A chance encounter on the road to Juba International Airport brings history to life whilst shedding light on an oft neglected period of our history.
In July of 2011, I had the good fortune of being in South Sudan. It was a wonderful time. A year of jubilation, pride and hope for a brighter future.
I met many interesting people that year. John was definitely one of them.
“There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.” – G.K. Chesterton, Author & Poet
He held my hand in a vice-like grip when I met him in a hotel restaurant on the road to Juba International Airport. He looked to be in his seventies. His once dark hair now a grey and white, carefully combed. He was trim, sure testament to the extraordinary fitness of his youth and looking impossibly neat and at ease in his suit and tie, despite the dust and heat of the African summer. He and my father, greeted each other warmly, with the exuberance of old friends and comrades who had a shared experiences few could relate to.
“John, this is my son Jacob,” said Lagu, noticing that I was standing awkwardly waiting for an introduction. He turned to me and accepted my outstretched hand. John’s eyes betrayed a steely resolve and an inner strength in no way diminished by age. They weren’t cold eyes, just guarded, and seemed to constantly study while revealing nothing of the conclusions being drawn behind them.
“You’re father, Lagu, is an extraordinary man,” he said to me, “I marched all over South Sudan with him. He has conviction, a sharp memory and he keeps his word.”
He then turned to Lagu and they continued their conversation. I sat by them and listened, totally absorbed by their lively and and at times raucous reminiscences.
At 7:45am on June 5th 1967, around 180 aircraft of the Israeli Air Force launched as part of preemptive strike against Egyptian Air Forces. The operation was spectacularly successful. The Egyptians had been taken completely by surprise, losing 338 aircraft, 100 airmen and the use of virtually all of their runways – rendering surviving aircraft near unusable.
The Six Day War, or “The Setback” as it is known to the Arabs, saw Israel pitted against the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, supported by expeditionary forces provided by half a dozen other Arab countries. Sudan had sent a Brigade to Egypt to fight alongside Egyptian forces.
Though incredibly brief, the war saw the combined Arab forces roundly beaten by Israel. It was a testament to the level of military and intelligence preparation of the Israelis and their resolve and courage in the face of near overwhelming odds.
On a crackly radio, likely under cover from the torrential downpour of the early rainy season, Joseph Lagu first heard the report of the start of an Arab-Israeli war. He smelled an opportunity, and as it turned out, this report would be the beginning of a long and resilient relationship between Israel and South Sudan.
Shortly afterward, Lagu would make contact with the Israeli Embassy in Kampala with a proposition that would be mutually beneficial to both parties. Anya Nya would receive support from Israel and Sudanese forces tied up in increasing engagements with the Anya Nya would not be re-deployed against Israel in support of Egypt.
Following this contact, and intrigued by his proposition, the Israelis carefully arranged further meetings at their embassy in Nairobi (as the Kampala embassy was under heavy surveillance) and finally, through a personal visit to Israel itself.
There, Lagu received military and insurgency training (instruction that he m ade sure to pass to his Anya Nya compatriots in the field) and was promised funding and arms to continue the Anya Nya struggle. A delegation would be sent to South Sudan so as to assess the movement, Anya Nya’s support amongst South Sudanese and the feasibility of dropping weapons and supplies by air.
The delegation constituted a military officer, a radio signaller and a political officer. The military officer was none other than John, and he accompanied Lagu marching the length and breadth of Equatoria on foot. After a positive report to his superiors in Tel Aviv, John returned to South Sudan and would return again and again each season to coordinate the air drops of military and medical supplies provided. The arms would be funnelled to Uganda, and from there would be airdropped to ever changing sites in Equatoria. They would then be sent on to Anya Nya units throughout South Sudan.
The airdrops continued for several years until the perennially unstable Idi Amin fell out with the Israelis. General Amin had wanted to drag the Israelis into his conflict with Tanzania, to conquer that country for him and enable him to seize its port of Tanga so that Uganda (a landlocked country) would have an outlet to the sea. Rightly, the Israelis refused and an angry Amin resolved to drive them out of Uganda.
Though those very first airdrops ended, Israeli support for South Sudan would continue and would last for decades. It comes as no surprise that after South Sudan declared independence on 9th July 2011, Israel spared no time and formally recognised the nascent state on 10th July 2011. Visit Juba today and proliferation of Israeli flags, here adorning cars, there worn on a suit lapel, is staggering.
As he was leaving the hotel restaurant that hot and dusty day, John turned to me staring deeply into my eyes and said, “Jacob. Never trust an Arab!” It was said with such conviction and clearly backed by a depth of experience the nature of which I couldn’t possibly guess. John had been directly involved in some of the most harrowing, dangerous and momentous events in Jewish and Israeli history. His was the reality of an existential struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. He could not but be deeply affected by it.
After he left, I turned to my father and said, “I would like to know more about John. What is his surname?”
My father laughed, then exclaimed “How should I know! John isn’t even his real name.”