l e t t e r f r o m d a r f u r r u t h m a s s e y
It was two o’clock in the morning when I walked down the steps of the plane, across the tarmac, and stood in the harsh neon light of the deserted arrivals hall of Khartoum’s international airport. I looked around for a driver wearing the blue uniform of the United Nations. Instead, a man in a dark business suit walked towards me, introduced himself, and said he had been sent to drive me to my hotel. He was tall and thin. A short beard framed his angular face, and his eyes glinted like coins against the purple blackness of his skin. In the middle of his forehead I noticed the bump that comes from striking one’s head on the floor of the mosque during prayers, a sure sign that he was a devout Muslim. His name was Idris. "I will be coming with you to Darfur," he said.
It was 1995, and no one in my part of the world had heard of Darfur. All I myself knew about it was what I had read in UN documents: that it was vast – larger than France – arid, and poor, and that there were problems between the Arab and black African populations. The only glimmer of hope in this depressing scenario was a successful rural development program that the UN was anxious to publicize. And since I spent most of my time in Africa photographing UN projects, my boss decided to send me to Darfur.
In New York two days earlier he had come into my office and sat down. "Just remember, Sudan is a fundamentalist police state," he said. "And in Darfur there are special problems – ethnic tensions, and the beginnings of a rebel movement against the government in Khartoum." There had been no mention of rebels in any of the documents I read. "So remember, no fools-rushing-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread kind of thing." Like many Swedes, he was a Billie Holiday fan.
I followed Idris outside the terminal. A wall of hot air and the unique smell of Africa engulfed me, the familiar odor of rotting vegetation and spices, of drying fish and incense, of human sweat and hot soil. As we drove down the pitch black highway into Khartoum Idris told me that he worked for the Interior Ministry. This bit of news augured mal and confirmed my suspicions that he was to be my government "minder," an agent of a repressive regime that ruled with the Koran in one hand and an assault rifle in the other.
"Tomorrow morning I will pick you up and we will go to my ministry to get your journalist’s pass," said Idris after I had registered with a sleepy receptionist at the hotel.
"Do I need one? My UN laissez-passer should be enough."
"You absolutely need a permit, otherwise you cannot travel outside Khartoum. Don’t worry, it’s just a formality."
I was staying at the Acropole Hotel, a favorite with development aid and relief workers passing through Sudan. At breakfast the next morning there was Tariq who worked for UNICEF, a group of Danes who were installing water pumps in the Nubian Desert, Jennifer, a nutritionist with CARE, and Michel, Claire, and Stefan from Médecins sans Frontières, who worked in a refugee camp near Juba in the war-ravaged south.
In Khartoum there was no evidence of the forty year-old civil war raging in the southern region, a tribal holocaust that had killed l.5 million people. It was Jennifer who told me about the huge numbers of refugees from the south who lived in camps just outside the city, entirely dependent on food distributed by various agencies. The resulting invasion of aid experts ranged from idealists to disaffected opportunists whose secret woe was that the AIDS epidemic made it too dangerous to get laid.
Promptly at 8:30 Idris, wearing a smart safari suit, walked into the lobby of the Acropole. We drove off into the swirling crowds of downtown Khartoum. Tall, slender men in white robes and gauze turbans strolled arm-in-arm past sidewalk vendors selling everything from cigarettes to snake skins. The women wore brightly colored gossamer gowns, the only exposed flesh their sandaled feet and bare ankles painted with henna in intricate lacy patterns. Like the men, they were dignified, proud, and very dark skinned.
The city lay at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, neither of them blue or white, but brown and muddy. I asked Idris to stop the car and stood on the old iron bridge built by the British in the last century, watching the wide, fast-moving waterway full of silt and plastic bags flowing north towards Cairo.
The heat bore down on me. Minarets and whitewashed houses swam before my eyes, fine dust choked my throat. I got back into the car and we drove to Sharia el-Nil, a wide, tree lined avenue on the banks of the Nile where the British had built the colonial administration buildings that now housed various government ministries.
