Base For Boranga, Saturday, June 9, 2007
It's already been nearly a week since we began tagging along with the African Union, the only peacekeeping force for the Darfur region that is allowed by the Sudanese government. They are 7000 in number, deployed in a region as vast as France, with a limited mandate to protect civilians and to scope out the territory. The land is largely unstable, not to mention very fraught with tension. Upon our return to France, we put together a story on their day-to-day travails.
Currently, we are in their base at For Boranga, on the Chad border, a region characterized by the people's migrations so closely tied to the Darfur conflict.
Here, just as in the north or the west, just as in the refugee camp, just as in the villages, what struck us more than anything else, was to see women doing the work, whereas the men gossip languidly in the shade. It begs the question as to whether Darfur is populated by lazy macho types.
Even if we weren't feminists, just by virtue of being westerners we couldn't help but be stunned, saddened, yet at the same time admiring of these young women, these mothers of large families and grandmothers accomplished in backbreaking work - carrying kilos of wood, making brooks, and walking great distances all alone on foot to go to market.
The situation is even grimmer when you consider that it is often during their displacements that these women get raped. In areas where the AU has camps, there are special pratrols for accompanying and protecting this women. This question might seem naïve, but why don't their husbands, fathers, or brothers - less susceptible to attack - make these trips instead?
"It's tradition," reply the men of the region. During a discussion in a migrant camp at For Boranga, Sophie made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the women should revolt. She was met with large, incredulous eyes. The local chief burst into laughter.
Koutoum, North Darfur, June 4 – 8am
We landed in Koutoum yesterday afternoon aboard an African Union (AU) chopper piloted by a Russian crew. Koutoum is further north than El-Fasher and an area deemed less accessible by humanitarian agencies and AU personnel alike. During this leg of our trip, we intend to report on the AU mission in Darfur and will spend at least three days on the Koutoum base home to some 400 AU troops, most of them from South Africa.
Upon our landing we were greeted by the colonel in charge of the camp. He let us film a weekly AU meeting with local and international NGOs providing aid in the area. As has been the case more often than not since we arrived in Darfur, we listened to alarming reports about the security situation in North Darfur. Besides banditry, car hijacking, Thuraya snatching and occasional hostage taking, the area in Koutoum is also the scene of ongoing clashes between Arab militias and a myriad of rebel groups. It worth mentioning that rebels here did not endorse the May 2006 peace agreement with the Khartoum government. Separately, we were told that with the rainy season around the corner, clashes are likely to soar as Arab nomads will move up north – a lush and greener region -- to feed their herd and be in direct contact with local African tribes and refugees. As to whether Janjaweeds are in fact among these nomads is another (hair splitting) story. In brief, some say Arab nomads who carry weapons ARE Janjaweeds and vice versa. Others tell you that Arab nomads need to carry weapons for their own protection and that only some took and continue to take part in raids on African villages and are in that sense Janjaweeds. You can hear many other interpretations of the word “janjaweed” as well… If possible at all, we’ll try to get a more accurate sense of what/who janjaweeds are and tell you… Right now we’re still at the stage of wondering whether the first letter of the word should be capitalized!
What also came out of the AU/NGOs meeting is that often enough, AU troops cannot confirm civilian reports that this or that village was allegedly bombed by the Sudanese army since they cannot have access to many rebel-controlled areas. What we’ve heard more generally since we arrived in Sudan is that it’s often difficult to know exactly who robbed you if say you’re an AU troop or humanitarian worker. It could be a band of rebels or an Arab militia or just plain thieves who happen to be from Arab or African origin just as well. To make things even more complicated, areas you thought were controlled by a specific rebel group end up being controlled by another since that particular group split up in sub-groups. We hear that there could be as many as 19 rebels groups these days, in addition to the faction of the SLA controlled by Minawi who is the only one to have signed the May 2006 agreement. Then again, we’ve been warned by colleagues and Darfur observers: the longer you stay here, the less you understand.
El-Fasher, June 3, 9am
A pizza in Darfur might seem quite incongruous. But near the souk at El-Fasher, one can find succulent and tasty pizza, a welcome change from the dry crackers that constituted our entire diet for the previous four days. We are not seeking pity from our readers; we just wish to emphasise the unexpected nature of our discovery and the fact that a normal life can sometimes exist in Darfur on the margins of the conflict. The restaurant that comes recommended to us is an old night club that had to be converted after the influence of the Sharia (Islamic law) in Sudan.
The filtred light, the music, and the waiters in trousers resembling traditional tightly tied taubs (long shawls draped like saris), all create an ambience hearkening to a former era. The room facing the street is sizeable: food stalls, rotisseries, bread ovens… but the back room is more sombre, with the walls dyed a dark red. We are told that in the past, people danced there vivaciously and drank alcohol – forbidden today – notably, the super-strong local specialty made with fermented dates. The customers – the large majority of which are Sudanese with a few soldiers from the African Union and a few foreigners – must content themselves with orange and mango juice.
