Saturday, July 30, 2005

Another early morning flight on my favourite airline - with today's highlight being a quite intimate encounter with a particularly hands-on (female) security agent at Khartoum airport (women do not have to go through the regular metal detectors here - we just disappear off into a little cubicle with a nice airport lady). Bit of a sudden awakening, but I suppose it's not like I'm getting much other physical action at the moment...

We glide across Darfur smoothly, and immediately there's a lot of gossip and news to catch up on back at the office.

The Sudanese President has visited Darfur last week and made all the right politically correct noises on peace, security - even unmentionable issues like rape.

While this is encouraging, it still doesn't hide the facts on the ground: NGO updates I'm handed on last weekend's clashes near Shangil Tobay prove that the fighting has not stopped, with casualties treated at NGO clinics including four children with bullet and shrapnel wounds.

I'm told that the African Union is still investigating the incidents - and while we would all love to believe they can make a difference in places like this, I am starting to worry even about their own safety (and so would anyone else who has ever seen the woefully under-equipped two vehicles that they've currently got for 150 soldiers...or the miserly two magazines of ammunition each of them has for defending themselves - never even mind others!)

But I suppose for now I'd better worry about my overflowing email inbox, and leave the rants for another day. Despite all the new worries and stories, it's good to be back in the field.

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Friday, July 29, 2005

The sandstorm whirls through the city and we pull all the windows and shutters closed. Huddled over my blinking computer, I take a moment to let my dazed mind enjoy the brilliant dust particles that float silently through the hot humid room - but it barely takes an instant until a new avalanche of thoughts and to dos comes rushing through my head and yanks my attention back to the keyboard.

I type at a speed that nearly makes me dizzy, my fingers desperately contorting themselves to catch up with a mind that has made a habit of speed-reading ahead.

When the throbbing headache finally becomes too much, I call my friend in West Darfur for a quick break. In the similar desire to detach, she has taken the day off.

(Well, she has also taken the day off because she has no email. And, if the latest rumours are to be believed, will not have a regular phone line again until November. I'm glad to know there is enough Sudanese oil money to build a bowling alley in the Afra Center, but that no one in the government thinks it is important for West Darfur to communicate with the outside world.)

Another Friday in Darfur, and still nothing to do. In the absence of a Friday man, my friend is devouring a tattered copy of War and Peace. She has reached page 1049.

We are a weird bunch, the aid workers. Always in motion and still so confused. Passionate one second, detached the next; charming and full of smiles today, self-destructive and gloomy tomorrow. When I talk about the displaced and distressed people I work with, I sometimes wonder if I am describing IDPs or my own colleagues.

Time to head back out to the field I think...

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Besides the fascinating meetings, Khartoum also offers us aid workers the rare opportunity to indulge in a bit of luxury and pampering.

Shopping for Nutella and Pantene shampoo at the air-conditioned Afra Center is a bit surreal after a few weeks in the markets of Darfur, but it does give you an appreciation for the sense of awe that locals still display towards Sudan's only functioning escalator (...and yes, watching people try to go up and down this for the first time remains a huge source of entertainment for locals and foreigners alike).

The smallest hole-in-the-wall restaurants suddenly strike me as sleek and cosmopolitan, and rather than complaining about the size of the pot-holes I have begun commenting on the beauty of paved streets.

With offers of NGO parties and "cultural evenings" at the embassies (whose main function is clearly providing large quantities of the favourite national drink), it's almost worth getting a bikini wax from the lovely Philippino ladies at Street 15.

The ultimate luxury, however, is not something that can be found in the aisles of Afra.

It is sitting on the plush chairs of an anonymous hotel restaurant (if possible poolside) with relaxing elevator music, some nice conversation and a glass of ice-cold juice - entirely forgetting (just for one moment) that you are still in Sudan.

The very bitter aftertaste to this brief escape is the realisation that it is an option that is not open to the people of Darfur.

To an outsider, it may be a frustrating few years of work, or no more than a sad article in a newspaper. Until we move on to the next thought, the next country.

For millions of Sudanese, no matter which side of the conflict they find themselves on, it is simply life as they've always known it.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

It's back to Khartoum this morning - and let me just say there's nothing like spending a day in the hands of the Humanitarian Air Service.

