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The smell of death and the wig

I had always wondered what the smell of death is like. And it became unmistakable to me, when I had not seen the corpse yet.

A soldier with a bazooka performs a moment of victory in the trenches of Lilo, South Sudan. Photo © Albert González Farran / AFP
A soldier with a bazooka performs a moment of victory in the trenches of Lilo, South Sudan. Photo © Albert González Farran / AFP

It is not easy to describe it, but it is to identify it. The smell of death is like a dark room, locked for a long time. When you open it, the smell comes to you suddenly and punches you into the stomach. In the trenches of South Sudan, where the war loses all the humanity is left, that smell showed me intense emotions.

It was at the outskirts of a village called Lilo, at the north of the country, where government troops and factions from the opposition were fighting for few meters of land. That day, soldiers of the regular army celebrated a macabre victory over a small group of rebels who got lost close to the enemy positions. They were already dead for days when the South Sudanese Government invited journalists to visit the front-line, to show that the recapture of those positions was not just military propaganda.

Shortly after dropping off the helicopter, photographers and TV cameras could capture dozens of bodies, scattered strategically. Victims wore down pants as post-mortem humiliation. The commanders indicated their penises, swollen by the decomposition, with stirring gestures of cruel happiness. Some journalists responded to those jokes with smiles moved by fear.

The staging was intended for the press as the final scene of a very bad movie. On one side, the dead all abandoned between stones and bushes. On the other, the winners sang for their lives from the trenches, as if the combat had ended just at that moment.

One of the victorious soldiers hold a bazooka with the theatrical intention to shoot again when he received the order. He shouted from his position, with eyes injected by the blood of his victims, while his fellow warmen laughed like fools. And on the head he wore a wig. A woman’s wig.

In South Sudan, as in most parts of Africa, wigs are a very popular article in the markets. Women have at least one at home. The most fortunate, they keep a whole collection: blonde, brunette, smooth, curly, short and long. A wig for every occasion.

South Sudan became independent in 2011, but a civil war broke out just two years later. The conflict has taken thousands of victims and a large part of them have been women of all ages who, due to their sexual condition, have suffered the worst part. Beaten, raped, humiliated, enslaved and murdered, many women from South Sudan have not been able to wear their wigs again because of an stupid war. And that soldier of the bazooka wore a woman’s wig with a fanfare. The wig was already dirty and awkward. Nobody dared to ask who he had taken it from

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