Reporter's Notebook: Khartoum for beginners
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FRANCE 24's special correspondent Melissa Bell is in Sudan to cover the country's first multi-party elections in over 24 years.
Saturday, April 9
There were more than 700 foreign observers in town and tens of thousands of Sudanese observers were scattered around the country. This was going to be one of the most closely observed elections ever.
A day to go till polls opened and we needed to speak to a candidate. Given our track record in getting through to people we were not hopeful. Out on the streets, Khartoum was like a ghost town. In normal times, we were told, the streets are noisy and chaotic. What no one seemed able to explain was whether people had deserted the capital because they feared possible clashes or simply to look for something better to do.
We went to the Al Amarat polling station along with the rest of the world's media because we’d all been lured there by the same press release promising a visit in the morning by Jimmy Carter. He never did turn up, but the polling station turned out to be as good as any other. Observers milled about, electoral commission officials kept watch, cameramen got in the way and ordinary Sudanese voters, looking quite bewildered, queued to vote.
The chaos was hardly a surprise. Here was a country with a recent history of civil war and displaced populations. Twenty four years had gone by since the last multi-party elections. Anything other than chaos would have been a miracle. The trouble was that the chaos looked as though it had been orchestrated. And the opposition believed that to be the case. In fact it believed that the electoral commission was guilty not of incompetence but of fraud. Mariam al Mahdi, the daughter of the Umma party's Saddiq al Mahdi, who was deposed by al-Bashir in 1989, told us that the irregularities were not down to logistical errors, but were rather designed to ensure the re-election of al-Bashir.
Sudan is a country defined by war. And even now with a fragile peace in place, violence and instability continue to threaten the western Darfur region, the south and the eastern border with Eritrea. And the number of issues that can set off violence seem almost as numerous as the fronts where that violence can erupt: the election, the south's attempt to break away, organising next year's referendum on southern independence, inter-tribal skirmishes, religion, nationalism, oil, weapons decommissioning. The list is almost endless.
He took me across the dusty path to meet his neighbour Zeinab, who had been standing outside her tent and smiling at us. She spoke no English but he translated and I was invited into her home. She'd lived there for 6 years, ever since she had fled Darfur with her husband and five children. When I asked what they had fled, she and our translator laughed and simply answered “war”.
Wednesday, April 13
The South – between war and peace
The early-morning Khartoum-to-Juba flight is operated by the Marsland airline. Its motto is “The Smart Choice”. As we boarded the plane, I couldn't help but wonder whether it really was. The flight takes about two hours and on a clear day you get a really good idea of the change in landscape and climate. The first half of the journey is desert. Hundreds of miles of desert with very little greenery save for the meandering banks of the Nile. Then the ground below changes, the sand gives way to pockets of green and dark water. Lakes and ponds and rivers surrounded by dark green vegetation. As you approach Juba, you can see the round straw huts of the villages dotted around the bush. No roads, no buildings – the landscape appears untouched by man. It felt as though we were looking at the Earth when the first men began to roam it – albeit from a plane.
Juba itself is a dump. You can count the paved roads on the fingers of one hand; all the rest are dirt tracks. Apart from a handful of new business centres and hotels, the city is made up mainly of shacks and rubbish. It is little more than a shantytown that aspires to become a capital. Still, everyone there says it's come a long way. South Sudan's President Salva Kir himself told us from underneath his trademark ten-gallon hat that before, there had been nothing. He was proud of what Juba had become. I dreaded to think what it must have looked like before.
We left immediately, following the main dirt track that led out of the town. It was bumpy and made for slow going. But quite rapidly the ragged edges of Juba gave way to bush. A sort of semi-arid landscape with just enough vegetation to remind you that you were in Africa, as it appears in films and children's books. Every now and then we'd pass a roadblock. Armed men dressed in camouflage lowered a rope and we were waved through.
There were few villages along the road but occasionally a smaller track would fork from the main one leading into the bush. After more than an hour of bumping along the road, we followed a track and drove until we came to a village. It was called Lokiei and was made up of about a dozen round huts. Smaller huts, used for storing food, were scattered around in between.
Naked children swarmed around us and we headed for a group of men gathered near the edge of the village next to an open-air polling station, kept by armed soldiers who slept on mats. This was a Mandari village and the people here had been at war with the neighbouring Bari tribe for as long as anyone could remember. The trouble, though, was that the South Sudan army, the SPLA, had come and disarmed the village in December.
The chief, a 64-year-old father of 25 and husband of 7, told us that not a single Kalachnikov had been spared. But he wasn't convinced that the Bari had been similarly emasculated and he was worried about the future. The Mandari had a fearsome reputation and the scars engraved on the shaven foreheads of the tall, thin women told of a fighting culture. These people were warriors and the women served the men. One girl approached the group of men that had gathered around us, carrying a jug of water on a tray. She offered it to one of the men by dropping down in front of him on one knee. He sipped from it then threw the remaining water away and put it back on the tray, still in her outstretched hands, without so much as a glance.
I asked the chief what they would do should the Bari attack, as they had countless times before. “We would run,” he said, and all of them laughed.