Thursday, June 30, 2005

Everyone is talking about Kalma, Darfur’s biggest camp. It is bursting at the seams with hundreds of thousands of displaced families squashed into a long, narrow strip of land that runs for about 7kms alongside South Darfur’s train tracks...previous head counts suggest there are about 100,000 living here, but recent re-re-registrations (why the hell can no one ever seem to run a successful registration campaign? Is it really that hard to count people? GEEZ!) claim there are over a quarter of a million souls in here.

At least 25,000 of those living at Kalma are supposed to move: there is no doubt the camp is too full and that there is a (very real) risk of flooding to the low-lying areas now that the rains have started. But everyone knows that real reason behind the relocation issue is the Sudanese government’s mission to break up this monster camp and intimidate its inhabitants, who it suspects of sheltering anti-government rebels in its midst.

Unfortunately NO ONE is willing to leave the relative safety-in-numbers of Kalma and start walking to Al Salam, the new camp that is only a few kilometres down the road. Aid workers who walk around the camp to explain the option of the move (especially to those people whose houses are already flooding away) receive a mixed response of outrage and complete and utter disbelief. Lots of headshaking, accompanied by, "You know, if you didn't have these khawaja (foreigners) walking around with you, we would beat you right now."

The worries about insecurity at the new site are not exactly a figment of the overactive imagination either: aid workers prepping the area for the expected relocation have had guns pointed at their heads, while some of the local labourers digging latrines and boreholes have been killed, robbed and beaten on their way out there. (This, incidentally, is always the kind of thing the drivers like telling you when you are driving back from visiting a place like Al Salam…better after than before I suppose…)

Everyone is expecting something sinister to happen any day now: will Kalma be flooded? Will people scatter out of their shelters and across the railroad tracks into an area where irate, gun-toting landowners are ready at their triggers to turn them back? Will those who scamper onto the higher-lying areas across the wadi be completely cut off from food aid and other NGO services?

To make it all a bit more reassuring, the governor has announced that he will bulldoze down the entire camp in seven days if no one begins to relocate (the best part about this deadline is that no one is exactly sure to which date is refers, so it could be tomorrow, it could be next week.) I wonder how on earth he is planning to march some 100,000 - 200,000 people who are a.) terrified b.) pissed off c.) confused or d.) all of the above across half a dozen kilometres of rocky desert to their new ‘homes’? And what if they refuse? To say it could get messy would be a bit of an understatement.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

There were neither bombs nor gunshots - but the story gets even better! Today I hear on the aid worker grapevine that the 'attacked' UN plane that landed in Nyala yesterday (which was, incidentally, neither an Antonov nor carrying cargo) had merely busted a windshield shortly before landing.

Not that I would be saying 'merely' had I been a passenger on that flight, but in any case the plane landed safely after people heard a polite announcement explaining that the co-pilot had taken over the plane because the pilot could no longer see through his broken windshield (hmmm).

Of course, the government-controlled Sudanese media immediately went for the kill and spun a confusing and somewhat implausible tale pointing an accusing finger at the rebels.

Rewind to one week ago: in another part of the country (Red Sea State, thousands of miles form Darfur), another rebel group (Beja Congress) accuses the government of dropping bombs on civilians in the town of Tokar. No one in Tokar seemed to be able to find any holes in the ground where bombs had hit, but the finger-pointing is in full swing. This time, the international media run with the story.

So now the tit-for-tat comes full circle: (Beja) rebels accuse government of attacks in Red Sea State, government accuse (JEM) rebels of attacks in Darfur, everyone makes the other party look like the bad guy, and the cherry on the cake is that despite the difference in rebel groups, place and time, there actually is a link(Darfur's JEM rebels have recently been cooperating with the Beja ones through a kind of rebel conglomerate called 'Joint Eastern Front'). I may not understand all of the details (hey, if the media is not so bothered, who am I to question them), but it's somehow all ironic enough to keep me amused over here in my little corner of Sudan.

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Just saw in the Sudan Tribune that rebels (JEM apparently) attacked a UN cargo plane in South Darfur this afternoon. With a bomb. Rebels are shooting at the plane, the article claims. they shooting at the plane....with a bomb...?

I know I should stop marvelling at how nothing here ever really seems to be clear or make much sense, but somehow I can't. People are still giving me weird looks when I ask for clarifications, or anything along the lines of who, what and when for that matter. There are no facts in Sudan, just (plenty of different) points of view.

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Being surrounded by other aid workers does give you a certain sense of camaraderie, but just in case Big Brother left any doubts in your mind as to whether or not people who spend 24 hrs a day together go completely nuts, any aid agency guest house here in Sudan will confirm it.

Even the most reserved and docile colleagues have somehow turned into sexual predators: sex is on everyone's mind, particularly on those eagerly-awaited Thursday nights where home-made Janjaweed Juice quickly rids people of even their final social inhibitions.

Like everyone else, I join the hunt for fresh flesh and eagerly scan each new face – or even a new voice on the phone (!) - for some semblance of sexual chemistry. I rejoice in ecstasy any time I find my stomach doing little flip-flops along the 'yes, you'll do just fine' lines. Of course, half of the time the stomach-churning feeling simply turns out to be indigestion, but it's kind of exciting nonetheless....