You don't know budget airline until you have experienced this: there is no ticket system. You just get on if your name it on the list. If you arrive early enough you can write your name on the bottom of the list in the hope that someone doesn't turn up. You then carry all your baggage right up to the plane and it is ceremoniously dumped back onto the Tarmac at the end of your journey.

There is no schedule, you are informed the night before what time to arrive at the aiport and if you are lucky the plane will take off sometime in the following 8 hours. I won't even go into the massive chunks of plastic missing from the emergency exit seals, but let's just say it's not exactly a nervous flyer's idea of a relaxing morning...

In their defense (and because, deep down, we do love them) they are also the world's only budget airline where "free" actually means free: they ferry us scruffy aid workers around all of Sudan for nothing!

So - Khartoum. I like Khartoum because a lot of things suddenly become so much clearer to me after I visit (others, of course, simply become even more perplexing).

At the African Union's shiny new offices, I discover that there are no working telephones. Or faxes. Or emails.

Interesting... So that might explain some of the organisation's, ehemmmm, communications problems we come across in the field.

In another meeting, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture (or maybe Finance?) proudly tells me that "here at Ministry, we do lots of reports. And studies, lots of studies. And we play with figures." It takes a lot of effort to ignore the irony of this unfortunate translation, but I manage to vigorously nod my head in agreement.

Can't wait to find out which other gems I could stumble across in this captivating city tomorrow...

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

On a slightly more amusing note, I thought others might appreciate this little tidbit I just discovered in an old situation report lying on my desk:

"Sources in West Darfur are reporting that a policeman entered a compound, jumped in naked, fired randomly, and disapeared again. The police admitted the incident, but denied the shooting."

Just in case there were still any doubts about how crazy this place really is...

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Alarm bells going off this morning as the promises made in every single peace talk this month continue to unravel: the news wires in Cairo are claiming that the Sudanese government have bombed villages near Shangil Tobayi in North Darfur. The Sudanese army are returning the blame and accusing SLA rebels of attacks a bit further down the same stretch of road.

As usual, the finger-pointing from both sides is riddled with inaccuracies, misrepresentations and often outright lies. The word among the aid worker community is that armed government helicopters have definitely been breaking some no-fly zone rules over the past few days, but no one has actually gotten confirmation of bombed villages (at least yet). All is tense as we wait to get some reliable news and hope that the fighting won't produce too many civilian casualties this time.

Not that any of the signatories of this month's much heralded peace agreement share our worries, unfortunately...

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Another thing that struck me about Condoleeza Rice's visit was the emphasis that she put onto the issue of rape - or, more importantly, the effect this seemed to have on the Sudanese government.

In Darfur, rape continues to be one of the most highly charged topics of all and the government is doing its best to bully the international community (be they UN or NGOs) to stay the hell out of it.

We would, of course, except that it continues to take place at a daily rate. Anyone who claims that rape is not being used as a weapon of war here in Darfur is either lying through their teeth or just plain nuts. It is rare that I come back from a camp visit without having met a woman who has been raped recently - and every situation report, security briefing or protection document that comes out of Darfur confirms this to the rest of the world (well, those who are listening at least).

Unfortunately, the government's silencing campaign has partially worked: earlier this week I ask another sheik whether he is reporting his community's rape cases to the (government-controlled) police force. He politely tells me that he would probably be killed if he did - beaten at a minimum, he adds as an afterthought, so no, he doesn’t report them anymore.

Not only that: women have also stopped seeking medical treatment after a rape, avoiding even NGO clinics. Clearly, the government's intimidation campaign has had some impact here: after seeing the government arrest foreign aid workers for publicising the huge number of rape incidences, women are simply too afraid that they will be beaten (or raped again) by security agents who suspect them of reporting cases. The fear is not unfounded: almost all of us in the field know that there are informants among the national NGO staff, even among the doctors and nurses at international aid agencies.

There is little that the average aid worker can do or say about all this if they don't want to be manhandled like this week's pesky US journalists. We are all acutely aware of the threat of being kicked out of the country, or worse, targeted in a "convenient" security incident.

Thankfully, these rules don't exactly apply to people like Condoleeza Rice, who did speak out on the issue of rape both prior to and during her visit. And lo and behold, the subject suddenly seemed a whole lot more serious coming from the lips of a senior US government official. Yes, the Sudanese government will address rapes in Darfur! And prosecute the offenders! And sign up to an international convention on the protection of women! Yes, something is going to be done!

