Wheels only inches above the runway, the old plane shuddered and accelerated sharply, and we began climbing back into the sky over Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Looking down, I saw the turret of what I hoped was an unmanned anti-aircraft gun poking out of the grass. We had barely cleared the airport when the plane began to bank dramatically, and we slid into a tight u-turn over the Nile River. When we leveled off we were again on approach, this time from the opposite direction. The brush surrounding this end of the runway was free of heavy artillery, but festooned with the unmistakable charred remains of a plane that hadn't made it.
I wondered if I should have taken the road. Much had changed since the 2005 peace accord brought a halt to the twenty-one-year war between North and South Sudan, a conflict in which over two million people died and four million more had been displaced, and the oncemined and dilapidated dirt roads from neighboring Uganda and Kenya were now passable. The peace had also led to a growing number of commercial flights between Juba and regional cities, and I had chosen this option - in retrospect, perhaps a bit too hastily.
Earlier that November morning, I had boarded my flight in Nairobi. We had flown northwest over the Great Rift Valley and cut across the green mountains of Uganda; as we descended through the clouds I had caught my first glimpse of South Sudan. It is one of the least developed regions in the world, with less than ten miles of paved roads across its 227,000 square miles - an area nearly one-and-a-half times the size of California - and as I peered out, I had seen nothing but dry red earth dotted with occasional clusters of mud huts. There were no roads, no vehicles, and no buildings. The only indication that we were nearing Juba, South Sudan's urban center, had been a slight increase in the number of huts and the appearance of a few dirt roads.
Facing this barren landscape, it was hard not to be awed by the magnitude of the human and infrastructural development challenge facing the young government of South Sudan. The former rebels had assumed responsibility for a population estimated by the UN Population Fund to be anywhere between 7.5 and 9.7 million, of which as many as a third were believed to be displaced. In an age when "nation-building" had come to mean something done by outsiders, the Southern rebel movement had refashioned itself into a civilian government. It was trying simultaneously to build its own administrative structures, provide basic public services, and facilitate economic development, all while contending with the threat still posed by the North.
I was on my way to Juba to explore what this process meant on the ground, as rebel soldiers became government bureaucrats, battle -worn citizens awaited the promised benefits of peace, and a bombed-out garrison town became their first capital. Was it possible to build a government and develop a nation out of little more than dirt and determination? And could it be done while the threat of renewed war hung overhead?
In the days leading up to my trip, this threat had become ever more real as a political crisis between Juba and Khartoum escalated. Just a few days before my flight, the South had publicly accused the North of "mobilizing for war," and there was mounting concern that the peace deal might be about to collapse. If it did, it would have devastating consequences for the South Sudanese and for an already highly troubled region. I was anxious to get on the ground.
DEFYING EXPECTATIONS and apparent past precedent, we landed safely and rolled to a stop beside a line of white UN planes. I walked across the tarmac into the one -room arrivals terminal, a chamber that was bare but for a long table in the center and a dozen battered black armchairs lining the back wall. Two men in uniform sat behind the table and as I approached, one pushed a Dickensian ledger towards me. I …