Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On the milkroute in Sudan

Malakal, South Sudan

We finally left Juba with excruciating hangovers. The UN had a party on Friday night that was dress in your best African finery party. I declined (although I wanted to dress in my white nightie and wave my hair and say I was Karen Blixen in Out of Africa). After much frantic dancing, chugging of scotch with the country director, and talking of politics with the US Embassy rep, I retired to my tent at 3am. We had to arise at 7am to make our flight to Malakal. After eating lots of paracetamol and eating Cliff bars, we boarded the flight to Malakal. Little did we know that the 8am flight to Malakal arrived at 3pm after making approximately 10 stops throughout South Sudan. We flew down to the border with Uganda. We flew up to the Nuba Mountains. We stopped in Rumbek. We unloaded motorcycles and loaded up fax machines. We landed on dusty runways with the remnants of planes lying next to them. Cows crossed the runways. We aborted landings due to dust storms. Finally we landed in Malakal, a small town on the Nile river. After much frantic negotiation, we agreed with OCHA that we would stay with them for $10 a night.

That night, they introduced us to the Seventh Day Adventists’ -- the only organization working out in the countryside. After a delicious meal of tomatoes and rice, we got up early to go to the internal displaced camps.

After a long drive along the flat plains of the river, we crossed over in a small canoe and went to a small place on the Nile called “Canal.” Its name is derived from the canal project that Sudan and Egypt launched in the 1980’s to excavate Jonglei canal to deliver water to Egypt. The project--initiated by the North of Sudan with little regard for the environmental or economic impact on the South--infuriated the SPLA and they kidnapped canal company workers and started fighting around Malakal in 1983. Now it’s a small town filled with IDPs who fled the fighting further inland and have settled by the river. It’s marked by a big rusting crane and a bulldozer beached in the middle of the village. It’s also a big transit point for people returning from Khartoum, Ethiopia, and other places trying to come back to their homes. According to the town officials, there are up to 100 new people passing through and looking for assistance every week. As there is no food assistance provided to returnees, the locals have to share their limited supplies, which is increasing the poverty among the permanent residents. Some returnees don’t move along back to their towns because either their villages don’t exist or it is very difficult to get to them. Because Canal is bordered by a river on one side and a landmine field on the other, it cannot expand, creating overcrowded conditions. The result: growing pressure on the local community. “We are all Sudanese,” the Paramount Chief told us. “We cannot deny them because we are here together to celebrate the peace. But it is getting difficult.”

Malakal, the major town nearest Canal, is filled with and ringed by landmines. The town itself was occupied by the Government of Sudan soldiers (from the north) and was constantly under siege by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) (from the south). Additionally, there was a splinter group that operated here called Southern Sudan Defense Forces (SSDF). Many of the local tribes also have arms. “You say there is peace, “ a displaced man from Canal complained, “but where is the peace? How can there be peace if so many have guns and are allowed to steal my cattle?” We moved closer to town to a settlement called Obel 1. We ventured in to the main compound to talk to a collection of men all sitting under a tree playing dominos. (All of the women were out gathering firewood and grass to sell.) As it turns out, three men there wanted to tell us their story. One was from Khartoum and had just arrived in Obel five days earlier hoping to go to Akobo where his family was living. He had been away from the area for over ten years. Another was a refugee from Ethiopia who had left his family behind in the refugee camp while he tried to visit his mother in Waat to see what the conditions for return were like. The third told us of attempting to go to Waat in the first convoy in many years.

“It’s a long journey – the main road has many landmines on it so we have to make a new road through the forest. Instead of taking 2 hours, it takes us 48 hours. And it’s difficult to get water for that journey. There is no water in Waat. They are drinking out of a small lake from the rainy season and they are sick there. When we were going up that road, two of our trucks broke down. We also saw that many dead bodies along that road. Four had been killed by bullets and three had died from thirst. They died while they were sleeping under a tree and alongside the road with their clothes under their heads as pillows. We just need that road cleared so we can get back to our family and our people. We don’t need much. We just want our government to help us.”

