The joys of Juba airport

Juba, South Sudan

Arriving at Juba international airport, the gateway to the world’s newest nation, is never a pleasant experience. There is little that can prepare you for the chaos of the small, cramped space that serves as the arrivals hall, baggage collection, customs and immigration.

All you can do is stay calm, take a deep breath, and brace yourself to be crushed among hundreds of other tired, hot and frustrated travellers. If it goes well, you’ll probably be out of there in an hour or so, maybe even quicker.

The problem is that very often it doesn’t go well. And sometimes it can go really badly.

On my most recent trip to Juba, it didn’t go well. I arrived only a little delayed, and navigated immigration fairly smoothly. Unfortunately, the airline had obviously decided that having got me there, delivering my luggage was an unnecessary part of the process.

I waited until the last suitcase had been dragged from the plane by the airport tractor and flung through the hole in the terminal wall before I gave up and registered my luggage as lost. And this is how I spent my afternoons for the next four days, until finally, on day five, my bags arrived.


New international terminal Juba airport South Sudan

Construction of a new international terminal at Juba airport is under way, but delivery is years behind schedule


All this, though, was just an inconvenience compared to my previous trip to South Sudan. That time it went really badly.

I arrived at the airport with my filmmaker colleague James to start work on a documentary on South Sudan’s national wheelchair basketball team. James was making his first visit to the country.

“Don’t worry,” I said, wisely. “It’ll be fine. You just have to be patient.” James went off to get our passports stamped, while I got us a luggage trolley.

When James came back, he looked stressed.

“They’re going to deport us,” he said. “They say we needed a visa before we flew, and unless we can produce a government official in person to vouch for us, they’re putting us on the next plane out of here.”

We’d tried to get a visa before we flew, but had been told they were only issued on arrival.

“That was yesterday, this is today,” said the soldier at the visa desk.


Juba airport

James stands out from the crowd at Juba airport


Two hours later, after several phonecalls, we’d successfully persuaded a government official to come to the airport and argue our case. Even he had a hard time proving his credentials, but eventually our increasingly desperate petition to enter the country was granted. Once the customs official who by then had lost our passports had found them again, we headed out of the airport.

But the airport officials were just the start of our problems. When we left the terminal, a porter who had refused to let me take a trolley without him being in personal attendance, came with us. We paid him what we thought was a fair price for his services, upon which he threw our dollars back at us and launched into an impassioned diatribe in Juba Arabic.

A crowd soon gathered around our vehicle. One of the crowd became aggressive. He took the keys out of the ignition and demanded we pay the porter $50 before he would let us move.

Having reached a compromise that finally calmed the baying crowd, we drove away, and the nervous tension began to dissipate. The guy who’d threatened us, said Tony, our driver, was a policeman. “They’re all thieves,” he said angrily.


Luggage cart Juba airport

Who would have thought one luggage trolley could have caused us so much trouble


Later in the week, we fell foul of the authorities several more times for breaking rules we knew nothing about. The same ministry officials that had helped us out at the airport later demanded we pay them $400 for the film equipment we had with us.

They were unable to produce any paperwork to explain why, but told us that if we didn’t “there’d be trouble” when Sean, the third member of our crew, arrived at the airport a few days later. After much soul-searching, we decided that trying to make a stand just wasn’t worth the risk, and relented.

Not long after Sean had arrived, the three of us were with being taken by our inimitable Kenyan driver, Amos, to the Juba basketball court to film one of the team’s weekly Friday practice sessions. A few hundred yards from where we were staying, we stopped at a shop so I could grab some water.

When I returned to the car, James was being harangued by a plain-clothes security official. After a good half hour of questioning, during which James had to surrender his passport, we were told to return to our hotel and not to leave again until we had a South Sudanese escort.

The combination of unclear, frequently changing government regulations and widespread poverty means that foreigners in Juba are increasingly made to comply with rules and subjected to fines that can often seem completely arbitrary.

South Sudan only became independent in July 2011, and six months later a dispute with Sudan resulted in it ceasing exports of oil, the source of 98 per cent of the government budget. A year later, oil exports still haven’t resumed.

It is hard to say whether our experiences had more to do with bureaucratic disarray or a corruption problem that President Salva Kiir says has cost the country $4bn since 2005.

But until South Sudan can secure a more reliable source of income, and until clear government policy guidelines are in place, such problems are only likely to become more common.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.