While those on the ground are much too cynical too assume that anyone will actually follow through on these promises, there is a sense of relief simply in reasising that some things and some people obviously do still make the Sudanese government jump. Now if only they would make them jump a little higher...

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

The US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, came to visit us in Darfur this week. Somehow she had managed to slot Sudan into her overfilled agenda of Middle East meetings, and quickly waltzed through a gaggle of appointments in Khartoum and El Fasher before taking off again into the turbulent skies of whirlwind diplomacy.

Everybody was so busy taking the visit seriously that I couldn't help but feel naive and simplistic when my observation of "It's a shame she didn't take the time to actually visit a camp" was generally met with quizzical, slightly exasperated stares from the policy wonks (for those of who are interested, she DID manage to spend some time visiting a much more cheerful and photogenic pasta-making project for IDPs). Clearly, political negotitations and rapid-fire briefings were loaded with a kind of value that my poor little aid worker mind simply could not comprehend.

While everyone knows - and regularly insists - that Darfur (never even mind the rest of Sudan) is not something that can be summed up in a few meetings, it seems that no one ever tires of trying.

Though still somewhat dazed from the dizzying pace at which this woman managed to bulldoze through a series of carefully scripted humanitarian platitudes churned out in 20-minute briefings with African Union soldiers, NGOs and womens groups, I did find a little nugget of simplicity in the whole visit that provided me a brief glimmer of hope, or at least amusement: the press briefing.

In an entirely unscripted and beautifully symbolic moment, Condoleeza Rice briefly caught a glimpse of the nastier face of a government that has become just a little too comfortable with brute force and coercion when her press entourage was given a few rough shoves and had their microphones snatched away by menacing security agents who were getting a bit impatient with their tiresome and embarassing questions.

Unused to being forcibly dragged out of the room for daring to ask an actual question in a press briefing, the American journalists were outraged and even Rice herself was ruffled up enough to demand a public apology, which was duly and sheepishly delivered by the Foreign Minister a bit later.

At least you can't blame the Sudanese officials for not trying to make the journalists feel right at home. Hey, this is how we treat people who ask questions here, get used to it...

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Just a quick post today to say that a friend of mine has suggested a brilliant solution for shipping books out to Sudan: send them to a local (and desperately book-hungry) university!

For all those kind souls out there who have emailed me with offers of book shipments in response to my earlier post, here's the address:

Ahfad University for Women
P.O. Box 167


The literarily-deprived population of Sudan thanks you ...

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Rains are making it a bit hard to communicate at the moment. The Thuraya satellite phones only work when they are actually pointing up at the satellite, which means you have to be outside. And being outside and pointing the things up at the sky when it's pouring down on you is simply not very pleasant for either me or my phone.

While posting these little rants to my blog may not exactly be a communications priority, reporting security incidents certainly is. And there have been a lot this month in North Darfur where I am working at the moment: it's rare that a day or a situation report passes by without at least one mention of attacks and robberies, be they on locals or aid workers.

After musing yesterday about how even the government must eventually realise that improved security might actually make some sense, I realise that some of the most unlikely sources are suddenly beginning to agree with me on this.

Today an African Union soldier who patrols around a checkpoint near Kebkabiya tells me that he had an interesting experience a few weeks ago - a group of Arab militia were passing through and suddenly stopped to complain to the AU about increased robberies and banditry in that area (no mention of the politically and ethnically motivated attacks, rapes and murders, but hey, what can you expect from militia?)

Yep, that's militia, complaining about too much violence. And the fact that someone should really do something about it.

It gets even better: only a few hours later, who should pass by the same checkpoint but a group of rebels (SLA). Making exactly the same comment about how the AU should really sort out all this banditry - it's simply getting unacceptable, all this violence.

I couldn't agree more. Shame that my definition of violence still seems to be a bit wider than theirs.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

As I read today's emails and speak to colleagues in South Darfur, my attention turns back to Kalma, Darfur's monster camp that is home to about 150,000 IDPs (that's internally displaced people to the jargon-challenged).