This is what the peace in new Sudan looks like. The disarmament process has barely started so weapons are everywhere. Landmines cover the area. In fact, three children were killed two days ago when they found a landmine and tried to play with it. The Land Mine office told me that new arrivals are building their houses in the mine field because they don’t know. He actually went in someone’s house and pulled a mine out of their floor. The Deputy Governor has denounced the UN de-mining effort as inadequate because it will take years to clear Malakal of mines. The UN would like the forces who laid the mines (both the Government of Sudan and the SPLA) to remove them, or, at the very least, to mark where they are. The immediate priority for the UN is to clear routes for humanitarian purposes because there are few roads that are passable. Because of the lack of adequate clean drinking water, the people have to draw their water from the Nile. Cholera has travelled up the Nile from Yei to Juba to Bor and over 150 people in Malakal fell sick from cholera yesterday. The hospital is so overwhelmed that they have moved the patients to a stadium.

After two days, we felt ready to leave. Sadly, the World Food Programme air flights aren’t as sophisticated as other airlines. We called to see if we were on the manifest and to see when the flight would arrive. “It’s been canceled” they told us. Later, we found out, it hadn’t been canceled and in fact there had been four flights. Our host told us a story. “They told me there were no flights so I frantically booked the UNMIS flight. When I got to the airport to wait for the UNMIS flight, the WFP flight landed. I asked the pilot if I was on the manifest and he showed me that I was. So I called WFP. I said, ‘when is the flight arriving here?’ They said, it’s cancelled for today. So I put the pilot on the phone. They then apologized and said – ‘we didn’t know you were actually at the airport’. “ Such is life in the New Sudan.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Fucking blackberries and mannerless boys

So here I am in Amsterdam after several weeks in the Sudan. I'll post my Sudan stuff later for those you not 'lucky' enough to be on the email list. I'm having a rendezvous with the ex boyfriend. After about a year of thinking about it, I decided that it was important to be friends with him and apologize for the way I treated him when my mother died. But something happened to him after we broke up. He became a giant asshole. I think the sweet guy is still down there somewhere but its lost in the giant asshole.

Before I left for Sudan, he emailed me saying he wanted to take a day off while I was here and spend the day with me. Perfect, I thought, because then we can really talk. As the weeks go by and I'm slogging through landmine fields in Sudan and fooling around with tented camp owners (blog entry to follow), I never hear anything from him. So, I email him to ask if we're still going to see each other. I get an 'of course'. Things are not looking good. He comes over the first night and he's okay but still performing for my friends who I am styaing with (also his friends). I tell him that I really want to talk with him about some things. He listens, sort of. Turns out he is back on the market and heavily fucking around.

Last night, I agree to go to a business dinner with him and his friends so we can see each other for a drink before hand. The drink beforehand never materializes and he checks his email constantly on his blackberry throughout dinner. He then has to leave early. My friend says he double-booked me and had a date that night. He promised he would take today off in the afternoon so we could be together. He has a very important conference call at 5pm that he has to be back for. Currently, it's 1:10p and he still hasn't shown for lunch. I'm guessing he just can't face me and talking to me so is purposelly trying to limit the amount of time he spends with me.

What an ass. Those weren't the reasons we broke up six years ago but I guess they are going to be the reasons we break up today. Even if he doesn't want to deal with talking to his ex-girlfriend, doesn't common courtesy or manners dictate that you schedule a block of time as soon as possible, get it over with, and then move on with your life? Or do I live in the Victorian past? I don't think I need to answer my mobile when it rings if I'm talking to other people face to face (or even if I am home alone). I don't have a blackberry because I know I would then stop talking to people all together and just text them.

Anyway, I've just wasted three or four hours in Amsterdam waiting around on this boy. At least now I know I can close the door resoundingly.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Collapsing tents, mudslides, and missed planes

Juba, South Sudan

Collapsing tents, mud slides, and missed planes. That would summarize up the South of Sudan in a nutshell. After three days in Juba, the “capitol” of South Sudan, we now have a birds eye view of what is going to take to rebuild this country.