Idris parked in front of the Ministry of the Interior. On the dashboard lay my notebook and a file with documents summarizing the project in Darfur. It was innocuous stuff, no state secrets or coded instructions. So when Idris said, "You can leave your file and notebook in the car, no one will touch them," I didn’t give it a second thought, and followed him into the building. After many flights of concrete stairs and at the end of a long corridor we came to a door marked "Alien Registration and Travel Permits." Inside, a harried looking young woman swathed from head to foot in many yards of flowered cloth sat behind an old Underwood typewriter. A nest of plaits curled under her headdress. On the wall behind her hung a photo of the President, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wearing an army uniform. A rotating fan whirred in the background moving the stifling air around. After introducing me and explaining that I needed a journalist’s permit, Idris excused himself and left. When he came back ten minutes later I was holding a freshly laminated pass with my photograph and an official-looking seal.
But the notebook and file were gone from the car. "Are you sure you didn’t leave them upstairs," he said. Yes, I was sure. He made a great show of looking in the back and under the seats while I sat staring straight ahead in stony silence. I was certain he had taken them. And then I remembered the UN travel advisory on Sudan, with its warning that travelers could be detained by Sudan’s security forces, especially in provinces outside Khartoum. My instincts of self-preservation told me to be nice to him, to make him like me so that I would not rot in some Sudanese jail, and instead could get home safely to New York to see my daughter again. As these dark thoughts were going through my mind, Idris was explaining why he wouldn’t be able to stay with me for my meeting at the UN office.
"My minister wants to see me before we leave tomorrow," he said with an air of self-importance. "And then I must go to the mosque for evening prayers. But you will be with your colleagues from the UN. They will take care of you. Almost as good as me." And he laughed, revealing a set of dazzling teeth, the only good feature in a face with a thin, cruel mouth and shifty eyes.
"I’ll try to manage without you," I said. "In any case, I’m sure you’ll be of great help in Darfur. That’s where I’ll really need you."
"Tomorrow morning I will pick you up at 6 o’clock. Our flight to El Fasher is at seven. Insha’allah we will be there by nine o’clock." His God willing didn’t inspire great confidence in the next day’s Sudan Airways flight.
At the UN compound, Peter Jackson was waiting for me in his office. An agronomist from Australia, he was the UN expert in charge of the Darfur program. Tall, in his mid-thirties, with sandy hair and a pleasant, intelligent face, he was relaxed and friendly in manner. On the wall behind him was a map of Darfur bristling with colored pins.
To my relief, he said he was coming to Darfur. "It’s an incredibly arid and hostile environment," he said. "But the people are resilient and have traditional ways of coping with hardship. In the mid-eighties the whole region was devastated by a series of disastrous droughts and famines, the effects of which were long-lasting. Farmers weren’t producing enough crops, and every year the desert encroached a little further onto the traditional pasturelands used by the nomadic herdsmen for their cattle. Long-standing disputes about the control of water and grazing rights between Arab herdsmen and black African farmers intensified. To make matters worse, because of the government’s long neglect of Darfur, which is poorer than other provinces in Sudan, a separatist movement backed by rebels began to emerge.
"So when we came up with a proposal for a rural development program for Darfur, the government was quite happy to let us get on with it, as long as they didn’t have to contribute, which they don’t. The idea was to improve the quality of people’s lives, to bring farmers and herdsmen to a level above mere subsistence. And if everyone’s economic situation improved, perhaps disputes over who should control the natural resources would eventually end.
"We started the program two years ago with $28 million, to be used for well-digging, irrigation pumps, and seeds to help farmers. Rangeland management and mobile veterinary services were introduced to assist the herdsmen. Last year, sorghum, bean, and tomato harvests improved by fifty percent, and we vaccinated more than a hundred thousand head of cattle, so far fewer died. The result has been that incomes have doubled. When we fly over the region tomorrow you’ll be able to see for yourself. The green of the fields is as sharp as if it had been carved with a knife. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that the problems between the two groups have disappeared."