The government has been trying to break up Kalma for months after discovering that they can no longer comfortably control and monitor people in the camp with their regular level of spying and intimidation.

First came the economic sanctions (hey, at least they're trying to learn from their own experiences in diplomacy here) in the shape of a commercial traffic ban for the entire camp. This effectively cut off everyone's access to the towns and markets and meant that people could no longer get the vegetables and foods that they need to supplement the staple food aid they received.

While the ban produced a robust increase in malnutrition rates, it didn't actually succeed in getting anyone to move.

Neither did lies, bribes, threats, or deadlines for bulldozers.

Even the arrival of the rains and the flooding of thousands of homes have not helped - people are refusing to budge to a new (smaller and less secure) site. The terror of what awaits them outside of their camp is quite simply too big.

Now wait a minute - why don't they just try to make it safer outside of the camps, you might ask. Surprisingly (and after months of intense lobbying from the UN/NGO community on this front), the government seems to be realising what the obvious answer to the question is and has begun deploying a decent amount of soldiers around the site of the new camp.

Unfortunately, the effort that is going into this deployment (or for that matter any disarmament of militias beyond the perimeter of the camp) is nowhere near as great as the effort currently going into a parallel campaign of intimidation that has got the government's fingerprints written all over it.

Each day brings a new report of violent attacks inside Kalma, targeting water points, medical clinics, NGO compounds and IDPs themselves. Shootings have become a regular nightly occurence inside the camp, and even in Nyala town (45 min down the road) there are nightly armed break-ins into aid workers offices and guest houses.

In an almost hysterical development, there has been some success for the government: one lone little IDP has arrived at Al Salam, the new camp, and has declared himself the first resident! Everyone is still debating whether or not he has been planted there, but it's just as likely he's simply a nutter (among 150,000 people you should always be able to find at least one).

In the meantime, the remaining 25,000 or so people who are meant to move to the new site are waiting for one simple thing: personal safety. Somehow, it just seems to be too hard to offer.

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Only a couple of weeks into the rainy season, and it's already becoming increasingly hard to get around. Since I'm stuck in the office for most of the day I phone a few of my colleagues in other locations and hear that people in El Geneina (West Darfur) are now using canoes to get to the market.

Even in Khartoum the streets were flooded knee-high last Wednesday and the city was transformed into a veritable African Venice (apparently half of the taxis and tuc-tucs broke down and created a massive underwater traffic jam).

The mosquitos are getting vicious and all the aid workers have suddenly become vigilant about taking their malaria tablets now that we are seeing more and more new cases break out in the camps every day.

The children are the worst because they are already weak and often malnourished, their little bodies are just completely overstretched. Most are eerily quiet despite their obvious discomfort, and it pains me to think that maybe they just don't know anything different. Having lived in the camps for more than two years now, they are growing up to think that this is a normal state of being, a regular part of life.

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

I return to my office from a day off (yes, an actual day off!) and immediately stumble across something that makes me laugh, even if it is in one of those needing-to-laugh-so-that-I-dont-cry-out-of-sheer-desperation sort of ways.

An email that has been going around various UN agencies in Sudan has been forwarded to me: it's a pretty standard security briefing that warns UN staff to be particularly vigilant due to increased threats within the current "political" climate (no explanation as to what exactly that political climate is and why it's a threat, but a stern note at the bottom of the mail urging all readers to discourage rumours and unconfirmed information...)

In instructing staff how to respond to this increased security threat, the mail helpfully explains that Sudanese phone networks are unreliable (really?) and tells people to ensure that they are carrying their VHF radio with them at all times.

Seems sensible at first glance, until one of the UN staffers across town hits 'reply to all' to politely thank his colleagues for worrying about him and to point out that none of the staff have actually been given said radios to carry with them (he is absolutely right - besides drivers and logisticians, hardly anyone carries the things or knows how to use them according to security protocol).

The fact is that even if they had a radio they would probably not bother to call in for their regular security checks. Some people do, but ever since being told that nothing actually happens (i.e. no one from a central agency goes and looks for you) if you don't respond plenty of others have given up on the process entirely.

Good to know that if my trusty Land Cruiser gets swept away by a river (as one NGO truck did this week in North Darfur) there will definitely be some security people who care. It's just that no one will be able to tell them about it.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

As another week in Darfur draws to a close, I am exhausted and drained.