First up: Lodging and Accommodations. In order to even work in Juba – one must undertake a very convoluted and treacherous relationship with the “tented camp” purveyors in Juba. There are three that I know of: Mango Tree, AFEX, and R2 or something. We lucked out by befriending a pretty young woman logistician who scored us a tent in the coveted Mango camp. We arrived to a sweltering hot (about 110 degrees) and the city which consists of a collection of huts and dirt roads. Our tented camp reminded me immediately of summer camp. We had a full size tent with two cots in it and a solar shower and camp toilet behind the tent. This costs about $100 per person. Also, everyone who is there has warned us that 50% of the people get malaria. And there is currently a cholera epidemic in Yei, up river from us and they pump Nile river water into our showers.

But the good thing is that they have a bar and at night you sit on the banks of the Blue Nile under the mango trees and drink beers from Uganda. The bad thing is that their main clientale are “security consultants” from Dyncorp and other ‘private military companies’ which means talking to former military men who are threatened that you can talk their language. So after arguing politics with ex military men and former Zimbabwean farmers, we would collapse exhausted in our sweltering tents to try to sleep.

We did get to go see the Dinka Bor women and children. The Dinka are famous for being extremely tall, extremely skinny, and extremely dark skinned. The women are amazing looking. They are preparing to board a barge and go up the Nile to a town called Bor where they will wait for their men who are living in Cattle Camps to retrieve them. Ironically, the UN determined they were not safe commuting back to Bor with the men and the cattle so they set up this way station camp. And then Cholera broke out and 18 people died. We have the opportunity to go up the Nile with them which I am dying to do. The Nile is almost completely undeveloped here and people live as they did hundreds of years ago. The Sudanese in the south are extremely conservative in their culture and continue to wear traditional dress and do scarification on their faces to mark their tribes. I hope we get a chance to go.

Anyway, after two days of running around town and trying to get flights set up, we got booted out of our camp and had to go to AFEX next door. Well it appears that the rains came early this year. After a mighty clap of thunder, the sky opened up and the deluge began around 3am. The tents at AFEX are not as sturdy, I think and my colleague Betsy’s tent collapsed upon her in the night. She had to climb out of the tent and stand under an awning of a neighboring tent trying to find me. She eventually went to the mess hall and sat in the swamp drinking coffee. It was a swamp. The sand is mostly clay and sand. Small rivers run through the camp. Someone said they awoke to their computer floating next to them. All of our stuff was soaked. After slogging out into the mud to try to find our driver, we noticed that the parking lot had turned into a lake and across the river from us, a local village was dealing with a small mudslide. The South African pilots and Zimbabwean de-miners and various security men told us that there was no way the planes would fly today. This was a problem since we had an 8:30am flight to the Upper Nile. Our driver never showed up and we missed the plane.

So: Plan B. Tonight we are sleeping in a UN compound in a ‘container’ which are slightly less leaky than the tents. We scrapped our plans and are now headed to a place called Malakal. Malakal is represented on the map as surrounded by two enormous swamps and located in the oil region of Sudan. There are landmines all over the town and the UN de-miners are uninterested in working there. We don’t have accommodations yet but hope that the Bangladeshi peacekeepers will put us up.

Today, because we had no driver and no one was showing up to work because of the rain, we decided to do a little exploring in the ‘capitol city’ of the New South Sudan. We drove over with a UN woman to see John Garang’s grave. A garish monument covered in neon colored fake flowers, Sudanese flags, and what looks like someone’s laundry sits in the middle of a barren mud field. It is guarded by four heavily armed Sudanese men in full jungle camouflage sitting in the shade. They yell at us to sign their guest book and make us stand in different positions to photograph the grave. My favorite photo is Garang’s photo surrounded by flowers and an AK47. We also went to the “Salvation Automatic” bakery to buy some bread. It’s really pathetic. The streets are avenues of mud, most of the houses are huts or burned out and the number one thing on sale was some sort of blue soap with a pair of scissors embossed in it. You can also buy what looks like used underwear.

