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Reporter's Notebook: Khartoum for beginners

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 

The first thing that strikes you about Khartoum is the heat. It is a city baked by an unforgiving dryness and the most violent of suns. The city's inhabitants do what they can to cope. Everything is done slowly, if it is done at all. Phones are not answered, appointments are seldom kept and a great deal of time seems to be spent sleeping the worst of the daylight hours away. This makes organising your election coverage challenging to say the least. It probably also goes some way to explaining why the organisation of the election itself left such a great deal to be desired.
Yet, with two days to go until the start of polling, hopes were still high. The Carter Center was in town, as was its founder, former US President Jimmy Carter, who'd arrived in Khartoum on our plane. He and the many Carter Center volunteers who bore an uncanny resemblance to him were not alone.

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.

We thought we'd begin in the souks to see how it was observed from there. Many of the fruit and nut sellers we saw wore badges and t-shirts emblazoned with the name of the country's leader. A few of them even began to chant his name -- al-Bashir, al-Bashir -- for the benefit of our camera. But as my colleagues wandered off -- with the small crowd that had gathered in tow -- a youngish man sidled up to me and, in remarkably good English, expressed his disillusionment. There was, he said, no point voting in this country, nothing would ever change. All the more so since the main opposition parties had withdrawn from the race citing voting irregularities. For anyone opposed to al-Bashir this was, from the outset, an election almost entirely deprived of that crucial but elusive ingredient -- the hope that things can change.
Sunday, April 10
The hunt for the candidates.

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 thought we'd go to the headquarters of one of the opposition parties. The choice was between the Umma, the party that had been in power at the time of Omar al-Bashir's coup in 1989, and the former southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). We opted for the latter, simply because it happened to be closer once we had been through the laborious process of getting the various accreditations we needed to cover the election.
As we pulled up in front of the SPLM headquarters I rang Yasser Arman, the party's presidential candidate and the only man with the slightest hope of giving al-Bashir a run for his money. For the first time since we'd arrived in Khartoum, we were blessed with good luck and someone answered the phone.
Arman had just withdrawn from the race and his boycott was what everyone wanted to hear about. He turned up twenty minutes later and gave us an interview in three languages. I figured this might be how things worked in Sudan. Miles and miles of desert and then, just as you were about to give up, oil.
Monday, April 11
Polls open.
Polling day. Or rather day one of polling. This was to be an election spread out over three days for no other reason, as far as I could gather, than that the country was big. Very big. The biggest in Africa in fact, bigger even than the two Congos -- and that makes it huge.

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.

This, however, was an affluent part of Khartoum. A very different picture began to emerge elsewhere in Sudan. In some places, polling stations had opened late or not at all, ballot boxes had vanished and electoral lists had included the wrong names and excluded the right ones.
Outside a polling station in one of Omdurman's poorer neighbourhoods a group of unhappy looking women called us over. They told us in Arabic that their names had been omitted from the list. They had been told to go to another polling station several miles away. All three had intended to vote for the Democratic Unionist Party. Instead, they headed home because the walk to the other polling station was unthinkable in the midday sun.

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.

Despite all the obvious shortcomings, by the end of the first day of voting the national electoral commission announced that polls would be open for an extra two days, up until Thursday.
Tuesday, April 12
The displaced of Khartoum.
Day two of polling and our interest was beginning to wane so we decided to head out to one of the many camps for the displaced that surround Khartoum.

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.

One of the consequences of the internal fighting that has plagued Sudan for years lies on the outskirts of Khartoum. Here, two million people live, far from home and in a state of profound despair. And no one seems to care about their plight.
You don't have to travel far from the centre of Khartoum to come across these shanty towns. Miles and miles and miles of makeshift tents planted in the sand and baking in the heat. Row after row of sticks holding up bits of cloth that house entire families who've fled Darfur and the south and the Nuba mountains. Many people have lived here for years, some for most of their adult life.
We stopped in the middle of one of the camps in a neighbourhood called Mandela. We got out of the car and had to leap across a ditch full of rubbish and cow horns and skulls in order to reach the tents. The family that was sitting on the other side immediately began to gather around us. They were tall and thin and some of the blackest people I had ever seen. At times, their skin looked like it was blue. They were from the Nuer tribe and had fled from the south. We never actually found out more about them because very quickly they started shouting at us to leave. The men smelled of alcohol and had a red-eyed glassy stare that left no doubt about their state. We made a quick getaway and headed for another part of the camp.
The atmosphere there was less angry and yet no less desperate. A man came out of his tent to talk to me in English. He 'd lived there for 22 years, ever since fleeing Juba and the violence that at the time already plagued the southern city. He'd had his children here and his children had now given him grandchildren. But he smiled and made polite chit-chat with me as though it were all ok.

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”.

A two-year-old girl slept on a mat and Zeinab sat down next to me with two young sons by her side. We sat and smiled and said very little. There was very little to say.

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.


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