantic army officer; his eyeballs scanning all directions. "Who? Me?" I murmured back with whispers of fear.

"Yes! Yes! You!" the man emphasized, pointing at me still.

"What is inside?" his broad hands grabbed the khaki enveloped I had buried under my armpit; it was the sole bank of all my love letters that Rose had been writing to me for the last three years. Among my love letters, there was only one 'rejection' letter I had received months back from a certain girl with a ‘raised nose' who had arrived from Uganda. She joined us in the middle of the term and went ahead to be the top in our class after the exams.

I had hid it there to avoid it being noticed by the dreaded Juba airport security officers. After violently pulling the envelope from my armpit, the army officer threw away my swollen envelope on a bare patch of wet ground. He kept on searching other passengers behind me. The line was moving; I drifted further away from my love letters, contained in a single nest. Should I go and demand my envelope back? I thought to myself, though it was very detrimental to demand back things seized by security personnel. When I looked behind, as I was entering inside the last gate before the runway, I heard the army officer shouting to another woman; "You are the ones complaining about us to the foreigners! What are these many letters for?" he demanded.

"For relatives in Khartoum, I take them for posting there," the woman answered.

"Is the post office here not functioning?" The woman kept silent while waiting only few inches from the long line. The army officer then later pitied the trembling woman and ordered her to join the long line towards the runway. "I know there are many agents of John Garang here in Juba," the army officer continued shouting as the long queue was about to end. The Nile Safaris cargo plane was offloading its last goods it was delivering to the starving city that evening.

The captain soon signaled the army officer on the ground that, the line of people was enough. It was already 6 p.m. From a distance, I kept on gazing at my envelope still lying where it had been thrown; I prayed to have it miraculously lifted to me as I climbed the last steps of the plane's ladder. As the plane doors were closing, my eyes kept on looking at my love letters, the collection of Rose's love letters. I covered my wet face with the white nylon bag in my hands. As the plane was circling Juba city as usual, how I wished I could be blown to pieces in midair! I could not entertain the commotion in the half-empty, huge cargo plane as passengers were being jostled about in their seats. When the plane gained stability, I cleared my face feeling like a man set upon by a marauding buffalo. The Nile looked great below; the pilot followed its course towards Khartoum.

Three years back, chance and luck was kind to us when we met with Rose at Kator Cathedral during one of the many occasions held there and it was love at first sight. I later approached her through my niece who was her classmate at Juba Girls'; I was at Saturnino Lohure's High School, and one class behind them, a fact that made me shy sometimes in front of Rose. Soon thereafter, many things brought us together again - school debates, sports activities and parents' days. Initially, the pace of our relation and interactions was intensely compassionate as it was indeed creative. It can’t be gainsaid how adoringly mesmeric were the effects of the vibrancy and warmth of her madly moving passionate words of affection to me! I too wanted to do the same. And the very week I left Juba for Khartoum, the city came under heavy fire for five days. I couldn't trace where Rose had gone to. Many citizens of the city were scattered in the forests along the Nile like dried sesame in an open field.

While trying to find out ways to send letters to Juba and at the same time acclimatize myself, I was advised by a boy who lived next to my uncle's house that if I ever wanted to send letters to the South to accordingly go to downtown Khartoum. The city center was 40km away from where my uncle Okot Okwera lived, and the place certainly was a beehive of activity. Now, sometimes looking back on hindsight, I forlornly tend to muse that I perhaps wasn't creative and serious when I wrote my first love letter to Rose outside Juba despite the ready availability of well decorated notebooks in the bookshops around the central mosque. My dear Rose, my love will remain only for you. I am the prisoner of your heart…my nights are sleepless. When will I see you? I was to conclude another of the yet variously many letters with the drawing of a pierced heart which wasn’t new to Rose. By 10 a.m. the following day, I found someone who was going to the South, an occasion I’d patiently waited for to arise for a long time. "Their house is in Atlabara. Meet her personally and tell her am happy but I will see her soon, Ok?" I confidentially told Wani Tombe, a guy I partially knew back in Juba. My desperate description of Rose's place to Tombe was definitely a forgone success and if not, it was going to be a near miss. "Be assured that if Juba did not fall, I will find her!"

Every Sunday at Kator cathedral after the Holy Mass, it was normal to see youths with heaps of envelops searching for their addressees; "She is there; He is here," could be heard echoing softly as soon as respective owners were sighted. Some of the letters were messages of blessings, others were obituaries, yet others were love letters. "I came from Khartoum yesterday," was a soul-lifting phrase for most youths who were returning to the deadly city that was besieged and starved; indeed the presence of the returnees to their families and loved ones was certainly a source of welcome relief and joy to these people.

Three weeks after my first love letter to Juba, I wrote another through the sister of my uncle's wife. "She is the daughter of Bruno, her mother is…Amelia," I repeatedly instructed Auntie Kaku after we had had a hearty meal of horse beans the night before she left for Juba. It was my serious letter though, since I last met Rose. We had unexpectedly met near Juba Cinema as I was about town trying to acquire from the Registration Of Persons’ Department, my Assessment of Age Certificate. During the weekend the whole city dispersed like grasshoppers after being subjected to a series of heavy shelling.