In some parts of North Darfur the rains have been pounding down on us poor aid workers like whips. The drops splatter onto the tin roofs of our little offices and compounds like machine gun fire - conversation is impossible, and you can barely hear yourself think.

Of course, we are the lucky ones. In the camps, everyone is scrambling to higher ground as tents collapse, plastic sheeting flies away, and homes are submerged in feet of water. The houses that people have built out of red mud bricks become veritable swimming pools and slides: everything and everyone is soaked.

Even in major towns the water can rise up to knee-level, and the children are practically submerged in the filthy brown slush. My heart aches when I think that there is no fresh change of clothing waiting for them at home; often, in fact, there is no home for them to return to. Sleeping in their soggy rags, five to a waterlogged straw mat, these kids are a sorry sight for anyone's eyes, even our hardened aid worker ones.

The fact that diarrhoea, malaria and other rainy season diseases are almost certainly lurking just around the corner makes it all even more depressing.

Still, the resilience of the people astounds me. There is simply no time for tears, nor does anyone complain. The atmosphere is remarkably harmonious, and families in the higher-lying parts of the camp willingly move over to make room for even more people in their tiny little homes.

"We're all in this together," I am told quite often. One woman, composed and dignified despite the chaos going on around her, tells me that she is used to accepting her fate, whatever that is. "All we want is a little bit of food and some help with the shelters, just to get us through." It's not much to ask, is it?

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Today I got a lovely email from Michael, an operations manager at Random House (a big publishing company) who says:

"I've been following the events in Darfur for some time now and came across your blog. It's great to get a first hand view of life as an aid worker so thank you for providing such a well written account for others to read.

I noticed that you and your friends were bemoaning the lack of new reading material. Is it possible for books to be sent to you, or maybe I should say, for books that have been sent to you to be delivered. Since I work for a publishing company which greatly appreciates the work done by aid organisations, and since I have a particular interest in Darfur and the plight of it's people, I would be quite happy to send you a selection of books. Just need to know that you would actually get them."

Given the dearth of good books here in Darfur, I was understandly pleased and also quite touched by this sweet offer. Unfortunately, I'm also at a bit of a loss as to how to accept it: not only am I trying to be anonymous here, I should also point out that there is no standard postal system in Sudan (as in the kind with street names and numbers).

Even in the capital, Khartoum, none of the houses have numbers and none of the streets have names. Someone has usefully decided to number some of the streets - only they have only used odd numbers (and even then they don't use all of them in their correct numerical order). So really, the only way to get mail in Sudan seems to be by PO boxes (and no, there is no Mailboxes Etc in Darfur).

So if anyone has any bright ideas of how Michael could send us some books (CDs? DVDs?) electronically please do let me know (I've never actually read an e-book and have no clue how long it takes to download/whether it can be burned onto a CD to hand out to others who don't have internet access/etc.) Can you even send DVD files by email? Now that would make me a pretty big hit over here, let me tell you...

In the meantime, my thanks to Michael for the kind offer - even if it might not work it has brightened my day to know that not everything in the world is evil and depressing. But more on that tomorrow...

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Monday, July 11, 2005

I've been trying to be positive about the inauguation of the new Sudanese government this weekend: clearly, it's a big deal and everyone is fervently hoping that it will bring some much needed change to the country.

But today's it's back to business and, as expected, Darfur is still Darfur.

In their desperate attempt to show the world just how grand things really are getting around here the Sudanese government continues to press ahead with the relocation issue (particularly in those cases where a relocation of displaced communities suits their needs, like in Kalma camp).

Obviously, a big part of the relocation roadshow is getting some life back into those villages - and hell, who cares if the people living there are actually the original inhabitants?

All over Darfur, tribes allied to the Janjaweed militia are beginning to settle into their new homes, sow their fresh seeds and plough their new fields. Except of course the little huts and the ripe fields aren't actually theirs.

Today a conversation about seasonal fruits (my passion for mangoes has become a favourite topic for lunchtime chit-chat) reveals some of the more bizarre and tragic realities of this conflict: When I ask our staff where the mangoes are grown and whether they themselves grow any, I hear that plenty of them used to plant them, before. "Before?"

