Friday, August 29, 2008

A breath of fresh air

I finally got my exit visa (two days before travel time), hopped on a 2.5 hour flight and arrived in Cairo for a short vacation. Oh how wonderful it feels. It's only been two months in Sudan, but I feel starved for affection from people I know well and love. After a while, being among strangers or people you're just not totally comfortable with gets old. It's great to be in my family's home, among my dear cousins, where I can just relax and be taken care of. Eating in big groups, laughing, telling stories of past memories, blasting favourite tunes in the car - I only now realized how rarely I have had lately. I never knew how much I needed this vacation until I got here.

The first day of Ramadan went smoothly. It was actually extremely easy. I am trying to practice the habits I picked up in Senegal, but obviously the challenges are huge. We used to eat such at moderate amount at night, and I lost so much weight. But here, it is almost impossible to be moderate. I will try my best.

My uncle (who used to very high up in the Egyptian army before retiring) took me to start the process of obtaining an Egyptian passport. Get this, Egyptians can stay in Sudan indefinitely. ie. I WOULD NEVER HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE HORRIBLE VISA OFFICE AGAIN! There are many steps to getting an Egyptian passport, and I wasn't sure I would be able to get one in the two weeks I am here. But my uncle is a magician. In two and a half hours today, we got almost everything done! Because of his status in the army, my uncle can walk past lines, people open doors for him, and we get things done so fast! After the hell of administration in Sudan, I couldn't believe how smooth and easy it was. While getting my Egyptian identity card, there was a guy arguing with the staff. He thought he had what he needed; they insisted he didn't. I really felt for him...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Come back tomorrow

I wish I had blogged more in the moments that I felt truly lucky to be here – and there have been many! – in order to balance out what I’m about to say.

Sometimes I really hate being in this country.

Never once, in six months in Senegal did I experience what I have experienced 4 times in less than a month here – men trying to touch me inappropriately on the bus or in a taxi. It’s so disgusting and so shameful and I don’t know they can bow down and pray to Allah after they try to harass a woman wearing a headscarf who is repeatedly pushing their hand away. I am ashamed that they are Muslims. And now every time a guy so much as looks at me in a sleezy way on the street – and it happens more often than you would think in this “conservative” society – I feel the urge to punch him.

Possibly even more frustrating than the sexual harassment, though, is what I have termed bureaucratic harassment. A two-week trip to Egypt should have been a relaxing thing to look forward to. But organizing a way out of this blasted country has become an absolute nightmare. I have spent the last four business days – FOUR FULL DAYS – trying to get an exit visa. Yes, you need a visa to LEAVE the country. What a whack a concept to begin with. But fine. But for me to waste four days – standing for hours in lines and having people shuffle me around from place to place, talk to me with words I don’t understand – and still have no documentation to leave the country has left me so frustrated I simply cry as I’m walking down the street. I can’t control it. After the first three days of this bullshit, I ranted to my father about it. “There are no rules, no systems… you show up with everything they told you you would need and then they say, ‘no, but you need this too’.” He said, “Heba, if everything worked properly, if it was developed and organized, you would have no work there.” Excellent point. I tried to remind myself of that as I was standing in the crowded office today and the woman told me “You need a photocopy of your witness’ ID card.” This of course meant that I would have to take the 45-minute bus ride back downtown, photocopy the card, and come back again. But I smiled, reminded myself of my father’s wise words, thanked her and went about my business.

