Thursday, December 08, 2005

Very Bad Girls in Darfur

Copied from my travel journal...
December 8, 2005
Nyala, Sudan

It’s the “Friday night” of Sudan right now. All offices close on Fridays and nothing happens here. But not for Refugees International! We’ve spend the past two days sitting in the Government of Sudan’s “HAC” – otherwise known as the Humanitarian Affairs Commission. Since IDPs are not protected by international refugee conventions (having not crossed an international border), they are technically the responsibility of the government of Sudan. And so, while the UN and international NGOs and their local NGO partners provide all the services in the camps and do all the work, the government of Sudan can still say who goes in and who doesn’t. So – you’ve all heard about the firewood problems in Sudan, I think. Where women go out to collect firewood and then get attacked and raped. We went out on firewood protection patrol with the African Union on Tuesday morning. This involved hanging around the AU camp until they were ready to go. We drove our own vehicle surrounded by pickup trucks filled with Nigerian peacekeepers. I attach photo. After driving into Ottash camp, we then picked up the AUCIVPOL(Civilian police from Uganda, Senegal, and Ghana) and then the Sudanese police. The Sudanese police have no car of their own. We drove out into the bush and felt like we were on a safari. Is that a woman there? Is that someone with a donkey? Oh no! Camel herder- do you think he’s the Janjaweed? After about 20 kilometers, we pulled over into a clearing and got out of the car. The Sudanese police sat under a tree and we went over to shoot the shit with the Nigerian peacekeepers. They posed for photos with us and told us that “Sudanis not Tamam”. (Tamam is our favorite word here – it means OKAY, I think. Everyone says it to us. Our cook at our guest house greets us each morning by shouting loudly, TAMAM TAMAM! Conversely, the children in the camps greet us by shouting OKAY OKAY OKAY!)

We asked the Sudanese police how they would hear a woman if she was being attacked. They said – she will come to us afterwards. Okay, I get it – it’s RETROACTIVE policing we are doing here. Anyway, after 2 hours, we piled back in the cars and drove off. No problems whatsoever. The next day we were supposed to meet the Commissioner of the AUCIVPOL in another camp called Kalma camp. This camp is infamous because its about 100,000 people and they got fed up with the government of Sudan police and the HAC and threw them out of the camp. They are not allowed to go back in now. We had a permit from the HAC, drove to the police station on the outskirts of the camp and there encountered our first problems. The stamp on the permit to travel within Darfur did not match the wording on our travel permits (to travel around Sudan) which also did not match our visa to get into Sudan! Basically this “police station” was a hut with four beds in it where the guys sleep. They have their toothbrushes stuck in between the reeds of the hut wall. And on one of the walls they have a really gruesome painting of man kneeling on someone’s back and stabbing him. They told us it was a reminder to always be watching your back because there are spies everywhere and a spy will stab you in the back. They said it was from the Quran.

After a lot of back and forth, they then said they had seen us taking photos (of the ladies selling oranges at the checkpoint) so wanted to make sure we had photo permits (which we did). Nothing would satisfy them so we all had to pile into our car (because of course they didn’t have one) and head back to the main HAC office in Nyala. We could have refused and just driven off and what could they have done? They had no car to chase us with! After arguments with them, they said to us “You two ladies are not enough to do an assessment. You would need more people. We think you are spies.” I think that would make us the most incompetent spies of all time, if that were true. Finally, we agreed to apologize and get the correct paperwork. All the international NGOs laughed when we told them this and wrote letters in support of us.

Fast Forward to Thursday morning. We go to the AU base to go on another firewood patrol. We get to the Ottash camp and the firewood patrol has already left. The CIVPOL doesn’t have radios, cars, or any way to help us find them so we decide to interview them about their experiences in the camps. We walk outside of the CIVPOL office and stop to take some photos of the kids and a woman at a well. The HAC spy us and signal us to come talk to them. We ignore them and start to go back to our car. They come to fetch us and start yelling at us. We plead ignorance. We go to the “HAC Shack” and talk with them. A woman narcs on us. She was hanging out with the children and saw us taking photos. So we have to show them our camera.

Embarrassingly, some of the photos were of Sally and I in the local market trying on clothes and looking silly in our guest house. I erased the one picture I took of the children. They claimed that I was spying on the camp by taking photos of the African Union. Six of them gathered around me and my camera and clucked their tongues. “You are spies!” they said. Once again we had to give the guy a ride to the main HAC. The guy laughs when he sees us return. “It is you again! You are very bad girls.” After much talking, finagling, scolding, telling tales about the US, complaining about the IDPS and how they are all spies and politicians, and discussing Jackie Chan, they gave us our permit. But there was no one around to stamp it! We came back to get it stamped in an hour. The guy was still not there.

As tomorrow is the last day we are in town and all the offices are closed on Fridays, we became frantic. I went to a meeting and Sally and our driver/translator drove around town until they found the guy with the stamp’s house. They picked him up. He stamped the paper. They picked me up. We all went to a photocopy shop. We all went to the National Security office. More discussions. Some tea. Cigarettes were handed around. More discussions. More talk. Then we all got back in our car and drove to the guy with the stamps’ house. Then he turned into the nicest guy in the world. He introduced us to his mom, his wife, and his newborn daughter. Invited us to dinner. Gave us chocolates. As we sat awkwardly around his apartment and watched Sudanese tv, they passed around some spray deodorant which we all sprayed under our arms. And then we left.

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