Shattered Sudan | Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace, National Geographic: Mulahareen Tribesmen in Market | Darfur Region | Northern Sudan

Mulahareen Tribesmen in Market | Darfur Region | Northern Sudan

This is where the Mulahareen and other Arab militias hang out in a Darfur area market.

Darfur is the center of the Dinka slave trade. Baggara herders from Sudan’s drought-prone west carry out the slave trade. Playing on Baggara-Dinka tensions over pastureland, the government arms Baggara horsemen to ride south with army resupply trains, raiding Dinka villages as they go and gathering human capital.

From my Journal:

We are flying three and a half hours over completely empty open desert to get to the Jebel Mara plateau.  The flight to port Sudan is three hours of the same but to the Northeast—huge expanses of nothing but sand and scrub.  As we get closer to the volcano, we can see the washes that must only exist in the rainy season.  There is a higher density of scrub here, but it has no water until the rainy season.

This morning is a complete circus.  I am the first one up at 5:30 and I have to get 10 other people out of bed and all headed in the same direction.  I’ve never had so much help to get nowhere in my life—we have Hassin, our security guy, Yahia our interpreter, Adil our driver, Cherri, two pilots, ground engineer, local guide, local airline guy and a cook.  I do this work in the states with one person—the pilot.  Finally I get everyone into the car with all our bags.  We’ve packed up because Cherri screwed up and we landed at the wrong town… we will take off from here, but land at Nyala where they have runway lights and base ourselves out of there.

But the circus isn’t over, the pilots are not staying with us and no one in my entire entourage really knows where they are.  We drive down block after block knocking on gates—waking up the house security guys.  Finally we come back to the first street we tried—I am incredibly frustrated and tell them to honk the horn and I walk up and down the street yelling “Ahmed”.  I see a gate open two blocks away and we realize they are in that house.  These guys don’t want to honk a horn, but it is ok for a mosque to blare its speakers in the middle of the night.  When we walk into the house, the pilots are still asleep.   The roll out of their beds groggily and put on their socks.  We get them to the car after I chew them out and someone says we will go to Nyala… “Nyala?” the pilot says with a blank look and then goes back to pack… He finally brings his bag and the copilot, but he’s bought home furnishings here, so not only are we trying to squeeze 10 people into this clown car, but he is shoving in these huge woven disks used to cover large platters of food.

When we show up at the airport, they are late opening it up and the pilot tells me he hasn’t filed all the papers yet (he should have done this the night before) and he hasn’t refueled the plane or paid the overnight fees.

We are now at the Nyala airport waiting area—only one of the ten plugs works and I’ve made coffee for everyone.  I sit away from the crowd.  This is MY cup of coffee—a part of my routine—my world—I want to completely disassociate myself just for the time it takes to drink this.  Everything else in my world can change, but this cup of coffee, these few minutes are always the same.  It’s a way to hold on to just a little of my wonderful life in this nonfunctional country.

I only get about one minute though, before someone breaks it with blather.  This ratty airport bathroom has a sink that is good enough to wash my hair—I’m ready to go, but our car won’t be here until 2pm at the earliest, because they are driving here from El Fashir.  Hassin, our security guy, sits next to me saying in mutant English “I want to eat now.”  I point to some hard-boiled eggs Adil sent with us and Hassin is happily making smacking sounds next to me.

We sit in the airport waiting area for six hours and finally take the worst taxi I have ever seen—even in Cuba—A 1964 Nissan station wagon and every piece of it has been replaced—metal handles of misc. metal parts—the back hatch no longer opens so all the luggage goes over the back seat.  It is a long way to Nyala at 2mph and there is so much play in the steering wheel that the driver is always swaying back and forth—he has large sunglasses and is driving the taxi the way Ray Charles plays the piano.  Big hunks of metal are welded on to hold up the back seat and the pilot has a big rip in the back of his shirt from catching on the metal sticking out of the seat.  Then Ray Charles demands 7000 dinar for a ride that would be two minutes in Adil’s car.  The earliest our cars (went over land when we flew) will be here is 2pm and we are in a ratty Sudanese hotel with squat toilets, humming neon and incredibly noisy bathroom fans—but this is better than I expected for this outpost.

We are sitting in a tea house outside Nyala airport… just a bunch of huts made of sticks—wind is wailing all around us.  I will never get to see this volcano from the air.  The tea house proprietress is lanky and beautiful… she is sitting to my right and picking her nose.  All the men are flirting with her.  Adil carries water for her and jokes “this is my 2nd wife.” 

The winds and dust storms are so bad we can’t even take off in this small plane.  It’s 30 knots up there and 16 on the ground and our plane is only rated for 12 knots.  So I’ve been up at 5am three days running waiting for weather.  We brought in three vehicles that will go six days each across open desert for this mission.  I chartered a plane, housed and fed 6 to 10 people just to photograph this stinking volcano and now I am on a 727 commercial flight back to Khartoum because the dust storms have started and it is almost impossible to get this small plane off the ground, much less take aerials with it. 

Hassin, my security guy has dragged my huge duffle onto the plane.  He took it out of the checked bags on the tarmac because it has a $30 Polaroid camera he doesn’t want to see harmed.  Hassin has a key fob on his pocket but no car or house key.  The key is to his briefcase, which he fastidiously keeps locked.  The case has 2 pairs of underwear, 3 shirts, 2 t-shirts, 2 pants, his cell phone and one blue pen.  He is not locking any money in this case because he told me 2 days ago he ran out and he never uses his blue pen because he likes my red pen much better.  He is constantly saying “Ah… Randy… your red pen…”

At one point Sudan faced wars on all of its borders.  This fear perpetuates this awful permit process as well as the bureaucrats who get a fee every time they process a permit.  So most of my bribes for getting things done are disguised in by bills from Abubaker as permits.

A woman has a tea stand at my back and I can feel the heat of the coals and that is fusing with the sweat, dust and sunscreen on my shirt that feels like one big hunk of cardboard.  I’m staring at this deep fried piece of charcoal looking fish that Adil has brought me.  The eyes just pop out when it is deep fried whole.  I wonder if they even gut it?  Breathing the waves of dust every time a bus passes on my left, I’m just staring at this fish and cannot move—what the fuck am I doing here?  How has my existence been reduced to this?  Eventually I try to pick away at this lump of charcoal/food with the torn bits of bread they’ve supplied instead of utensils.

They had taken me to stay at the local hotel—US prisoners in solitary confinement have it way better than that hotel.  We went up four dark flights of stairs—and thru a black hallway with only one shaft appearing for a minute as some shadow enters their doorway.  Water from a sump cooler is raining on our heads as we try to reach the room—only to find steel doors on all the windows.  This room with the stench of sump coolers and feces is completely clamped down—no light, no air—the closest description is an old coalmine locker with a squat toilet area.  If there is a power outage (assured) and the ceiling fan stopped you would cook in your own juices.  I refused.  So now after trying to eat fried fish by picking off pieces using bread as scoops we are now back trying to find the port director and they can’t remember where he lives—where we just came from.  We go thru another hour stopping every 3 feet to ask directions.  I decide to sleep in the back seat.  Yahia wakes me to tell me the port director said no photographs and wants to know where I want to stay. A rope bed in someone’s courtyard is fine with me—this is what we’ve been doing for months.  Miraculously he bumbles into a better hotel—just a ratty Sudanese one, but not Auschwitz.

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