Shattered Sudan | Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace, National Geographic: War Torn Sudan | Boys Covered in Mud Only Have Leaves to Eat

War Torn Sudan | Boys Covered in Mud Only Have Leaves to Eat

Living in the dust – In war-torn southern Sudan, boys who have only leaves to eat pack mud onto their hair to kill lice.

From the journal:

In the middle of the night (1am or so), Kamal walks into the room and says “Oh… Randy, I am sorry, but the men from security are here and they want to take all of your cameras and films.”

I’ve been asleep for 3 to 4 hours and this just seems like a bad dream—I don’t even believe him at first so I don’t make any motions to crawl out of my bug net cocoon.

Out of the cocoon, it’s cold, reality is setting in and both facts have me physically shaking.  I am carrying one third of the total film I’ve shot so far and that includes $5,000 in aerials—not to mention expensive camera equipment in the hands of security goons.  These goons are the kind of raw material they hire at the Hilton and they have to teach them what a fork is before they can even let them bus tables.

We make multiple phone calls to our security guy in Khartoum and he knows nothing about this.

The goons won’t even tell us their names or show any form of ID.  They just say they are giving us this one chance to turn over all the materials and that this order comes from Khartoum.  They say they are very sorry, but it is out of their control—they won’t even talk to our assigned security agent—Anwar–in Khartoum on the phone.  They say their orders come from Imad-Head of Internal Security for Port Sudan.  Anwar calls Imad and finds that Imad never gave any such order—but it’s too late, they’ve taken the stuff after a veiled threat about taking us to jail.  The booming guy says “take it easy, this is life,” as he leaves with my pelican case in his right hand.

Until 1998 security goons showed up like this in the middle of the night and people just disappeared.  This even happened as late as 2001 with Turabi’s people.

I try to go back to sleep, but it isn’t working, I am too angry, my heart is pounding too hard. I get out the sat phone to try to call somebody, but I don’t even know who to call.  I’m thinking what press organization could use this abuse as a nut graph in a story about this police state.

Cherri gives me half an Ambien and I get about an hour of sleep.

We pack up in the morning—grab bread, boiled eggs and jam (they insist on buying jam because they think “Americans want jam.”).  Ali, our local guide, who was also here in the middle of the night with the Gestapo, looks like a bus hit him.  He is so sad for us.  A cell phone call to Imad tells us to not even come by the local security office, that my equipment was put on a plane to Khartoum and if I want it that I should just follow it back.  In other words telling us to get the hell out of town.  Why are they taking my stuff to Khartoum if no one in Khartoum ordered it?  We wonder if there is an imminent rebel attack and this is all a ruse to get us out of the area.  Mahdi used a similar tactic to get Cherri’s group out of an area that could get hot.

So we rearrange stuff in the car, not knowing if we’ll be searched at the airport or not.

I had a 30 second window away from the goons and managed to separate all my shot film, notes, expense book, and malaria tabs out of the main case I gave them while Cherri kept the goons busy last night.  I hid this in Cherri’s underwear in her suitcase; figuring Islamic goons would be embarrassed to look there.  Now we are too afraid to carry the film through the airport.  Sammy—the driver–pulls over and I sort out the film and cover it with sleeping bags.  We line our bags of clothes up on top so we can just grab them and Sammy can speed off driving my film back to Khartoum.

Kamal has been trying to call his cousin who is head of security for this airport.  It’s probably appropriate to mention here that Osama Bin Laden built this airport.

We meet the cousin at the front door of the airport and he tells Kamal that there are three security guys waiting to secretly accompany us on this plane.

I have no idea what will be waiting for us in Khartoum.  Maybe a more fundamentalist group in government is behind this and we will be stopped at the Khartoum airport.  The weirdest part of this is just not knowing what is going on or why.  We know security is tight in Port Sudan ever since the U.S. launched cruise missiles from the Red Sea to blow up the Shifa pharmaceutical company and security was reamed for not seeing it coming.  So these folks are not particularly pro-American… And when they see me in a plane circling and circling and taking pictures… even though they are told I have all the clearances to do this, they just don’t believe it… no one has been allowed to do this in twenty years.

Yahia Babiker is in charge of all external security in the country and we finally get through to him.   He says my equipment was hand carried by an agent this morning but then when we land in Khartoum we are told my equipment and film will come with someone on an evening flight.

We have a meeting with Yahia at 3pm, but he doesn’t want to meet until he can find my stuff.  Who knows where it is or what is going on.  We are told Mahdi and Yahia are mad about this and will fire people involved—I doubt it—They can’t control them from Khartoum, how will they fire them out of their little fiefdoms if they weren’t even aware of them in the first place?

Yahia’s office is actually a compound with many cars and drivers and security guys everywhere within this little walled city.  This is Sudan’s version of the KGB—there isn’t the confusion here that reigns in the other government camps.  The guy at the gate looks at us and knows where we are going.

Yahia’s office is new, clean and sparse—very bright cool white fluorescents overhead with modern diffraction grids in a drop ceiling—but it’s a new drop ceiling and the fixtures aren’t whining as they are in the rest of this country.  There is a grey-blue leather seating area in an L-shaped office.  The other side of the L is Yahia’s desk with the latest computer equipment (i.e. COMPUSA new, nothing fancy).  The only other item in this large room is water cooler on the slate blue floor.  We are sitting in the chairs of the leather rap pit and he is on the big sofa with only his cell phone.  The ministers talking on their tiny cell phones run this entire government.  We asked Yahia for his cell phone number, but he refused.  The cell phone rings periodically—he squints at the number and then pushes a button to get rid of the call.  These guys all sit around and wait for the number to show up as Bashir.  I can’t tell if this is a scary man or not.  I know Yahia’s predecessor had “ghost houses”  all over Khartoum where people were tortured.  So, in a stupid move, I invade his space, sit close to him on the couch and show him a copy of NG that has a story by Paul and a story by me.  He responds fairly well so I stay there.  He says that for our “inconvenience” he has tried to make up for it by spending the morning clearing our trip to the oil fields.

As the meeting ends, Paul asks him about the University of Montana and Yahia says he went to the Univ. of Missouri.  I tell him I taught there in the Journalism School and he brings up all sorts of names of professors—this conversation is surreal.  All the ministers I’ve met have gone to Midwest party schools.  Yahia majored in political science at MU which I know is not much of a program—and who knows if he was even in the top half of his class.  Yahia and I missed being at MU at the same time by one year.  We have former students sitting in fotohut booths in grocery store parking lots with similar academic records as the folks that are running this country.  And what is really scary is that the next level of government below the ministers is like falling off a cliff into imbecile land.

Yahia takes us into the next room where they have my case with most of the cameras, but no film or videotapes.  One of the cameras is flashing numbers, indicating that film was ripped out of it.  I explain a Leica and 35mm lens are missing (about $5000) and point to the space in the case where it used to be.  Yahia just asks if it was insured.

Buy This Image