Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another one bites the dust...

We lost another vehicle today...

In a security meeting a friend leaned over and whispered, 'so, were they [the hijackers] armed?' I was indignant. 'Yes! Of course they were armed! We might be losing a car a day but it's not yet to the point that we're giving them away to people who don't have guns!'

However, there's now talk that maybe the no-vehicle club should start hijacking our own vehicles to get them back. We're trying to think out of the box here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Membership has it's privileges...

Dear [Name]:

On behalf of the board of directors and members of the South Darfur Chapter of the No-Vehicles-Club we would like to extend a kind invitation to join! We are eager to get to know you and together forward the mission of delivering humanitarian relief without vehicles.

You might be asking yourself, what are the benefits and advantages of membership? Well, membership has it’s privileges. The first is our snazzy logo which can be made into shirts and worn by staff as they travel on donkey carts and hang off buses. It makes a statement and that statement is, ‘Vehicles, shmehicles! Vehicles are for wusses! We don’t need no stinkin’ vehicles to get to remote locations and dig boreholes; carry medicine and food!’ Second, at gunpoint, have you ever found yourself struggling to find the words for: ‘thanks for the kind offer to hijack our vehicles…but we already gave…’? Simply post our logo on a sign outside your compound and the roving militias will know that they’re wasting their time traumatizing your staff and promptly move on to another NGO. Third, you will save a lot of money not having to invest in those ‘no weapons’ stickers, drivers, spare tires, etc. Fourth, you’ll enjoy our mix and mingle activities with the West and North Darfur chapters where you can retell time and again how, exactly, your vehicles were lost.

We hope you are able to join us, as we feel that you would make a meaningful contribution to our membership. Again, welcome to the South Darfur Chapter.


Chapter President

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Missing vehicle club

A very elite club has been formed in Nyala. The agencies-who’ve-had-vehicles-stolen club. I can hardly think of a softer target than a bunch of westerners driving around in very expensive vehicles with very expensive communications equipment with no-guns stickers on the window. We might as well have a sign in Arabic that says, ‘steal me, please! We can’t protect ourselves anyway!’ Another two land cruisers were stolen at gunpoint last night making it 12 that have gone missing in the last month in South Darfur alone - not counting the West and North. Now, the problem is that if it’s going to be an elite club not just everyone can join – but so many vehicles are being stolen that everyone’s clamouring to get in. I think we’re going to have to up the ante and make it that, while you used to gain admittance by having two vehicles stolen, now you have to have three. It’s the only way to preserve the elite nature of the membership.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Sometimes you just have to laugh...

I’m not sure why I find this so funny. It could be the late hour. I could be loosing it. It was about 11:00pm and I was sitting at my computer this evening after having a lovely day off. We had a bunch of friends over for a brunch, I laid out in the sun, did a bit of painting, went for a run and then sat down to work my way through some e-mails. I got a text from a friend which read: ‘You left your radio in my vehicle. Buzz before you come to get it or I’ll drop it off on my way to jail.’ The funny thing is he’s not kidding. He might be going to jail tomorrow. It’s a long and complicated story/lawsuit in which the organization for which he works is being sued and, as the head of that organization here, the government has decided to arrest him. (I could wax eloquent about the rule of law but it would all be completely sarcastic and unhelpful.) Then, the security officer for another organization calls me to ask what I know about the evacuation of one of our field sites tomorrow. ‘Evacuation…’ I said trying not to sound both ignorant and unaware. ‘Hmmm…right…evacuation, well…hmmm…haven’t been in contact with that location today (BECAUSE IT’S MY ONLY DAY OFF!!!)…but can I make some calls and get back to you in ten minutes?’ I then wake up our deputy programme director and the head of OCHA – just for good measure – to find out how I’m so uninformed. They were both, of course, delighted to hear from me at that hour. Turns out it’s not an evacuation, it’s a ‘relocation’ – the difference between the two is mainly found in that if it were an evacuation we would all begin screaming hysterically and running around in circles into each other, whereas a relocation is much more low-key. We’ve got time for breakfast and coffee in the morning. I call back with my information and now it’s midnight and I’m wound up. My options are either stay up until I feel tired or take Tylenol PM - which I really can’t do because if everything does go wrong in the night and I need to begin screaming and running hysterically I just might not be up for it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The 25 Most Important Questions in the History of the Universe

Things like: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Or, why won't pineapple and Jello be friends? Or, why are Grape-Nuts neither grape nor nuts?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What No One Tells You

