Water Water Everywhere

Written on 20 September (by Kirsten)… at Khartoum airport before getting on a plane to Cairo

Ever been so soaked, so wet and muddy, that it no longer matters how much muddier and wetter you get? Well today (and its only 5am) has been hilarious. I am cold and wet and muddy and my white shirt is somehow streaky blue from my wet blue bag bleeding onto it but I do think the whole situation rather funny. What people must have thought of this crazy Khoweja (foreigner), I don’t know!

Today I was meant to (am still meant to) catch a flight from Khartoum to Cairo for my first R&R (rest and relaxation, or recuperation, or something like that). The travel agent forgot to issue my ticket (for yesterday) so instead I got a flight at 6am, meaning I was meant to be at the airport between 3 and 4 am. No UNDP driver available (not that they would have been able to get to me anyway) so my incredibly kind friend Mary showed me the directions to the airport (only 20 minute walk and pretty simple directions) and I set my alarm for 3am. I was woken at 2 by a loud bang as the door slammed shut, wind knocked the building, and thunder crashed outside. At first I thought this was a huge sandstorm picking up items and slamming them into the building and I saw palm trees being whipped furiously, but then rain started to pelt down. Out of the window lightening was filling the sky and trees were being blown onto power lines. Sparks were flying and a tree a few hundred meters away burst into flame, subsided, then more sparks and more flame and then subsided again and there were crackles and sparks in a number of areas I could see from my vantage point, the 9th floor of the highest building in this direction. Then the electricity went, and thank heavens so did the electrical sparks and fire, as rain pummeled and shook the building and came in under windows in bedrooms and kitchen and bathroom. By this stage my kind hosts were up and we watched the gods madness from windows on three sides. I was hoping it would stop soon as there was no way I could walk in that! By 3.30 it had settled, no more noise, so I decided to venture outside. I put a plastic bag over the top of my backpack, and put my computer in another, locked the door behind me, slid the key under the door, and braved the madness.

The wind had stopped and it was barely raining. But the road? What road? The muddy pot – holey bumpy road out the front of my friend Mary’s place was a calf-deep pond. I rolled up my tracksuit pants, turned on my torch (thank god for a torch! No electricity even if there had been decent street lighting!), and started wading through plastic bags and bottles and goodness knows what, stepping on bits of sidewalk where possible. I got to the next road and at this stage it was getting deeper. I rolled my tracksuit pants up to my knees (there was no one about and Khartoum would just have to deal with seeing my legs) and waded across the road, trying to find what I hoped would be a footpath. And then I took another step and was suddenly in water up to my waist. My back pack, my hand bag, my CLOTH COMPUTER BAG (that’s not good for computers!!) were all in the drink. I hauled myself out of the ditch not noticing the graze on my left ankle, leg and knee sweating away in the dark and wondering if I had also killed my torch. Well the torch came back to life (strap come adrift) and I pulled myself back to the area of the road where water was only knee deep.

A few more metres and it was only calf deep, at which stage I remembered the problem of ultra comfy tracksuit pants. They get wet and they get LOOOOONG. And don’t like being rolled up. So I was tripping in the mud over my wet and heavy tracksuit pants trying to roll them up and hold them up and hold a torch and my back pack still on my back and computer bag (was the computer alive?) and my handbag (soggy ticket, money, book, was my phone alive??). I made my way slowly to the next slightly wider and more traveled road. A kindly boab out the front of the world bank building advised me to try the middle of the road as the first car gamely and slowly made its way past me. The road became more paved, less flooded and a couple of slow cars appeared. I stumbled and fought with those drippy long muddy tracksuit pants until I got the main road to the airport, Africa St, and saw cars and a footpath! At this time I had decide the whole situation was hilarious. A wet Khoweja woman with multiple bags and hair everywhere and wet foggy glasses and scarf askew in a white (and now semi see-through) shirt with blue streaks from my wet blue bag, clutching my trousers trying to keep from tripping with a torch dangling from one hand, and laughing. Such a pity no one else was there to also laugh at me! Would have been such fun to share. About ten minutes later I could see what I thought looked vaguely like an airport and turned off the main road. Then it started to rain again. I was at the “bugger it who cares” stage by this time, although my fear and hope for my computer remained, so I sped up a little. Got to the car park and was advised this was not THE airport but I believe he was telling me it was the cargo airport or something like that. So I followed the direction towards the real airport.

On the way I managed to snag my tracksuit pants in a piece of metal sticking out of the drain and fell twice, although not right into the still ankle-deep river that was once a road. I slipped my way up the steps into the airport and joined a queue of slightly less bedraggled people going through the scanner. As I waited in the queue to check in I debated finding a bathroom to change but realized the floor of the airport was also ankle deep in water so that might be even scarier. I rescued a dry pair of trousers from the top of my bag in case I found somewhere. The lady who searched me before the waiting lounge let me use the room where she searches the women for a quick change, so at least I now had dry trousers (although the bottoms of these were soon wet too). And then I found the driest spot I could and sat and hauled open my computer to discover its wetsuit material case was saturated, but , humd”allah, it still worked!!! And hence am writing this.