But tolerance has a limit. And I surpassed mine long, long ago. I came back with the photocopy. While she looked through the papers, I prayed silently for her to pick up the stamp and approve it. Please, let there be nothing else wrong, I kept wishing, like a desperate child. When she finally stamped the thing, I thought: My father was right. I just needed a little patience. But then I was quickly reminded of why patience just isn’t enough. From there, I had to go to the security window. From the security window to the payment window. Of course, they never really tell you where the payment or security window is, so you spend a good ten minutes going from line to line until you find the right one. From the payment window to some 4th floor place where the women laughed because I was in the wrong place. Well maybe if anyone bothered to properly explain to me what the hell to do and where the hell to go, I wouldn’t be here! From there back to the payment counter. We’re nearing the end! This is the second-last step! Then the bombshell: “360 pounds please”. WHAT? 180 dollars just to leave the country? Are you kidding me? Not only was the amount outrageous, I didn’t have the money with me. If that, that’s about all the money I have left right now, after borrowing some from a friend. I turned and walked out of there, tears streaming down my face once more, before she had the chance to say the famous line I have heard so many times, “Come back tomorrow.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

Latest Article

You've all been asking about what I'm writing/producing. Here are the latest to be published/broadcast:

Sudanese: What Arab-African Rift?

Ottawan in Sudan - Scroll down to Aug. 18th

The Pulitzer Center has the full list on its website, although not updated with the two I've just listed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A place to call my own.... finally!

After two months of living out of a bag, moving from hotel to hotel, sleeping in people's places while they're on vacation, flying or driving from city to city carrying with me everything I own here, I finally have my own place! And it feels goooood. I unpacked my bags, HUNG MY CLOTHES ON HANGERS (this is a big deal), put my facewash in my own bathroom, and bought groceries! It's a great place with its own garden and front porch, as well as a verranda that connects to the upstairs bedrooms. It's an old house, but very open and cool (weather-wise) and makes me feel that I am living in some kind of storybook place where the birds chirp and life is pleasant. (I'm not sure if this makes any sense. It's been a long day and my brain isn't functionning at 100%). I'm sharing the place with a French journalist, and we're looking for a couple of other roommates (it's a big house with 4 rooms). So that was a big step forward in committing myself to Sudan for at least a while!

I also got my temporary passport, finally. Although now I get to enjoy the hurdles of getting a visa in this new passport. I cannot express to you how much I hate Sudanese immigration bureaucracy. Every time I enter those offices, without fail, I come out on the verge of tears in sheer frustration.

But otherwise, all is well. I'm off to Egypt next week for a bit of a break, then back to the big-S!

I will update with pictures when my darling sister brings me a suitcase of things I requested from Canada when she meets me in Egypt. Other than a new digital camera to replace the stolen, I have requested Extra Gum (this is the only food-related thing I can't do without! The brands here are all fake and last about 1 second), running shoes (I didn't think I would need them in one month and a half - who can exercise in this heat, I told myself!... but I after all the food I've been eating here, I definately do!), portable hard drive (I am terrified that something is going to happen to my laptop and I will have no back up), hair gel (I tried what they sell here... oh what an Afro that was!) and other random things. God Bless my family for their patience! Every day I send a new email saying "oh, and can you send this with Ameera too!"

Ok, perhaps I should actually get some work done now... This whole freelance thing requires a level of discipline and productivity that I just don't seem to have these days.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Third World Journalism

I spoke in Senegal about the difficulty of journalism in that part of the world - heavy African accents, translation, difficult phone lines - and that was when I was working with a UN office. Here, mostly on my own, I have experienced a whole set of other difficulties. To replicate a sound-proof booth in which I would record my voice narration for a radio script in Canada, I turned off my fan in my room in Khartoum, sat between a folded mattress and threw a sheet over my head. As I sat there sweating in the heat, trying to record my voice in silence, the maids would start chatting outside my thin walls, or the adhan would come on. So you wait, until you get some form of quiet, and try again. It's really quite entertaining.

What else is different about work here? Well in Juba, my main form of transport was the back of a motorcycle, through bumpy, muddy streets that are sometimes impassable, although the drivers always try. To save on gas, they turn the engine off and just coast if they are going down hill and then turn it back on as they start to lose momentum.