So we head off to a different town in South Sudan tomorrow. And we will go and find returning IDPs and refugees who are telling us over and over again that they want clean water and education for their children. And the World Bank economist I met with yesterday tells me that the Government of Sudan is responsible for providing this and they have zero capacity. Most ministries only have two people in them currently. But still the people return with hope and belief that the war is over and the country will be rebuilt. One only hopes that the international community doesn’t renege on its promises and let them down.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Disco Dancing in the Refugee Camp

I’m staying with JRS: The Jesuit Refugee Services in Kakuma camp on the border between Kenya and Sudan. We are about 100 kms from Lokichoggio, the infamous staging ground for humanitarian activities into South Sudan. It’s not much to look at but it looks just like every border town in every country of the world. There are many bars, some run down looking hotels, a bunch of gas stations, and a lot of shops. Because the area is so dry and inhospitable, there is no farming here – the locals are called Turkanas and they are cattle herders. They are infamous cattle raiders so there are a lot of guns here. Therefore, its mandatory that you travel with an armed escort to get to the refugee camp. In practice this means, you drive around to the local bars when its time for the security escort and pick up the NGOs who are drinking and then find the police and then everyone heads back to the camp.

Everyone lives on the grounds of the camp here – which is unusual from my experience. There are two compounds that I’ve seen. One is for the UN(two layers of barbed wire fences, dogs,and security guards, curfew at 6pm) and one fo the NGOs (a little less secure – a security guard but not much else). There are about 90,000 refugees here – Congolese, Sudanese, Somalians, and some Ethiopians. This camp has been here about 14 years. It’s really more of a city than a camp. In fact, JRS told us that when Kenya Telecom first ran their cell phone network out here, it was a mess because the somalis had already started up a mobile phone network from inside the camp. The somalis are amazing businessmen. They have the best mobile phone network in Africa, I hear, despite having no government – but they will tell you it is BECAUSE they have no government. Kenya is pretty amazing to me as well – well paved roads, street signs, barrier rails – all the markings of a civilization. I hear it will be much different in South sudan when we get there. Because of the civil war, there aren’t even many buildings in the new capitol, Juba. In order to operate there, everyone is working out of tents. I imagine it is like M*A*S*H.

JRS is hosting us because UNHCR snubbed us. There’s a very nice Irish man in charge here named Mark and he and I hit it off right away. He asked me if I was Irish when I arrived. Anyway, the JRS house is quite nice. Four bedrooms with their own bathrooms. Electricity, a sitting room with satellite tv and internet. A small little kitchen with an electric kettle and a fridge. Everyone eats at a pretty dismal little cafeteria here with a television set in it tuned constantly to football. Because I watched all of the European Cup 2 years ago in Zimbabwe, I can now talk football a little. We had our choice of spaghetti with minced meat sauce (basically spaghetti bolognese), ugali (which is like very thick sold grits), kale, and a stewed intestines for dinner. I had spaghetti.

I thought that would be it for the night but it turns out that the NGO compound has their own ‘local’ called Catherine’s place. We went with George and Joseph, two fo the Kenyan staff from JRS and Mark to the pub where we sat under a tree and drank Tusker beer. Some of the guys played pool at a pool table under a lightbulb in a shed. We had a pretty intense conversation about the situation of the Somali Bantus who were resettled in South Carolina who were from this camp, I think, and ended up in Columbia. Then we headed back to the house. But that was not the end of the night! You could hear reggae music playing from somewhere and it turns out that there is a disco here in the camp! So we headed out to the disco, called the Bullseye.

What a sight! They have neon lights, a black light over the dance floor, grasshut covered roof, and booming music! The clientele is almost all male sudanese refugees. They are all very very tall – most about 6’5 and very thin. The predominant style for young Sudanese men is called “yo-yo” which comes from the term “Yo, what up?”. So they all wear basketball jerseys, baggy pants with their boxer shorts hanging out, baseball caps, doo-rags, or bandanas tied aaround their head. They are also called ‘basketballers’. Thomas, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who knows the guys at JRS was hanging out with us and explained it all to us.

The music was standard hip-hop and reggae but suddenly it switched to trashy 80s disco! We had to hit the dance floor then! So Betsy and I went out to dance to Michael Jackson, Prince, Abba, and Ace of Base. It was quite an experience as we were definitely amongst the shortest and whitest people on the floor. My skin was glowing under the blacklight. We got home at 2:30am and the disco was still going strong. Now its Sunday and we were supposed to head out into the camp to talk to refugees but our hosts from JRS are all sleeping off the Tusker beer. And they have locked us in!!! The guy who was going to drive us came over but he doesn’t have a key so we talked to him through the window. So – here we sit, waiting for someone to wake up. Waiting waiting.