Post script…

The man next to me in the line to get on the plane kindly told me I looked terrible and couldn’t possibly get on the plane like that. He then tried to change his seat to sit next to me and received a less than welcoming response. My t-shirt was still damp when I arrived in Cairo (the poor man sitting next to me — I cant have smelled too sweet) but I was sooooo happy to arrive. And the funny thing was that this bedraggled day ended completely the opposite… a call from my former flat-mate who was staying at the Four Seasons and invited me to waffles on her balcony on the 30th floor overlooking the Nile and pyramids, then to lie in the sun by the pool to eat ice blocks… at which stage my entire waterlogged adventure seemed wonderfully far away and even more hilarious. Will taking r & r always be this much of an effort?

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The Mundane Stuff about Living in Dafur

Nyala, where I am, is a great town. The commercial capital of Darfur and a thriving metropolis in Darfur terms. It has a couple of sets of traffic lights, some bitumen roads, and about 3 restaurants. The streets aren’t packed but there are 3 wheel tuk tuks, little yellow cabs, Utes (pick ups for the non Aussies) and UN /NGO 4wds everywhere. There is a market… stalls of wilted vegetables, plenty of oranges and grapefruit, dodging ditches of muddy water, lots shoes for sale on tarps and bright cloth and spices and orange lentils and sundried tomatoes and okra laid out on more tarps to dry in the sun. Piles of huge watermelons and platters of oil with taameya (falafel) bubbling away. Many of the sellers are women with bright cloth wrapped around them and half-heartedly draped over their heads. There is even an open air cinema here — Arabic films only — and plenty of shops and a bus station and an airport. Around the corner from our guest house is some kind of function centre — some days lots of men sitting outside watching football or something on TV, other times wedding parties, complete with reggae bands and people dancing and yelling.

Nyala is also surprisingly green! So much for being in the desert! It’s actually rainy season here, meaning it pours down at least once every 3 days, and the thunder bellows and shakes the house, rain slams in through every crack and it’s a great show before it comes with huge sky scapes of bright sheet and fork lightening. After the rain the wadis (dry creek beds) fill with water, everything goes green and the roads (largely dirt) turn to bogs. We need the 4wds and access to camps can be tricky. 15 kms takes a good 45 minutes to navigate. There are even frangipani trees and palm trees.

So many things are different and weird to get used to. We (UN) have a curfew at 10pm and the NGOs curfew is 11 — much later than in other cities. We have radio check each evening (I never knew my foxtrot charlie delta indigo stuff before now) and you have to remember to carry your heavy clunky radio with you everywhere. And in theory have it on. As for phones, the mobile phone network is temperamental at best. So email and skype it is!

Electricity is up and down and the back up generator gets regular use. We live in a “guest house” like most UN agencies and NGOs, which effectively means its rented by the organization and we have a per night rate. It has 3 bedrooms and a living space above the office with the usual high walls, barbed wire, sleepy smiling security guard or two, the tattered UN flag, and a couple of land cruisers. The kitchen is downstairs in another small building and a lovely smiling Sudanese woman comes and cooks us Fatoor (breakfast) each day at about 11am consisting of beans, eggplant, bread, chilli, and omelet, so the office eats together during the week.

Getting from Khartoum to the field, and between places, we go on the World Food Program (WFP) planes (the airline is called UNHAS — UN Humanitarian Air Services). There are also UNMIS flights (but unless you are UNMIS staff, your priority is wait-listed after the baggage). There are also AMIS (African Mission in Sudan) helicopters to remote places but I understand they are low on fuel so not flying so much. The down side of these flights is the limit: basically a day pack… and when you have computers and radios it doesn’t leave much to live in until the rest of your luggage arrives by cargo.

As for getting around here — big white UN 4wds, some with snorkels and roof racks, large radio antennae and often covered in mud. There is one blue car with UN painted on in orange. The story (and I have no idea if this is true) is that it came from Iraq. Apparently all the militia had got themselves white land cruisers. So the UN were told they had 24 hours to paint all their cars blue because the next day anything white would be fair game. So we have a blue and orange land cruiser floating around.

It’s hard to realize at times that there is a conflict here — life in town is pretty easy, especially for the aid workers. Although I have seen plenty of trucks of armed men driving through town. Some in uniform, many not. I am gradually learning who these groups are. Sometimes we see men with camels in town and as you drive out of town many more camel herders, and herds of cattle too. What we do see is the frustrations of the work here, some things which should be easy somehow take on a political dimension and become impossible.

Outside of the town are the camps of persons displaced by conflict. 90, 000 or more in the one I visit most regularly. And these people all have their stories and fears. But I know that elsewhere, in the north of Darfur and in the south of this state, it is more tense.. just watch the news, the numbers of military growing, especially north of El Fasher. And here I wonder how long till we too see these changes?