In southern Sudan, access to very important politicians is quite easy. It's a new, semi-autonomous government, built from scratch in 2005 after a peace deal with the northern government they had been fighting for two decades. One day, I stopped by the office for press relations for the Vice President to try to schedule an interview. I found a Canadian Sudanese working there, who immediately liked me because I was Canadian, and tried to get me a spot with the Big Man. All of a sudden, I found myself in the Vice President's office - and he goes, "You want to do it right now? I'm free." It was as easy as that!

The hardest part about working in a post-conflict society, I would say, is winning people's trust. As a North-American and as an Arab, people are skeptical of me. Right across the country, people resent the West as they see its interference as the root of problems in Sudan. In the south, people are suspicious of Arabs, who dominate the northern government and with whom they have had many problems historically. When you start asking a lot of questions, they wonder if you are a spy working for the government. In many cases, in the areas where there is a big humanitarian presence, people have already been asked questions by NGOs, the UN, etc. and don't want to do it all over again. So when little old Heba shows up and sticks a microphone in someone's face, they are often not keen to participate! ... That being said, once you spend the time, win the trust and convince them of your purpose, they usually come around. I often get the reaction, "You came all the way from Canada? Why did you leave your wonderful country to come to this?" When they realize I am trying to help spread the word about their living conditions, they are quite cooperative.

I did however find myself in a bit of a bind recently, when I talked to some members of the Dinka tribe along the border with Uganda. There have been problems in that area over land. During the war, people fled to Uganda as refugees leaving their land empty. Then, as the fighting progressed to other parts of the country, Sudanese living further north fled their homes and settled in this empty land along the border. Now, when the refugees come home, they find people on their land, and this understandably, has led to come tension. So I tried to raise this issue with the chiefs of the Dinka community, who were among those who settled on the land. They were quite defensive, and within minutes, I found myself surrounded by big tall men screaming at me. "You come from the West and try to create divisions among us!" Needless to say, I got out of there as fast as I could!

But then I had to stop and think about whether he was right. I told myself, as I told him, that my goal was not to divide, but to find the truth in order to help come to some kind of resolution. But regardless of my goal, is division not the result?

If you think back historically, many of the problems in Darfur have their roots in the British style of rule - control in the center and some form of self-rule, which resulted in neglect, in the peripheries. Some trace the origins of problems between north and south to British rule as well. One govt consultant blamed all of Sudan's problems on the US sanctions, which forced Sudan into an untenable financial situation, isolated from the world economically. As a result, he told me, the govt had no money to invest in its country, and people took up arms, tearing the country apart. "For the West to come back now and say the government has neglected its people... it's bullshit." Of course now, with countries coming in to reap the benefits of the booming oil industry, you can understand why many people say, as one taxi driver told me recently, "Sudan would be perfectly fine if all these people got the hell out of our country!"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tired of Goodbye

If there are two things I don't like about this lifestyle, they are being far from friends and family, and constantly saying goodbye. I just spent two and a half weeks in Juba, capital of southern Sudan, where I unexpectedly had a truly amazing time. Wayne and his group of friends were just such a welcome change from the isolation of Khartoum, and being there felt like being back at camp where you hang out with the same people everyday and get to know each other very quickly. When I flew back to Khartoum today, I felt like I had just popped out of an alternate reality - one full of Filipino Kareoke parties, campfire under the stars, dancing to loud music and a close-knit group of great people.

But of course, it all comes to an end so quickly. And the goodbyes become exhausting. When I look back on all the great and interesting people I have met - and never seen again - in the last four years, it makes me sad. I know it shouldn't. Yes, yes. You learn something from everyone you meet. They play their role in your life and then move on. And it's a small world - you never know where you might re-encounter an old friend. But sometimes I just feel that I am never moving forward. I invest in these friendships and then lose them. So instead of having a foundation with someone and building on it, you are constantly cracking the foundation and starting over. It's all short-lived and temporary and that is so unsatisfactory sometimes.