"Why can’t they all get along?" I said. "It’s not the same situation as in the south, which is mostly Christian. In Darfur they’re all Moslems."
"That’s true, and there’s no difference between the Islam of the Arab nomads and the Africans. But the problems are a reflection of a racist ideology that goes back for centuries, which the government reinforces by saying, ‘We are Arabs and these people are Africans and not true Moslems’. That being said, there are many Arab communities in Darfur who live quite peacefully and have good relations with neighboring African communities."
Then he asked me how I was getting along with Idris, and when I pulled a face he laughed. "His Sudanese colleagues don’t like him either," he said. "They know he reports everything back to his boss. One thing is certain – he’s going to stick as close as lips to teeth to us in Darfur."
We arrived in El Fasher, the largest town in Northern Darfur, at 9 o’clock in the morning. Omar was waiting for us in at the airport in a Land Rover. He was the driver for Abdel Aziz Ali Ahmed, the Commissioner for Northern Darfur, who lived in Umm Kaddada, a small town 300 miles across the desert from El Fasher. We were to stay in his house while he was in Khartoum.
The road from the airport was filled with people and vehicles. Bush taxis mingled with bicycles, carts, goats and camels. We stopped at a roadside market to buy bottled water and dates for the seven hour journey to Umm Kaddada. Unlike markets in other parts of Africa, here it was the men who tended the stalls. They sat with their legs thrust out before them, their merchandise stacked in neat piles – peanuts in tiny plastic bags, millet cakes and fried plantains, melons and tomatoes. The air was blue from the smoke of little charcoal braziers where people cooked brochettes of meat under advertising billboards exhorting them to "Fly Sudan Airways" and "Drink Fanta."
A couple of miles down the road from the market, without slowing down, Omar spun the wheel and drove off the road and headed across the desert. There were no roads to Umm Kaddada. To reach it we would have to drive the whole day across a vast grey stony plain that seemed to reach to the ends of the earth, an anonymous landscape devoid of mark or sign, miles and miles of flat, rocky desert over which the wind blows ceaselessly and even the camels collapse and die. Before us lay three hundred miles of absolutely flat terrain without the slightest sign of life or the smallest undulation in the land, nothing to vary the implacable line of horizon on all sides.
I felt the intense pleasure of being in the infinite space of the Sahara again. I’ve had hepatitis and malaria, broken bones, been shot at, been caught up in a coup, and been robbed, but this was where I wanted to be, away from the routine, far from telephones, faxes and newspapers, out of touch and out of reach, at the very heart of the continent.
Hour after hour we bumped along at ten, twenty, thirty miles an hour. Omar worked the Land Rover against the sand. He drove hunched forward, silent, his head inches from the windshield, concentrating on the lay of the land, calculating the slant of the sun, looking for the familiar rock or bush that were his compass, knowing the precise moment to shift the gears, accelerating to fly over dunes, his eyes glued on the terrain before him, following the sun and the occasional fresh vehicle track.
Soon we were covered in sand as fine as the air. It seeped under the doors and through the windows, coating the inside of the vehicle and everything it contained. I cradled my camera bag in my arms like a baby, my body acting as a shock absorber to protect its contents. When I opened it, cameras and lenses were coated with soft, white dust like sifted flour. A pull on a bottle of water, and sand passed over my tongue. It crept into my nose and worked its way between my toes. It silted up my ears, crept into my mouth, and grated between my teeth.
I sat next to Omar in the front seat handing him dates cooked by the heat of the engine, passing hot bottles of water to Peter and Idris sitting behind me, while empty ones rolled at my feet.
We arrived in Umm Kaddada just as the sun was setting, and drove down the sandy main street. There were no trees and, at this hour, no people, just a few goats and skeletal dogs. The houses were low and shabby, the same color as the surrounding desert.
Abdel Azziz lived about two miles outside the little town in a comfortable one-story house with a small garden surrounded by a wire fence and a view of the unending desert. The two young men who cooked and cleaned for him were there to welcome us. They moved gracefully in their white djellabas, greeting us with broad smiles, white teeth against skin like black velvet.