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Visiting Camps in Dafur

I have now been in Darfur about 4 weeks and I am definitely happy to be here. I love my work, I love the people and believe what we are doing is worthwhile, despite the frustrating context and the bigger political situation. One friend commented a few days ago that if we can keep things in stasis this is actually an achievement, but I would like to think we do more than that.

We visited Kalma camp last week, an enormous sprawling camp of tents and dust and mud and mud brick huts and tattered plastic sheeting which took us a good forty minutes of dusty indistinguishable roads to get to. NGOs here estimate 95,000 people in the camp alone. There is even market as you drive in, women selling vegetables, donkeys pulling carts, beautiful children waving at the car, goats climbing around, women in bright cloth carrying posts on their heads, men in white jalabeyas and white turbans and NGO flags flying (somewhat tattered) from some of the buildings. Kalma has also recently been in the news – to give you some idea of how bad things are, for people who are displaced, especially the women.

At night I try to run along the road near the airport with friends and climb the hill overlooking Nyala. There are two camps close to town you can see from the top of the hill blue and white plastic, and tents, distinguish them from the mud brick and wood square buildings and tukuls which make up the town. I am gradually learning the names, who runs them, what NGOs are involved, the problems each faces.

We also went to Kass, where the IDPs (internally displaced persons — ie refugees but haven’t crossed a border) live in the town as part of the host community. It’s about two hours on a theoretically tarmaced road so full of pot holes that at times the cars would head off on the dirt roads carved next to it, and through the mud, as these were more passable. We went with cars from two other agencies (minimum convoy of 3 according to UN security requirements). The whole trip was really green, passing herds (are they called herds?) of camels, and small villages made of round tukuls with conical roofs. On, over wadis filled with water, kids playing in mud puddles, women on donkeys, and buses with people on the roof, sometimes army with guns, at other times passengers on luggage. Kass is much smaller than Nyala but we arrived on market day and drove past huge tarpaulins spread with sun drying tomatoes and okra. No mobile reception, no tarmac, and no UN presence except from the World Food Programme.

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Hedgehogs in Al Fasher

Week two in Sudan and I have now seen the capitals of north and south Darfur, but still not been able to get to the camps due to security concerns. That inability to move, and do what I need to, will be the most frustrating thing about this job, I am sure.

I am sitting outside on the concrete floor of the compound of the UNDP guest house of El Fasher, with a hedgehog. Its about 10pm and this gentleman is apparently one of a family of 5 who lives here. I have seen a couple here this evening, and added to the hedgehog I rescued from the bathroom of the medecin du monde guest house during the party in Nyala, I seem to be doing a fair bit of hedgehog spotting. Apart from the hedgehogs there are plenty of other animals – donkeys braying during the night, roosters as a morning call (and this was no duet: we are talking grand orchestra). The next noise was the army singing as they jogged past — songs in Arabic about beautiful women apparently (I think that is the nice euphemism from my Sudanese colleague) and then the children starting school across the road singing the national anthem.

Seen plenty of donkeys, but missed the horses and camels. And until now no glimpses of the dreadlocked janjaweed fighters, just African Union and Sudanese Army troops driving about town.

We left Nyala on Tuesday morning, flying in what I am told is called a caravan (I thought is this was a joke – the latest in chitty chitty bang bang theories? Caravans?). Technical term (?) for a 12 seater little single propeller plane where you sit behind the pilots for the best view and they can throw coke bottles out the window a la gods must be crazy if they want. As we rose above Nyala we did a loop above Kalma IDP camp — huge, 90,000 people is the estimate, and it looks like a city. It is so big, but its made of tents. Leaving green Nyala the scenery quickly became desert with the odd wadi (dry river bed) snaking across the desert floor. Some areas were clearly agricultural plots at some recent time, but not now. It is planting season yet you see no sign of recent activity. The villages, squares of brick fences with round tukul huts, all look deserted. We flew over many of these. Closer to Fasher there were more signs of activity but the absence of activity in what appeared to be the majority of villages on the way was stark. It would seem everyone is too scared to farm so food production limited to the major city surrounds now. What will this mean for the people of Darfur come harvest season?

Al Fasher (we are here for the all Darfur protection working group meeting) used to be the capital of all of Darfur — it is much older than Nyala but also much poorer. The old Sultanate of Darfur was based here and it apparrently has Darfur’s best university. But its much poorer than Nyala. There are a few paved roads, including one near the guest house, only the cars can’t actually drive on it but only on the mud gutters on either side. It is under construction apparently. There is mud everywhere. The wadi has flooded and the stadium is now part of the river. Half of the roads have become enormous mud puddles that the UN four wheel drives plow through happily and we traipse mud into the compounds on our shoes. And still it’s hot, and the rains come loud and noisy daily here it seems, and when they come there are crashes and the electricity goes. Which is fine except the back-up generator here decided to give up the ghost so that was it for fans and lights and email (the server battery died after being starved of electricity for 2 days). Kind of makes working hard, but we just shrugged and headed to the workshop and pray it will be fixed. And then tonight there was electricity again.

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