That being said, I have great memories (and plenty of pictures) to looks back on. Above is Charita, a Filipino police officer who is part of the UN Mission in Sudan, and I climbing a mountain just outside of Juba town. To the left is Wayne, the RCMP officer who I have come to know more than I ever anticipated, and I singing kareoke - can't you see the sadness in my eyes!

On another note, this experience has been eye-opening on another level. I have plenty to say about the UN and its employees after this "embedded" experience at the UN compound in southern Sudan. I can't reveal such information here to "protect the innocent", as Wayne and Mark put it, but ask me about it later and I'll give you my two cents!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Staying in Sudan

I just realized that today is August 2nd, the day I was supposed to fly home. So I should probably mention that I've decided to stay in Sudan longer than expected (Yes, I know, you all saw this coming).

I have been putting off picking a place in Africa and settling down as a foreign correspondent for a while now, mostly out of fear. So it's about time I face that fear and just do it! I am here now, there is no point in coming home and then coming back again when I am "ready". So I am going to give it a go!

Sudan is the perfect country for me. I speak Arabic, there are TONS of stories, it is close to Egypt, and it is an important part of the world right now, and an important time in Sudan's history. I have already started making contacts and so on here, so I think there's no time like the present to build on that.

For now, I've changed my ticket to December, when I will come back to Canada for a visit and then possibly return to Sudan afterwards. Of course, these decisions are never easy - and I hate being away from all the people I care about. I struggle with the consequences of this lifestyle all the time, but I think that the temporary sacrifices are worth the gain. But do not think for a minute - even when I stay out of touch for way longer than I should - that I do not think about you or miss you every day!

I will try to do a better job of keeping you updated from now on - it's not always easy, due to lack of access, constant travel, immersion in life here and simply exhaustion from too much work. But I'll do my best! Love always, Heba

In Flight!

I rode on my first UN chopper this week, as I travelled from Juba, capital of southern Sudan to a town further north called Bor. In the rainy season (ie. now), many of the roads in southern Sudan are untravelable because they get all flooded and muddy. So in many cases, the only way to get around is by plane.

The ride was pretty amazing actually. You have to wear earphones to mute the sound of the helicopter's wings. Once in flight, they open the small circular windows and the fresh air just flows through. Southern Sudan is totally green, so from the plane, all you see is trees, sometimes a cattle-herder or two, a couple toucols (homes made of mud and straws). It was really beautiful.

I spent a couple days in Bor, talking to people about the insecurity there. Sudan is just so complex. Even though the war between north and south Sudan is over (separate from the Darfur issue of course), unrelated tribal fighting continues to make southern Sudan unstable. Different tribes raid each other's cattle, abduct children and even burn villages - in some cases it is a sign of manhood to kill someone, in some cases they steal the cows to offer them as dowry for marriage. Anyways, so people who were displaced during the war have finally returned home in this time of peace, only to be displaced again in some cases.

When I told people in Juba I was going to Bor, everyone made that "Oh, Bor" face as if it was the worst place to visit on the face of the planet. But in fact, it was quite nice. Like many other parts of southern Sudan, it is in total reconstruction - new roads going up every day. Still, though, you can't go an hour without having to stop the car because cattle have filled the road. And the facilties are still limited. Only the market and the government offices have electricity, and even the UN staff get their water from a borehole run by a hand-pump. Here I am pumping away, with an Argentinian UN peacekeeper behind me. More and more here, I have been impressed with the internationalism of this place. The different natioanlities really do work together in a beautiful way. In one office , you can find someone from Holland, Canada, Guinea, Nigeria, India... and they find ways to joke and relate to each other.

I'm back in Juba now, just in time for party weekend. There's a party tonight so big that people have flown in from Khartoum for the occasion (which speaks to the desperation of the social scene in Khartoum). Here's a pic from a few of us out for dinner the other day. Ralph from Britain, Charita from the Philippines, me, and Mark from Australia. The pizza was good, but took about an hour to arrive, and when it did, it was the wrong toppings of course. That's Africa for you.