While Idris was saying his prayers inside, Peter and I sat in the garden on white plastic chairs on a small patch of grass, a miracle of green. We drank freshly squeezed orange juice, and watched the moon rise like a copper disk from behind a long slope of dunes. A wind came up and blew sand into my glass. We talked for a while and then we listened to the incredible, absolute silence. The sky was now pitch black and the stars shone with such power that I could see the Milky Way and all the constellations. I found myself constantly raising my eyes. Every few minutes a shooting star would leave its trail across the heavens.
For the next week we drove across the desert from one village to another. The distances between them were enormous. By donkey it would have taken a whole day. We watched farmers harvesting tall stalks of sorghum, beans, and watermelons, the only sound the put-putting of the diesel pumps that brought water from nearby wells to irrigate the fields. Wherever there were crops, water was not far below. It merely needed to be brought to the surface.
No matter where we went, I had the same impression of order and cleanliness. In bare courtyards women scattered grain among pure white hens, others wove prayer mats out of palm leaves inside houses made of sun-dried bricks, the rooms bare except for a bed made of wood and string, and perhaps a sideboard containing a few glasses and neat rows of shiny tin cooking pots.
At a brick factory in Abu Humeira, I watched a young woman bent double between the shafts of a heavy metal cart. As she pulled the load of bricks, the words of a missionary who had worked in Mali for many years came back to me: "In this country it is better to be a donkey than a woman." In Al Hoodi women wove carpets out of goat hair, and in Goz el Halag they made cheese out of goat milk. In Umm Jarada a steady stream of children came to draw water from a handpump. They wore amulets to protect themselves from evil spirits – pieces of root or horn, tiny bottles of holy water, or Koranic verses woven into leather or cloth. The amulets were wound around the children’s arms, hung from their necks, or were slung around their bodies on long strings, like bandoliers.
Under a large acacia tree, we attended a village meeting, the men sitting on one side of a courtyard, a group of women on the other. They held babies on their laps, and constantly adjusted the filmy scarves around their heads to cover their hair.
The village had prepared a meal in our honor. It began with the traditional hand washing ceremony – a boy bearing soap, a towel, and a big pitcher of hot water walked round the circle sitting on the floor. When everyone had washed and dried their hands, an earthenware dish of goat, millet, and beans was brought in and set in our midst. Using our fingers, we extracted the food from the mound in front of us. A silent woman wrapped to the eyebrows in layers of cotton served us countless little glasses of sweet mint tea poured from a pewter teapot, and then, sitting back on her haunches, solemnly watched us drink.
Wherever we went, Idris never left my side, writing down every conversation. Occasionally he would try to see my notes, which were written in shorthand and looked remarkably like his Arabic handwriting. Once he asked, "What is this language you write in?"
"The same one that I used in the notebook I lost in Khartoum," I said. As if to change the subject, he offered me a cigarette, telling me again, as he had for days, of the approach of Ramadan, when he would fast and not smoke until after sundown.
On the day before Ramadan, we spent the morning with some herdsmen who had brought their cattle to be vaccinated by a mobile veterinary team. The cows are their greatest treasure. Killing them is forbidden, and women cannot touch them. There must have been a hundred head of cattle milling around in a pen of thorny branches. A cloud of sand hung over them, kicked up by the thrashing of their hooves. The vet, his syringe poised ready to immunize each long-horned cow, waited like a matador, ready to plunge the needle into the struggling animal’s neck, while four strong men grappled it to the ground, fighting to keep it still for the moment of truth.
About fifteen minutes after we had left the herdsmen, joyfully reunited with their animals, we almost drove over a gravestone lying flat in the sand. A large crucifix in stone was set in the cement slab. I got out of the car to take a closer look. Drifts of sand half-hid the inscription on the base, which was in the same grey stone as the crucifix. It read, "In Memory of Major Walter Middleton, OBE. 1844-1880".