PS: For those of you who are interested, the pizza is not available for delivery; only take-away. We strongly recommend the vegetarian (two sizes: medium and large).
After several interviews with the local authorities (which you can watch on France 24), we met up with the Sudanese police to accompany them on their patrol rounds. This had to be postponed, though, due to a dizzying sand storm. But the word ‘storm’ does not do justice to what we saw. In the space of a few minutes, the once-blue sky had turned yellow, then orange, then a sobre red, as if night had fallen on El-Fasher. This was embellished by a furious orange sand dust that permeated everything – our eyes, hair, clothes and the crevices of windows and doors. Suddenly, the phone rings. The local governor’s office enquires after our well-being and explains to us that this phenomenon is quite normal and lasts only half an hour. The aid workers whom we have contacted have also rung us to make sure we’re all right. Actually we are far less frightened than fascinated by the phenomenon.
They explain to us that these sandstorms herald the rainy season which has already begun south of Darfur, and which will last two months. This will complicate the work of the NGOs who have come to assist the people of Darfur. The safety problems they already face (bandits, wars between rebels and militias) will be complicated by the rain, as the roads will become unusable.
For the next leg of our adventures, we will go this afternoon to the north of Darfur on an African Union helicopter.
El-Fasher, June 2 - 8:30 am
We've been here in North Darfur's capital, El Fasher, for four days already but didn't have access to internet until now. To our knowledge there aren't any internet cafes in El Fasher, even less so in its three refugee camps… but today a kind aid worker let us use her computer. So here follows our news.
Last Wednesday upon landing in El Fasher on an African Union flight, we applied for yet another permit to go film in the town’s refugee camps. Surprisingly enough we got it fairly quickly and off we went to Abu Shok, the town's largest and oldest refugee camp - home to over 50,000 people that fled the conflict pitting Arab militias against Darfur rebels. Most left soon after the conflict and have been in the camp for over three years but we did manage to hook up with one family that had left their village a week before. In a sense, you could feel they were what people here call "new arrivals". The man was shy and visibly shocked. He couldn't utter more three words at a time… unless other refugees that have been in Abu Shok for three years and are so used to journalists, that they will give you what sometimes seems a well rehearsed version of what happened to them… almost as if they had learned it by heart.
At any rate, there was no difficulty whatsoever talking to people in the camp – men and women alike. Granted, the fact one of us speaks Arabic probably facilitated exchanges with people. Women were especially forthcoming and surprisingly enough both men and women openly talked about rape during militia’s raids on their villages. While they both acknowledged it had been a traumatic experience (men told us they were often tied up while up to four men were raping their wives), men said it had been out of the question to repudiate their wives after they’d been raped by the enemy as they, the husbands had witnessed the act, helpless, and could not possibly be angry at their wives for been "soiled". As for the instances in which some women actually became pregnant after being raped, a former village chief told us that some women kept it quiet and sought help as a nearby clinic (typically ran by a UN agency or foreign NGO)… or would wait until delivery and "get rid of the baby"….
Another thing that struck us is how well organized the camp is. Granted the refugees or IDPs (internally displaced persons) as they’re called by humanitarian agencies, are almost entirely dependent on international aid, but since most have been in the camp for up to three years… they’ve also come up with schemes to make money on the side. In that sense, they’re not completely assisted and spoon-fed by humanitarian agencies. Women work in small brick-making workshops, men go collect hay as far as 60 miles away from the camp… Others teach in the camp’s schools, work for humanitarian agencies. There is a market in the center of the camp were local produce is sold… and the camp is not completely off limits from el-Fasher… taxis in fact go back and forth between Abu Shok and downtown El-Fasher. Also, because the camp is in a way a mini-town… hosting people from different tribes with sometimes different customs or ways of living… fights sometimes erupt, we’ve been told, turfs are well delineated… and trespassers must beware. Though we didn’t see any, we were also told that guns and ammunitions are everywhere to be found in the camp… and for the trivia, we heard that one of the long-standing disagreement between several tribes is over the fact that one of them clandestinely distil alcohol… when the others are more righteous followers of Islam.
This is it for today… we’re off tomorrow to Kutum, further north, to a more remote area where aid is not as easily delivered to refugees. More soon – pending internet access.
Question from viewer Prof. Felix Kaputu de Harvard University, US (May 30, 3 pm)
How do we judge the measures taken by President Bush regarding the Khartoum authorities and his demands on the UN to end the atrocities of Darfur?
Sophie Claudet replies:
As for the Sudanese government, the announcement of American sanctions was no surprise. They expected nothing from Washington. The Sudanese are accustomed to international sanctions. For Khartoum, it’s only a variation on a theme. But they have to take note of the position of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), an old rebel group with roots in the South, who are active in the current government. The SPLM acts as mediator between Khartoum and the Darfur rebels.
For this group, the sanctions – be they from the US or the UN – aren’t a good way to achieve piece in Darfur. There would have to be a dialogue between the government and the unified rebel groups in order for true negotiation to take place.
(Editor’s note: the peace agreement signed in 2005 put an end to the Second Sudanese War, between the pro-independent groups and the central Khartoum government. The South has since become autonomous.)