I wish there was a school for humanitarian aid workers. In this school they would tell you all the things you’re supposed to know, and don’t, when you arrive in any given disaster or war. They would tell you that your job will not be even remotely exotic, adventurous or exciting. They would tell you that you will spend a great quantity of your time finding out if, and how, people are stealing, how to catch them and how to fire them. They would tell you that you are not going to save anyone’s life – that you are not helping the war you’re going to and, in fact, that you might be prolonging it. They would tell you that you will spend a lot of time with other people, exactly like yourself at coordination and security meetings. They would teach you important things that help you get by – like how to enjoy drinking lukewarm water, how to change a tire, stop a leak, tie a knot, what all those gadgets on your pocket knife are for, how to remove splinter without tweezers and how to smuggle more luggage than allowed through airline check-ins. There would be a language course in how to explain Avian Bird Flu to people whose language you don’t speak. There would be special classes on keeping your sanity in 42+ degrees Celsius, how to pretend you don’t have diarrhoea, how to enjoy drinking ORS and how to read by kerosene lamp without losing your eyesight. The cafeteria at this school would serve inedible – albeit authentic – ethnic foods that are unappetizing but the only food you’re going to get. The dorms would be outfitted with mosquito nets and the rooms filled with an amazing array of flying insects of every variety and size – just so you could become accustomed. The temperature of the classrooms would be kept at an unbearable temperature, either too hot or too cold and from time to time either sirens or prayer calls would go off over the loudspeakers. I’m pretty sure that this school would weed out about half of us. The other half should be taken away and immediately institutionalized.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


There is no internet access. Well, given that you’re reading this, that isn’t entirely true. I should say that there is intermittent internet access. By intermittent I mean out for days at a time. And this got me thinking all day about a conversation that I had months ago with a friend in DC. We had just seen a movie about some Americans who were killed in South America and I said, “Well, what did they expect? Traipsing around in someone else’s war. They had no idea how they were perceived or whose side they were on.”

“Isn’t that what you’re going to do?” she asked.

And we both laughed. Touché.

The internet access made me think of this conversation because no one has any idea why the internet is out. It might be out because of electrical failure, it might be out because of military movements, or it might out because of incompetence. Who knows? We don’t. We just sit here at the whim of the powers that be and we don’t even fully know what those powers are.

I have a chart on my wall of the militia groups, and rebel groups that have split and made up and split again and I have to update it on a near daily basis. The SLA, the SLA Wahid, the SLA Minawi, the SLA Free Will, the SLA Modern, the NRF, the JEM, the PDF (seriously) – we even now have a grouping called the ‘UAG’ – unidentified armed groups and ‘OAG’ – other armed groups. Kofi Annan described it best, ‘anarchy and chaos’ he said.

I suspect that the internet is out because there are troop movements and things are about to get ugly somewhere around here. So Sudan does what Sudan always does when things are tense. They shut down mobile phone networks and thereby our communications and our access to the internet. And all of this reminds me that we really have very little idea of where we fit into this larger picture. One of the first rules in aid work is that we are supposed to be on no ones side in this – we don’t carry guns, we don’t discriminate in the people we help…but, is that just our perception of things? It doesn’t matter much what you believe if you are perceived to be doing something else. It doesn’t matter if you don’t discriminate in aid given if everyone thinks you do…well, I should say, it doesn’t matter much. People act on perceptions. We all do. And, we really have no idea how we are perceived. Not by the government, not by the rebels, not even by the people on our street. All of this makes for terribly interesting dinner conversation back home but when you are being watched by a silent group of men while passing a mosque, or a truckload of solders, it takes on a greater sense of urgency.

And then there is the work itself. Because the conflict has been described – erroneously – as Arab vs. African, the aid agencies have favored the African tribes for distributions and support. However, a great number of non-combatant Arab tribes were completely overlooked which only increased the tension in an already explosive environment. And, how, exactly are we supposed to differentiate between combatant and non-combatants anyway. It’s someone else’s war, remember?

Add to this the demands of donors and agencies to abide by standards that are – I’m sorry to say – often Western contrived, completely out of place and contradictory in the field. Take the gender issue, for example. The Red Cross Code of Conduct states that we will not attempt to change people’s beliefs. However, standards dictate that special emphasis and influence be invested in vulnerable groups (read: women, children, elderly, etc.). So, attempting to give women a voice or to assign them to positions of decision and authority – or even gain their opinions – changes a society’s beliefs. ‘Yes, but,’ the open-minded Westerner will argue. ‘Surely it’s better that we change some beliefs.’ Is it? Which ones? Who decides? I’m fairly sure that same Westerner would argue that no culture is inherently better than any other. That no belief system is imperically more ‘fair.’ So, when something has to be sacrificed what will it be?