"A footprint left in the sand by the British," Omar said when I asked him how an English officer’s final resting place had come to be all on its own in the middle of the Darfurian desert. Then he went on to explain that in colonial days there had been a British garrison not far from Umm Kaddada. One day a letter arrived for Major Middleton from the woman he was engaged to in England, in which she informed him that she had married someone else. That same night he killed himself.
The grave was on the edge of an oasis. To see trees in this environment was almost as amazing as seeing a tombstone topped by a crucifix. We took a blanket from the car and spread it under the eucalyptus trees. A farmer had given us a watermelon earlier that morning after I had photographed him in his field, and now we cut it open and ate it. Omar smoked tobacco leaves in the hookah he kept in the Land Rover for just such an occasion, and I lay back and looked up at the sky, a blue porcelain bowl filigreed by the branches of the trees. Thinking I had dozed off, Idris was telling Peter about his fiancée.
"We cannot get married until I have enough money to buy a house," Idris said. "It is very difficult for me. Last night I had a dream about her. Very sexy dream. I was very much upset when I woke up."
Peter said nothing.
Undeterred, Idris continued. "We are never alone, I can only see her with her family. And if I kiss her I could get arrested."
"For kissing your fiancée?"
"Sudan is not like America or Australia. Here it is forbidden. It is very difficult," he said again.
"I can imagine," said Peter.
Then Idris lowered his voice so that I had to strain my ears to hear what he was saying. "She has been cut."
"Cut? Where did she cut herself?"
"You know, cut. All Sudanese women are cut. It is done when they are babies."
"Oh, I see what you mean. Performing a clitoridectomy is against the law where I come from."
"I never hear this word. Thank you for teaching me."
"Well, I’m sure it’ll come in useful."
In brilliant sunshine, Umm Kaddada looked even sadder than when I had first seen it at dusk on the evening of our arrival. There were very few people on the main street, on both sides of which were run-down houses and one or two small shops.
Peter wanted to show me what he euphemistically called "the small-scale industry activities of the program." There was the white-bearded shoemaker who sat in the shade of a thatched awning making leather slippers, surrounded by animal skins hanging from wires slung between wooden poles.
The skins came from the tanner up the street who worked in an open compound of ochre sand, where an overpowering smell of chemicals used to soften the leather rose from open pits.
Further along was the pharmacy, with medications neatly arranged on shelves against the wall. Next door was a small shop that sold flour, grain, little metal teapots, and not much else, except for some sequined squares with embroidered texts from the Koran that hung above a battery-operated radio playing Arabic music.
In a family compound just outside the town, two women sat on the sand sewing narrow strips of black and white goat hair together to make an enormous rug. It was the second day of Ramadan, and out of respect for everyone around me I had decided to observe it. Nothing would pass my lips until sundown. "You must be crazy," Peter had said earlier. "You’re not used to fasting. And in this heat you should at least drink water." He was right, as it turned out. While I was photographing the women sewing, the black and white lines of the rug became a blur and I almost passed out.
One of the women took me inside the house, and I lay down on some cushions made of goat skin and slept for a while. About an hour later I woke up and, smelling like a goat, wandered into the courtyard behind the house, where I found Idris, Omar and Peter sitting with the men. Several women were pounding millet, a sea of tin trays around them. Some were making biscuits for Ramadan from millet and wheat flour. Others were making unleavened bread and cooking a stew on a clay stove. They were preparing iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, which the head of the household invited us to share with them.
The sun was going down, and everything stopped for evening prayers. First the men, next the women, washed their hands and feet, then their faces. Prayer mats were placed on the sand facing east, the women’s behind the men. At that moment their lives seemed as rich as they could be under any circumstances. This richness had something to do with their close physical involvement with the vast landscape beyond the compound, and with each other.
We were leaving early the next morning. In Africa, departure is often a pre-dawn activity. It is a good moment to set out on a long journey, just as the sky is growing white in the east and objects are black and sharp against it.
article and photos ©Ruth Massey 2004