Just checking in to say that I made it to Darfur and while the Internet here is painfully slow, I’m delighted that I can still email and blog (although not use Facebook).
So what to tell you? Firstly, it is hot as hell, even in winter. And this internet room smells like a soldier’s locker-room. At first I thought it was the guy sitting next to me and then I thought it might be me but now I think the room may have absorbed the odours of countless sweaty soldiers over the years. Or perhaps it really is the guy sitting next to me.
It’s too hot to provide much by way of details but I’ll try. I arrived on Monday after a marathon journey from Bloemfontein. The endless weigh-in (each of us was allowed 45kgs) saw me throwing food away to make it under the limit. Then the long wait at Johannesburg international. The long, cramped flight on Air Jordan. Land at El Fasher airport which has a strip of tar, a few buildings and several UN helicopters. We’re met by the big Colonel.
“Today is going to be difficult,” he says. “It will be very hot and some of you will be here until 8pm. Please be patient.”
We’re given a bottle of UN water and we buy some Pepsi. Off to the UNAMID (UN and African Union Mission in Darfur) headquarters in El Fasher to get our UN IDs. Scramble to get on the first helicopter to Kutum. I generally hate flying but this is scary and fun at the same time. The Russians flying the helicopter are very serious (and thorough). It doesn’t help that I watched Black Hawk Down the other day. I’m scared of crashing but reassure myself that it’s very unlikely. We fly over a brown, dusty landscape dotted here and there with homesteads, some hills, some greenery and a lot of sand. The sand seems to shimmer in the heat.
When we land I want to say Nostorovya to the Russians but they might take it as an insult. I’m already thinking of the Cold War and James Bond. On our descent I catch sight of some rebels, armed and dangerous-looking on the back of a small truck. We touch down and they’re nowhere to be seen. Instead we’re greeted by SA soldiers with their R4 rifles, flak jackets and steel helmets. And big smiles. They’re happy to see us. I’m happy to see friendly faces and to be safely on the ground again. I realise that we are really here.
On the way to the base, I realise how rural this place is. This is probably the most rural place I’ve ever been in. I taught for two years at a black private school in what was then the Northern Province of SA and that was pretty backward. As soon as you turned off the main road and the secondary road you were into dongas. The supermarket has a guy with a shotgun standing outside for protection. Here the women ride donkeys and the guys sit under trees. The base itself is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s over-crowded (built for 200, currently catering for 800). Lots of tents, makeshift buildings, sand and rocks, generators, overhead wires, big satellite dishes, stray dogs, goats, local women working as cleaners. The smell of dirty water. Bored soldiers. Different nationalities. The hum of air conditioning. Watch towers. Piles of sand bags. Ammunition casing. Faces friendly and foreign. The sound of arabic over loudspeakers from the village.
The psychologist who I’m replacing has been very helpful and I think that two months here will definitely be do-able. I’ll check in again when I manage to upload a few pictures. By the way, this is my 200th post. (Happy bloggiversary to me!) Hard to believe it’s been that long since my first post here from my first military base. Thanks for all the comments and friendship since then! Chat soon.