When everyone was asleep that night, I lit a dirty candle after picking it from among the chicken droppings in my uncle's kitchen. I sat at one of the corners of the mad house in Hajj Yousif. The thunderous noises had subsided except for the army cars patrolling the shanties. From Khartoum with love, I started it. It is a pity not to know what is going on. Life is really bad if someone is lonely. But am proud because your heart is mine; my honey Rosie, I love you. You are the Prime Minister of my heart. Just as I was ending my letter, my mind raced to a signboard at the Blue Nile bridge I had seen earlier during the day when I’d gone to see my uncle at the Signal Corps. A few tears rolled down my cheeks as I signed off; Goodbye from Khartoum. I wished I had been photographed in front of that signboard before writing my love letter to the apple of my eye.

All my misfortunes began immediately after we went for our summer holidays. I had long wished to go to Khartoum and return to Juba with several of Michael Jackson's jeans, a walkman, a 110 Kodak camera as well as a few other good things. Only 'something for tea' to the security officers at the airport for a cargo pass paper was the only obstacle that stood in my way. "That paper, if I find it one day!" I constantly remarked to myself way back before we broke for our holidays. For a whole week, I spent most of the hours on the banks of the Nile unearthing worms and chasing grasshoppers as baits. Sharp thorns pierced my bare feet as the cotton pajamas I was wearing, hung loosely around my waist. And luckily as if the gods were for my cause, by the following weekend I’d made enough catch of the Nile perch that fetched me good cash from the Nubian women in Malakia market.

"You have to be at the airport by 5 a.m.," said Carlos. He was the only youthful junior security officer assigned from the North by the Air Defense Force to collect money from those desperately leaving Juba city. When the planes had depleted timbers and coffee from Yei; iron sheets from the war-ravaged parts of Bor, Torit and Kapoeta, they started ferrying Southerners to Khartoum. A majority of them would end up in shacks like Mandela, Bentiu Dar es Salaam and Soba. But the road to Khartoum was long and torturous; one had to know someone at the General Headquarters to get a free pass. For those who were not well-connected, Carlos was there for them. With him being a 'Malakia Boy', he was usually unsuspected of any subversive activities against Khartoum.

When I finished counting the fish money and tacked it inside my under wears, I was convinced that it was enough to earn me the precious cargo pass paper from Carlos. "Food is very cheap, beans, cheese, sesame oil and bread. Only transport fees!" we were told by those who had gone there before us. On the appointed day that morning, I was in the company of some youths with a similar purpose like mine. As early as 4 a.m. under the cover of darkness we had weaved our way in the tall grass and for us not to be mistaken for the enemies, we avoided the roadblock at the small bridge two kilometers from the airport. We then sneaked and waited for dawn to break below the large Juba Insurance Company Ltd. signboard. In front of us, some women and children who failed to catch the cargo plane the day before slept in the open. They had been thoroughly soaked by the dew which, in turn, made the children shiver from the cold. The army continuously combed the plain behind the runway which before the war had been grazing land.

Around 10 a.m., Carlos came riding his bicycle leisurely. He wore white trousers and flowery, navy-blue shirt. Many people ran towards him. "I will come back to you," he assured the surging crowd. He then disappeared inside the many security rooms at the airport. When Muslims were going for their afternoon prayers, he reappeared from a narrow gate with two long lists accompanied by two military police officers. About two hundred people were waiting to hear their names from the lists. "The first group will board at 2 p.m. while the second will travel at 6 p.m.," he announced. We had given our money to someone close to him. I and two of the youths in our group were among the second 6 p.m. batch. Since we had plenty of time before boarding the plane, like a herd of goats we milled around the airport except for the military site with several tunnels. Some trenches were like underground houses. Below the airport tower, was the officers' bunker.

With my pass in my pocket and a nylon bag swinging round my wrists, I strolled around the shades of tall neem trees within the airport fence. I took tea and pancakes that had a hanging feeling in my intestines while I waited to realize my dreams of setting foot in Khartoum where my grandfather once lived and died after he came back from World War II. When we were growing up dad told us one day that his grave was somewhere among the others in Southern Khartoum’s main cemetery. As I brooded on these reflections and wanting to relieve myself, I disappeared into the tall grass where after I opened the nylon bag I was carrying and took out the khaki envelope that contained all the love letters Rose had ever written to me. For the umpteenth time, after happily perusing and sorting them, I resealed them again but to the last one she had written to me before we went for holidays. She had written with a certain concern that I had failed to notice initially; your love is like cold water during the hot season. I'm like a dry land in need of rain, and you are that rain. I'm a prisoner of your love. When are we going to meet Ouma? Suddenly it bore a certain freshness and sense of urgency, whose abrupt realization heavily made me guilty as to why I had not paid attention to her concern and now I was about to leave Juba. When I read it for the second time, I began to shake like an alcoholic. I bent the thick base of the elephant grass and placed all my love letters inside a deserted rats' hole. "I will come for you before the rainy season," I promised myself while pointing at the envelope. I then put my hands together to say a prayer and ask for forgiveness but before I could finish murmuring my saintly words, the sharp pitch of a military whistle cracked the dormant skies. I hurriedly picked the envelope and dashed towards the waiting ground. My intestines reabsorbed back some of the urine that took me to the grass in the first place. The gigantic army officer carried a whip as he was a making roll call. I soon joined the long line with my thick envelop under my armpit.