Friday, April 14, 2006

Day One

4:30am – Got up.

5:00am – Logs took six of us to the airport. Mad crush of people packed into a room the size of a kitchen. Managed to get our bags through the x-ray machine by forming a human chain and passing them over, around and under others.

5:30am – My bags are overweight. The UN flights allow only 15 kilos (30ish pounds) of luggage. I have 25 kilos. I tried to look pathetic and said it was because I was moving for a year. ‘A year?’ the South African WFP staff said. ‘In Nyala? Oh, I’m sorry,’ and he waved them through.

7:00am – Flight departs. I try – fairly unsuccessfully – to catch up on sleep.

9:30am – Descend into Darfur. The landscape is flat, and dusty, red-brown intermittently dotted with scrub. Dry river beds wind toward the horizon. Burned villages compounds are the only evidence of violence until we fly low over the largest IDP camp in Darfur. From the air it looks like a peaceful suburb of tents arranged on interconnecting dirt roads. Seeing things from the air can make them deceptively simple.

9:50am – Touch down on a newly tarred tarmac and drive out on a newly widened asphalt road. The war economy is benefiting some. Nyala itself has the feel of an outpost town in the wild west. The town is laid out on a grid with most of the roads being dirt covered in fine, deep silt. Donkey carts pulling wood, or onions, or cement share the road with hoards of white NGO vehicles and pickup trucks filled with AU soldiers or police, all jostling and passing each other while trying to cling to the blacktopped roads.

10:30am - Arrive at the office. Hotter than heck and bright – so bright it hurts your eyes to be outside. We have two compounds here and the office is a tan stucco cluster of buildings that contain, respectively, a pit toilet, several bedrooms, a kitchen, and three offices. Each of these sit around an open patio area that heats up like an oven at noonday. My desk is in one of the cooler corners of an office with windows that open out to the back brick wall.

1:00pm – After meeting the staff and unloading I check e-mail, access to which we have intermittently and start work. Spend most of the afternoon either in briefings with my boss or starting to go through the books.

5:00pm – UNDSS security coordination meeting where you hear everything you don’t want to know. ‘The general security situation has deteriorated,’ the security officer began pointing at a massive map of South Darfur on the wall behind him that was spotted with post-its indicating security incidences. He then launched into the details of the twelve new cases since last Sunday ranging from kidnapping to shootings to conflict between the government and rebels to your run-of-the-mill banditry and ended with a cheery, ‘We are concerned about the situation and consider it highly unpredictable at this time.’ The NGO representatives attending oscillated between taking furious notes and looking generally hot and bored.

6:00pm – Check the UN flight manifests to ensure that staff are making their flights to bases further afield.

6:30pm – Go back to the office and pick up my computer and misc. luggage.

7:00pm – Go home. The compound where permanent staff live is about ten minutes from the office and closely resembles it in layout. There are no water or sewage systems and our water is trucked in and fills giant tanks that sit on the roofs to be heated by the sun. Start to unpack and sort out my room which is a cot, a wardrobe, a lamp and night table.

7:30pm – Watch TV, eat bad Chips Ahoy replicas, and chat with my boss who also lives in the compound.

11:30pm – Get ready for bed. Room has been overtaken by tiny red ants. Ants are everywhere. Massive black ants that walk in lines in the courtyard, brown, hairy ants that crawl over your feet while you’re in the bathroom or shower, tiny inquisitive red ants that seem to have a penchant for paper products.

12:00am – Lukewarm shower (am just happy to have one…my feet are black with dust!) Ants take up investigating everything I leave sitting on the floor.

12:30am – Write this and am gripped by the sudden suspicion that this is all a terrible mistake - that I can’t live here for a year, that I’m trapped, that I have no idea what I’m doing.

12:50am – Decide it’s too late (or early) to be passing judgement on career choices and better to go to sleep.

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