Khartoum, Tuesday May 29 - 4pm
Day five in Khartoum and at long last some good news… we apparently got the required he permit to travel to Darfur from the Sudanese authorities. "Apparently" since we'll only believe it when we see it… At any rate, we've learned patience in Sudan. "Your hurry is not their worry!" quipped a US journalist yesterday… indeed. And as an information ministry official told us… "It'll take the time it'll take". Right. But we, journalists, are not alone waiting for permits… to do pretty much anything here (we'll need some more permits once in Darfur, to travel around, to shoot, etc.). NGOs and humanitarian workers have had their share of waiting too, especially when it comes to working in Darfur…
We didn't sit idle (and frustrated) over the past five days. For one, we were puzzled like pretty much any foreigner by the growing presence of Chinese nationals in Khartoum. We soon decided to do a story about the Chinese community and though Chinese oil companies were pretty much off-limits, we did manage to interview business owners and… Chinese professors teaching at Khartoum University to exceptionally devoted Sudanese students! Granted, there are Chinese communities pretty much everywhere in the world… but in how many countries does the local population actually bother to learn their language? To understand why, one can have a quick glance at statistics: Sudan's is China's second trading partner in Africa, China is the largest foreign investor in Sudan… and China imports two-thirds of Sudan's oil production. In brief and as many Sudanese have told us here, China has become essential to Sudan's development, hence students learning Chinese to work in Chinese-owned companies -- mostly as translators.
The Chinese were met were really forthcoming and happy to tell us about their living experience in Sudan, whether they'd be restaurant owners or professors. But every single time we brought up politics or oil… they would decline to answer. Besides its growing economic role in Sudan, China is reportedly providing weapons to the government and pro-government militias in Darfur to quell the uprising there. And, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has repeatedly assured the Khartoum government that it would exert its veto power against any sanction over its Darfur policy. A good friend indeed.
But why are Chinese so keen on Sudan other than for its oil? Because, many told us, they earn five times as much money here. Take the restaurant business for example, one owner told us that while competition is fierce back home, in Khartoum there is only one other Chinese restaurant… ensuring her a quasi-monopoly and juicy revenues. She and her husband have been here six years, had one daughter here and will soon have a baby boy.
We did meet another interesting character, in Sudan for completely different reasons. D. told us she'd be dreaming of coming here for the past 15 years… first when the South-North war was raging. Now that that war is over (since January 2005), she'll be off to Darfur… to teach English to young children there (she's from Hong Kong). In the meantime, she's learning Arabic and studying the Bible with fellow Christians here, mostly from South Koreas. But that's another story altogether.
Waiting in Khartoum, Saturday 26 May
We arrived in Khartoum a couple days ago hoping to get to Darfur as soon as possible. Everything was closed on Friday – the customary day off -- and we had to wait today, Saturday, to apply for a permit… to film, go to Darfur etc. During the admin procedures we were asked more often than not where the rest of our crew was… only to smile back and say to our puzzled interlocutors "well this is it, the two of us" – women. They often smiled back at us – albeit very kindly and with true concern showing on their faces. We went on to meet with an African Union representative to try and book seats on one of their planes that will take us to Darfur…. and help us find accommodations. You have to be invited by a host NGO or UN agency in order to go to Darfur – home to almost no hotels except for Nyala in the south. While at the AU, we witnessed a tragic phone conversation: a UN military officer recently dispatched to El-Fasher as part of a three-phase plan to beef up UN presence in Darfur died overnight of wounds he had sustained during an attack on his house. His assailants robbed him before killing him.
Our minder (the government official designed by the authorities to accompany us when we shoot) was not free to take us around later in the day. With the sizzling hot weather cooling off a bit in the late afternoon, we decided to walk along the Blue Nile up until it meets and merges with the White Nile. That very point is apparently described as the "longer kiss in history" by Arab poets. We never reached that point though we walked for a good hour. We shall try again on our way back from Darfur. The walk is not particularly pleasant as the river banks are largely underdeveloped, in a state of wilderness at best and lined with heaps of garbage at worse. But we did see large billboards advertising the construction of what should be a Dubai-like business center cum skyscrapers clad in blue reflective glass. We also saw a large, avocado-shaped, ultra-modern hotel… may the initial spurt of future construction frenzy in Khartoum? We were told it's financed by the Libyans and often referred to as "Ghaddafi's hotel" but with oil money from South Sudan flowing in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum could soon afford to emulate modern and mushrooming cities in the Gulf Peninsula.
We caught a cab on the way back. A man driving and his wife sitting upfront. They were both from Darfur, from a village north-west of Nyala they fled at the start of the war almost five years ago, they told us. Radhia, the wife, was quite impressed that we were on our way there and kindly offered to give us her mobile number. Jamal, who was badly wounded at the onset of the war, was more reluctant and finally gave us their landline number. We'll call them at any rate and try to talk with them some more, even interview them… though Jamal will, in all likelihood, be quite unwilling to share his painful story.