"Well, we always used to plant mangoes," I'm told by one of the locals (who has himself been displaced by the fighting and lives with his family in one of the camps). "This season, I even took the risk of walking back to my field from the camp just to plant. But in the past few weeks it's been too dangerous to go outside of the camp with all these shooting and attacks against people like us. So I can't go and harvest anything, and now the new people from other tribes who've moved into my village and taken over my fields are selling me my own mangoes in the market."

We all have to laugh - there is no other way to deal with the absurdity of the situation, even though I'm sure that's the last thing my colleague feels like doing when he is actually paying the man who hands him his mangoes in the market.

He just shakes his head. Then he laughs again. "You know, it is even worse for my cousin. He bought some mangoes from the people who are now farming his fields, and then as he was walking home along the outskirts of the camp, some bandits started pushing and harassing him. They took his money, and the mangoes too. So he has planted them once, paid for them once, and still he has no mangoes."

We can't help but laugh again, but sadly, I have to admit that today's sweet mangoes leave me with a more bitter aftertaste than usual.

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

You just can't make stuff like this up: today our local staff tell me that there are gorillas attacking people near the Chadian border.

Convinced that there must be some mistake in the translation (and immediately suspicious of some much more sinister activity) I ask them to repeat their news. No, gorillas it is. Yes, as in large, furry primates. My raised eyebrows only illicit even more vehement assurances, and more people join in with their hair-raising tales and tidbits.

Of course there are gorillas in Darfur! They have crossed the border from Chad and are attacking women and babies! They are fierce. And HUGE.

My jokes about how clever they must be to sneak past the passport officials are met with looks of derision. Clearly, this khawajia must be completely off her rocker not to take such a dangerous threat more seriously. Since I wouldn't want anyone to accuse me of not sharing security information, I do my best to spread the word over the rest of the afternoon.

Aid workers in West Darfur - consider yourselves warned!

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Another Friday (our only day off) and I have succumbed to the temptation of coming into the office...shameful really, considering I already have a 60-hr work week but let's face it, there's not much to do in Darfur besides work.

Last Friday I stayed at home and PAINTED MY TOENAILS! A few of us girls decided that mindless activity might boost our spirits, so we ended up having a fantastic heart-to-heart gossip session. Speaking about work was banned, so instead we covered the following frivolous topics:

- Handsome men: few and far between. There is a very persistent rumour about one incredibly hot French man roaming through Darfur, but no one has ever seen him in person and we are all starting to believe it's a (rural) myth. The oldtimers assured us we would soon enough lower our standards and develop the infamous Darfur goggles, but for now the consensus was we are somewhat deprived of male attention over here.

- What to do on Fridays. Depending on which town in Darfur you are in, there are different choices, some as exciting as an evening out at the restaurant (keep in mind the few that exist usually have affectionate nicknames like The Flat Chicken and serve only one dish - yep, you've guessed it, chicken - on a rickety plastic stool crammed next to the side of a dusty road). After lots of hmmmming and haaahing we decided there wasn't really ANYTHING to do on Fridays other than have sex. Smug looks from the ones who were getting some, sighs and sad headshakes from the rest of us.

- Books. Unfortunately, everyone has already read everyone else's and there's nothing left to discuss. It's gotten to a point where new arrivals are bombarded with instant questions about their ability to contribute to our dusty little library. (Bringing a People or Hello magazine out to Darfur with you is the surest path to instant popularity if there ever was one. Unless you happen to be a handsome man. That might score you some points too.)

- DVDs. Same story. CDs. Same story.

- Foods we miss. Lots of muttered 'if I see just ONE more peanut salad's, but also some surprising realisations of 'you know, pasta is not so bad in a dessert actually'. Pastis, however, is still bad any way you look at it. Never, ever will we drink that vile stuff again. Ever. least until next Thursday night...

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Sudanese bureaucracy! I spend the better part of today chasing up after my travel permit. As avid news readers may be aware, the Sudanese government last year lifted some very cumbersome travel restrictions for aid workers here in Sudan in a gesture of goodwill - so now it's merely mindnumbingly difficult to move around, as opposed to completely impossible.

Here's how it works: you enter the country on a one-month visa. Immediately upon arrival you ask for a Darfur travel permit (usually pretty painless) and then leave your passport behind in Khartoum so that the one-month visa can be extended to a three-month one. This may take up to two months though, so you may find yourself visa-less and grounded in one place for a month if you're unlucky.