So we are stuck – inbetween. A terrible inbetween. After awhile, it makes you bitter and angry, or careless and cynical, but it always makes you tired.

Day 250

Two hundred forty-nine days ago was my first day in Sudan. I wrote about it on one of my first days here so I thought I would also write about day 250.

7:00am – The alarm goes off. I hit snooze

7:10am – Repeat the above.

7:30am – Repeat the above.

7:45am – Resign myself to the inevitable and crawl out from under two mosquito nets (one just wasn’t doing the job). Turn my VHF radio up to hear the goings on in the world that is Nyala, pull my hair back into a pony tail – the only hairstyle I now wear – look through my closet at the same six outfits I wear every week and pick something.

8:00am – Our administrator returns from taking someone to the airport, asks if I want some breakfast. I don’t and so we go to the office.

8:15am – There is no phone network meaning there is no way to do e-mails so try to get our RBGAN (satellite phone connection) working but to no avail.

8:25am – Give up in disgust and go make some coffee.

8:30am – Daily meeting with our Logistics Manager and Area Administrator to plan vehicle movements for the day.

9:00am – Make more coffee.

9:30am – Finish my ‘objectives’ for my ‘personal development plan’ that my boss is waiting for.

10:00am – Bring a cook into the office and tell her that she needs to stop making everyone’s life miserable and do her job or that I will fire her.

11:00am – Miss a watsan coordination meeting. Not really broken up about that. Work on updating the site security plan while listening to the cook rant and rave to anyone who will listen about the horrible woman she works for.

12:00pm – Update our site ‘threat matrix’ and write a visitor security update.

1:00pm – Go have lunch with all our staff. Our cook is noticeably absent being obviously still angry. Have a conversation with the staff about winter in the States and when our finance assistant is going to get married.

1:30pm – Back to my desk. Our administrator is cursing England’s performance in cricket. Try to get our printers working to no avail. Sift through a backlog of e-mails.

2:10pm – Talk to Khartoum by satellite phone about my recent meetings with donors.

2:15pm – Khartoum calls again and asks for the pricing of a copy machine. Says it’s an emergency so send logistics out to find out.

2:35pm – Find out that the price is $2,750 so call Khartoum to tell them.

3:00pm – Have an all-office staff meeting. Tell them not to use so much tape, turn off the fans and lights when they leave, submit their holiday plans for the Christmas holiday, and ask that the guards be instructed on how to turn on the generators.

4:00pm – Ask why there is a load of boxes sitting in the compound – they’re waiting to be shipped, I’m told. Go through a box of junk that’s been sitting in the warehouse for, literally, years. Instruct our guard to burn certain documents found in said box.

5:00pm – Go to security meeting and listen to all the horrible events of the past four days which include, but are not limited to: banditry, assaults, thefts of vehicles, burning of villages, shooting, murder, general intimidation, hijackings, and kidnappings.

6:00pm – Meet with OCHA to discuss Ed Daein and try to figure out who controls what areas.

6:35pm – Go back to the office, turn off all the lights and fans that have still been left on.

7:00pm – Go home, shower, make myself a tomato and basil salad and generally faff around for an hour and a half.

8:30pm – Go to a party at another INGO. Dance. Meet and greet. Mix and mingle. Refuse to learn anybody’s name. It’s lovely to have new people in town but refuse to learn anyone else’s name. I’ve got too many names and organizations stuck in my head already. I don’t have room for any more.

10:30pm – Curfew. We should be going home.

10:45pm – Start saying goodbye

11:00pm – Drive home trying to avoid checkpoints.

12:00am – Begin new British junk fiction about someone’s perfect life.

12:30am – Still not tired so take Tylenol PM. Make plans to redo our kitchen and make spaghetti sauce the next day.

1:00am – Check to see if the network is back on. It’s not. Go wander around the compound. There are times when I am struck by the beauty that is here. When we have no electricity and the generator doesn’t work and the compound is quiet and lit up by the moonlight. Maybe my sense of beauty has been dumbed down. Or maybe it is actually beautiful.

1:30am - Turn off the light and wait to fall asleep.

The interesting thing about Darfur is that no two days is ever alike. You can never get up in the morning and know what is going to happen that day. You never get to the end of a day and think, ‘right, that’s how all Monday’s are.’ It just never turns out like you expect it. Kind of like life, I suppose. I think someone captured it best in an article I read recently. They said, ‘The cup is never half full or half empty. It is always over brimming. Even if it is over brimming with tears.’