Living in a place of war...part 4.
When I returned to South Sudan in mid-July, tensions were still high, but noticeably lower than when I left. I was much relieved. And though tensions continued to escalate and fall the remainder of 2014, they never reached the same level as they were in June and July. I think because of the cyclical pattern of tensions rising and falling, I didn’t truly expect the gunfight that was now happening less than a 100 meters from my front door on December 28, 2014.
As soon as I heard the POP_POP_POP_POP_POP_POP_POP, I grabbed Thomas as he fell to the ground ducking into my house. I immediately clicked off the lights and told Thomas to stay on the ground. Then I started to close my window shutters when I heard a knock on my door.
CRAP! WHO IS THAT!!! I thought. Who is his right mind would be knocking on my door in the middle of a gun fight happening in front of my house!?!?!
“Joseph!! Joseph!! Joseph!! (Joseph is the name that many local people call me). LET ME IN!!! I forgot my keys!!!” It was my next-door neighbor, Brown, whose tukul (small, one-room house with grass thatched roof) is only 15 feet from my front door. In the haste to get away from the bullets, he fled full-speed away from his shop on the roadside near the fighting and v-lined it home, only he left his house keys in his shop! Hence he is pounding on my door like a mad man to let him come inside!
And so I opened the door. And then we all immediately fell to the ground as more gunfire continued. Then I fiddled to lock the door again, crouching as low as possible to avoid gunfire, trying to position myself away from any possible stray bullets coming my way. And as the simple latch and lock system on my door would not slide into place, again I thought, CRAP! Have I never locked my door from the inside before? Come on, please slide into place you stupid lock, just like every other lock I’ve seen in South Sudan, that no longer lines up exactly right and now will not close! And then it closed.
WHAT THE CRAP IS GOING ON!!! Whoever is shooting those bullets, they’ve got some big-ass guns! That ain’t no AK-47s out there!!!
As I lay on the dirty, dusty, dry season concrete floor of my house, and granted I only have two rooms in my house, one for sleeping and one for everything else, and at the time I happened to be in the everything else room when the gunfire started, I thought, “Huh, never been in this position before,” laying on the concrete floor, not daring to make a single whisper in fear that the gunmen were nearby.
The ongoing gunfire lasted about 45 minutes, and then there was roughly 45 minutes of sporadic gunfire, and then throughout the night and into the morning there was random gunfire.
I suppose you don’t know how you will react in such a situation until you are in such a situation. As I was lying on the concrete floor, my tailbone aching as I wished I were in my other room – the room with the mattresses, I could feel my heart beat. I can always feel my heart beat. Ever since my teenage years, I can feel my heart beat. Not always, but when I am still, I can feel each thump, count each beat, measure each rhythm. At that particular moment, gunshots blasting, uncertainty surrounding, darkness around, my heartbeat was no faster than normal. My breathing was steady and to my surprise, my heartbeat was not accelerated.
I suppose I have known for some time, or at least I have surmised, that my body lacks the fight or flight mentality, or maybe it is just significantly delayed beyond what I believe it should be. There was a moment, possibly I was eight or nine years old at the time, when I was charged by a large, black bull. I was helping my father lure this elusive animal back into its cage after its midday escape – our cows were ALWAYS finding ways to get out of their pens. This particular cow was one of my least favorite animals of all time. I knew him well, and he knew me well. He was always mean to the other cows, so bossy and arrogant, or so my eight or nine-year-old at the time self thought. As we, my father and I, were chasing him through our barn with sticks in hand, he suddenly stopped running and turned directly toward me. He then lowered his head, kicked his back legs, and charged straight at me, all 1000+ pounds of him. I can still see it perfectly, ‘Blacky’ as I called him, heading straight toward me in a rage of furry.
I recall my dad yelling something to me, along the sorts of, “Get the ****out of the way!!!” That still sounds like something he would say. But for whatever reason, I was frozen in space and time. I did not move. I saw the bull coming, and I knew he was likely going to plow me over, but my body did not move. Then the hurling, black mass of cow skidded to a halt a few feet in front of me, and then ran off into his cage by his own volition. I still have no idea why he stopped. As my dad continued to curse, alternating at me and Blacky, I think, if had you checked my heart rate at the time, it was likely normal. It was only minutes after the incident that I think I felt my heart thump rapidly along inside my chest. Several such incidences of fight or flight moments have occurred over the years, and many times my responses have been the same. Not anxious, nor fearful, not ready to fight immediately, but not running either. Somehow stuck in a moment of time. I think this same response is what helped me to think clearly and calmly when I worked in the main emergency department after graduation from physician assistant school. A gunshot wound in this patient, an active myocardial infarction in that patient, a bleeding laceration in that guy. All series cases awaiting immediate response, but all needing someone to make sense of the situation, evaluate and respond, while trying to calm the chaos or work amidst the chaos. I think a similar response was happening inside of me as I, Thomas, and Brown lay in stillness as a chaotic world around us was unraveling.
...to be continued...