Once you arrive in Darfur, you need another travel permit for the location you want to reach (ie anywhere outside the state capital). This one varies from state to state, but in some places you will need a different permit for each camp; in some, one permit will be enough for a whole range of different areas.

Some permits are valid for a week, some for a month. Some three months, it's all fun and games trying to figure out what you are getting each time.

For some locations, like Port Sudan, you need a travel permit if you go by road, but not if you fly there!

And while you are busy worrying about travel permits (and photo permits, which I am told expire every don't even get me started on the idea of photo permits!) your three-month visa will probably already be expired again and you will need to get a new one. Which might take another two months. During which you cannot travel.

You even need a visa to leave the country. None of this just-showing-up-at-the-airport-last-minute deals. Even the exit visa can take several weeks, and it's not uncommon for people to miss their airplanes because someone at one of the dozen ministries that shuffle your papers has gone on holiday.

So today I wait for a travel permit in lieu of actually doing something useful with my time. I'm glad to know that there are at least some things this government seems to be taking seriously.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

So as of last night we have a peace plan. Except it's actually nothing more than another declaration of principles. Negotiators in Abuja have placed their signatures on a document and made plenty of self-congratulatory statements in which they agreed to 're-convene' on August 24th to discuss what they actually mean when they say they are making peace.

To those of us who are counting, that's the sixth time in more than two years that the Sudanese government has signed an official agreement promising to protect its citizens from violence. Another neatly bundled package of already broken promises. Unfortunately, it's also another excuse for the international community to pretend that the situation in Darfur is improving. That, yes, peace is clearly on its way.

It's a pity that no one has mentioned this fact to the women who will be raped every day in Darfur between now and the time when someone finally starts taking the words in these declarations seriously.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

President Bashir is angry at the rebels today, says Al Jazeera. For once I share his sentiments. Not that I think there's any one party whose doing more foot-dragging than another at the Abuja peace I have my own reasons.

At a camp in Darfur this morning, I try to get some of the men to explain to me in detail where the boundaries between government, militia, and rebel soldiers lie, and what this means for security in the area that we are visiting. As usual, things are complicated and endlessly contested, but overall there seems to be agreement that this is a rebel (SLA) held area.

I tell them I'm confused: in my meeting with the women earlier, there were just as many complaints of rape and beatings from those who wander outside the camp to collect firewood as there are in any other camp. I may be naive here, but I thought it was the Janjaweed raping the women rather than the rebels? Are there Janjaweed or government soldiers around the camp, HERE, in a rebel area?

Well, there are, I am told haltingly. The term Janjaweed is used in the widest possible sense by most people, so I try to be specific. Just bandits then? No no, actual militias. Yes, the ones responsible for the attacks. The discussion goes back and forth, but finally I establish that a lot of the men feel that the rebels are intentionally letting a small number of militias stay in the area to make sure the security incidents don't go away COMPLETELY.

"If there are no deaths, no rape, nothing, then you khawajas will not come here, they are saying. It's just a tactic that the rebels are using."

It is true that the camps in rebel areas are woefully underserviced and make you want to cry in frustration when you see them, while places like Abu Shouk in North Darfur (a government-controlled area) almost look like sanitized film sets with dozens of agencies operating programmes on health, education, water, sanitation, livelihoods (there is even, yes brace yourself, a pasta-making project).

So is getting your people killed, beaten and raped by the enemy really a valid way of attracting more aid?

There are lots of reports flying around on 'protection' issues here in Darfur (HPG, UK House of Commons). Everybody has opinions on concepts like 'protection by presence'; there are protection working groups, meetings and matrices. But somehow I have a feeling none of them will give me answer to questions like this one. Not for the first time this week, I am dreading the curfew and all that time it gives me to think about issues so fucked up that no one should really be debating them at all.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

Somewhat disturbed to see in the news this morning that the Sudanese government is trying (with some success) to manipulate the international media with the latest mortality figures.

Even worse, plenty of the coverage is giving the impression that the international community (UN, NGOs, etc.) is happily holding hands with the government over this exciting new development, and that we're all just slapping each other on the back over the good work done.