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

A trip to the big city – I’m off to Khartoum for a few days, land of inflated rental prices and overpriced Pringles, for a few days. Just the thought of the air-conditioning, the embassy parties, and the Swiss chocolate at Amarat Centre make me swoon. Aaaah, civilisation!

A metropolis maybe, but glamorous it is not: at Khartoum airport, it seems there is never anyone who bothers to clear away the wreckage of past plane crashes. As we land today, we glide over the crushed body the Marsland wreck that crashed earlier this month (an aborted take-off that killed somewhere between 3 and 12 people depending on who you ask). I suppose its an improvement over El Geneina in West Darfur, where about three different wrecks are scattered along the sides of the runway, not exactly a reassuring sight for a nervous flyer like me.

The heat wave when you step off the plane is a bit like a slow, wet slap across the face. 'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Khartoum, where the local time is 5.30pm and the outside temperature is 41 degrees Celsius'. The only thought my weary brain can produce in this state is “Time to hit the parties…”

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

In the evening the local staff tell me that Janjaweed who herd their camels in the area have been in the camp to visit the market again, and that they have been leading their camels up to the water point to drink. Of course, this completely contaminates the water and destroys all the public health promotion work the NGOs have been doing.

People standing in line for water are too terrified to breathe a word (someone who spoke up last month apparently received a bullet in the foot). Our Sudanese staff try to intervene cautiously (not surprisingly, they're also terrified). They’re ignored by the camel owners; it’s only when they leave that they get a hissed acknowledgement of "Just wait until all your khawaja (foreigners) are gone, then we will kill you all." My stomach turns at the thought of what could happen the next time we evacuate from the town.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Even though I've read it all a million times and even seen it before in a previous aid worker existence the real face of the conflict is still disturbingly ugly and frightening. This morning, one of our Sudanese staff tells me that he has been watching the new army recruits jog through town- among them, he has spotted the man who killed two of his brothers.

This month’s army recruitment drive in Darfur is basically a way of integrating the people responsible for Darfur's rapes and murders into official military ranks. The displaced women who walk through town to get water are literally forced to stare their rapists in the eye. Even the children recognise those who butchered their families.

The Janjaweed still hiss verbal abuse at them as they pass, and the only thing that has really changed in the eyes of the victims if that their killers have now been properly armed and uniformed. It's no wonder everyone is terrified.

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There is a misconception among my friends and family back home that aid work is all about high-powered action and life or death experiences, but in reality, much of my job is made up of 'hurry up and wait' moments. Late nights behind the computer and in meetings are just as common as long waits for that airplane, that WFP helicopter, or that road from hell to just please be over with.

The one redeeming part of the bumpy treks in the 4WDs are the drivers, who scandalous gossip would put any hairdresser to shame. They know everything and everyone, and rarely run out of weird and wonderful stories. As a woman, I’m told I miss some of the more raunchy ones but even the tame versions are enough to cheer up another long drive through dusty Darfur.

Today, the driver tells me that he has heard about a shooting in Foro Barunga. A man was trying to rob a horse a few nights ago when he suddenly heard a noise on the other side of the property and promptly shot someone he believed to be the owner. The other guy, as it turns out, was also a thief trying to commit the same robbery - so he shot back.

Even though I fail to confirm whether it was really a horse or a house the robbers were after (I ask three times, but still can't decide which word Hamid's going for) or if anyone was actually killed in the shoot-out, I can't seem to stop laughing.

More and more, I find myself giggling even when the stories are told in Arabic and I barely catch a word. It's just impossible NOT to join in when there are two or three people around you just pissing themselves with laughter.

It's a beautiful habit: freely and genuinely laughing at something that you don't really understand, or that isn't really that funny. Why not, I suppose…

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Welcome to my world...

I've now been in Darfur for three months, and have finally managed to set up this blog. My good intentions of daily journal entries were destroyed immediately as I spent my first few weeks rushing from meeting to meeting, pouring over mountains of reports and websites, and yet going home late every night with a distinct feeling of not having grasped a single coherent thought about life in Sudan.

It’s exhausting to be here, physically and mentally. Even sleep is no release when you find it (and most of the time the heat doesn’t allow it anyway). With its frantic Lariam-induced dreams of missed airplanes, expired visas and urgent telephone calls, it doesn’t really offer much more respite than another long night hunched over the dimly-lit laptop (or, alternatively, over a bottle of dodgy Cameroonian whiskey with equally dodgy fellow aid workers).

After a week, I was ready to panic about all the things I still didn’t know or understand. Three months on, I am calmer. Not that I suddenly get it – I’ve just realised that no one else here seems to have much of a clue as to what is going on either.

Not that you would guess from talking to people of course. I have quickly learned to become very sceptical of anyone who sounds too confident or opinionated…most of the time, they are the ones who have spent the least time outside of their air conditioned offices (except for the time they spend talking themselves up to other aid workers at the all-important inter-agency meetings of course).

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