Not that I doubt the figures or am complaining that the health situation seems to have fallen slightly below 'crisis' level: I'm just annoyed that people aren't working harder to point out that these figures WILL deteriorate again over the coming months, no ifs or buts about it.

Rains here in South Darfur are already pounding down happily, and people are literally swimming into a public health disaster at Kalma camp.

Security has not improved either: any South Darfur situation report from this month confirms that there've been plenty of shootings, the militias have been entering the camps at night to spread terror, and even the NGO compounds and guest houses are getting robbed. Not surprisingly, the displaced community's trust in the African Union soldiers is fading fast in those places where attacks have been allowed to continue with impunity.

Thankfully, not everyone is fooled by the spin and I am somewhat pacified to see that the BBC was broadcasting a Panorama special on Darfur last night, and CNN and Channel 4 continue to screen Sorious Samura's 'Living With Refugees' documentary as part of this week's big Africa hoopla. Not that it's much help to the drenched families in Kalma tonight, but at least some people out there seem to remember that this conflict is still far from solved.

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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Trying to practice my Arabic today, but the locals just keep laughing at me...

At a little sandwich kiosk, I am mentally preparing myself to place an order for a tuna sandwich, complete with greetings, pleases and thank yous. I'm concentrating so hard that I let way too many people barge ahead of me, and when I do finally try to make myself heard with some garbled version of what I am meant to be saying I am more or less ignored.

A Sudanese colleague shakes his head and takes pity on me. "What do you want? I will order for you."

He barks something that sounds suspiciously like "tuna sandwich" to the guy behind the counter, so I tell him I am perfectly capable of ordering in English by myself.

"Well, in this case the words happen to be the same as in English. But you still wouldn't know how to order the right way," he grins. Shrugging his shoulders at my reproachful glare he laughs, "Fine, try yourself if you want! Order another one for me."

My suggestion of "etnein (two) sandwich" provokes hysterics among the group. "You don't have to say TWO. You just say sandwich-ein, that's the plural."

I refuse to be outsmarted. "But what if I want three? That's a plural too! How will he know I want two and not three?"

More looks of condescension and snorts of laughter. "Well then of course you say, sandwich-at. That's the plural for something you want three of."

No, no, I am not happy with this. "But what if I want four? Or five?"

"Well, then you use the plural for things that you want more than three of. Except of course if you want more than ten. In that case, you just go back to the singular."

"Are you shitting me? Do you think this is funny?"

They howl with laughter at my outrage, and I soon discover no one is trying to do anything but tell me the truth. That's really how it works in Arabic. "I'll get it right tomorrow, just wait and see," I mutter into the tuna sandwich and let them snicker away. Not sure yet who I'm really trying to convince - is it me or them?

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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Kalma camp is still the hot topic here in South Darfur. Everyone has their own opinion as to what will happen, and even these keep shifting with each new development. Last night, some sort of public transport travelling close to the site of the proposed new camp (Al Salam) was attacked, and four people were killed. Not exactly the sort of thing that the Sudanese government, which continues to deny reports of increasing insecurity, wants to hear right now.

Squashed into our little ‘humanitarian-and-NOT-political’ corner by the belligerent Sudanese authorities, NGOs in South Darfur are painstakingly - almost endearingly - persisting with the ‘information campaign’ and the whole idea of peaceful, voluntary relocation to the new camp. Some are organising friendly ‘go and see’ visits in which the displaced families can hop on a bus and tour the site – there is even a display of the type of tent that will be available (a waterproof one! Treated with mosquito spray!)

The problem is that while we are allowed to brief people on the risk of cholera, malaria, overflowing toilets and flooding, we cannot talk about the real threat - which is that the army might come into the camp, shoot their guns in the air, and force everyone onto trucks - "for their own safety".

In any case, most aid workers realise that the concept of an impartial information campaign is completely foreign to the displaced communities to start off with: for decades, these people have been sidelined, oppressed and manipulated by their rulers, and the thought that they might be allowed to make an informed decision based on clear, credible information just seems to them like another big ruse. No one has systematically and reliably protected them over the past two years. Why should they trust anything that ANYONE tells them now?

People's main concern, pure and simple, is to stay alive. And if the government makes no attempt to reign in those responsible for the violence, the horrible situation on the ground is unlikely to change, in Kalma or elsewhere.

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