Monday, September 29, 2008

A funny way to celebrate

On Sunday, I arrived in a small town/village called Tawila, a short helicopter flight from the capital of North Darfur. It's been extremely interesting being here, talking to people who say the government continues to harrass them and almost weekly, there is some kind of incident, even in the camps that are supposed to be refuge for the displaced - anything from looting to rape to killing. In the past few weeks, there has been renewed fighting in North Darfur between rebels and government troops. One of those areas is about an hour and some's drive from Tawila. On my way to the town, from the helicopter, I could see a convoy of landcruisers driving through the desert. When we arrived, helicopters gunships were flying over the town. People were a little tense that something was going to happen, but it never did.

Today, I was in the shower, when I heard a noise. I couldn't quite tell what it was. At first I thought maybe an animal on the roof. Then I thought a knock at the door. But when it persisted, it sounded more and more like gunfire. Of course, the first outbreak of gunfire and I'm in the shower. Shit. I scrambled to get out of there, ran into my room, grabbed my recorder and ran outside with my hair still dripping in time to get the next round of shooting on tape. It was far away, and I couldn't see anything, but I could hear it loud and clear. Bam. bam. bam. It kept going and going. I looked around me, and the guards at the UN base were very calm. The peacekeeper looked my way, waved, and walked back to his post. No one was scrambling. I assumed fighting had resumed in some far away mountain. I waited for the peacekeepers to start loading up the trucks and get out there. No one moved. The shooting kept going and going, and I thought, this place is going to explode! I tried to ask one of the peacekeepers what was happening. He didn't speak English. I found one who did and he said very calmy, "This is how they announce the end of Ramadan." Yes. Very logical. In a country of war, that is so very appropriate. "Instead of fireworks, they use live ammunition," one UN police officer joked. A funny way to celebrate.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A war in disguise?

So here I am in Darfur, and surprise, surprise, it doesn't quite feel like a war zone. In fact, I quite like it here (El Fasher, capital of North Darfur State). The atmosphere is much nicer than in Khartoum - feels more like a town, and has a lot of life. The market is bustling, the people are friendly, it's much more developed than I expected (paved roads, taxis, etc - although I hear this is all quite new). At night, they sit around the market smoking shisha under small lights. Music blares from different shops. Apart from the heavy military presence (nobody thinks twice when a truck pulls up at the gas station with a machine gun attached to the back, or when a plain-clothed civilian stops by the corner shop with a Kalashnikov in his hand), you would barely realize that this is a region classified as one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. (This pic is from a site for people displaced by the fighting. Even the displaced have a very dynamic marketplace, a club for watching TV and movies, a taxi stand).
Of course, I've been here only two days. These are the words of a naive girl who has not been out in the bushes where the fighting takes place and who has not been around long enough to see the near-daily hijackings of UN vehicles.

But just to say that this place - Sudan - is not a simple place to understand. Nothing is black and white. And nothing is as clear as it seems.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Inevitable

So... I'm going to Darfur. Tomorrow.

It's impossible to try to cover this country without knowing and seeing for yourself what Darfur is all about. From Khartoum, it's really impossible to know. For the past two weeks, rebels have said that areas under their control were bombed and attacked by the govt. When you ask the government, it says, 'we're not attacking rebels. We're just clearing the roads of bandits so that humanitarian workers can have better access.' Of course, no one believes that, but how can anyone be sure what is happening?
Even going there won't give that many answers. It's hard to get access to any of the areas where fighting actually takes place, as they are all far from the state capitals and you need permission to travel to them (which the govt does not give easily).
I'm more nervous than I thought I would be, because so little is prepared, so few interviews are lined up, etc. etc. But this seems to be the way I function here, unfortunately - unorganized.
I should be sleeping now, but as usual, my body is doing that "I'm nervous, so I won't let you sleep thing". So I've turned on some "Entourage" TV shows that Osama put onto my computer in Egypt. Hopefully the expensive cars and famous actors will bore me to sleep...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Understanding the system

So... I'm back in Khartoum, and trying to set myself up to become a daily news "stringer" or correspondent. This is much more intimidating than it sounds.

The news here is basically driven by Reuters news wire. The Reuters correspondent is a British woman who has been here 5 years, speaks fluent Arabic and has married a Sudanese man. She, understandably, has great contacts and is always the first to know everything. All the Darfurian rebels call her when something happens. Most other news agencies have to try to catch up after she's published something. Imagine coming into an environment like this. How should I know when a village has been bombed thousands of kilometres away or when the army makes an offensive or when a press conference is taking place or when a statement has been released? As you can imagine, I was/am a bit terrified of not being able to keep up.

But slowly, I'm starting to understand the system. Or trying to, at least.

Luckily, my life has been made much easier with my new Egyptian passport. (Yes, that's right, I now have an Egyptian passport!). It means I can enter Sudan without a visa (which I did successfully) and remain in the country as long as I want. (which means I never have to deal with the visa office again - WOO HOOO!!!! ) I do however need a work permit, which I have applied for. With that, I will be placed on the official list of reporters, who are informed of press conferences by the government's foreign journalists department.

The next job is to introduce myself to all the important people - the spokesman of the army, the spokesman of the foreign ministry, etc. etc. Then, they add me to their mailing lists and I call them daily to check if anything is happening. I have to start getting a hold of phone numbers for all the main rebel groups. This is just an administrative job basically. Calling one person to another until I get the right phone number. I was asking one journalist about how he had gotten contact information for them all (there are many different factions, each with its own leader, etc. etc.) He had worked in Eritrea for some time, where apparently maybe of the rebels were based at the time. "Oh, they used to be my drinking buddies," he told me casually. Wow.

The other foreign journalists here, once you've broken them in, are also quite co-operative. They check with each other that they haven't missed anything, often travel to press conferences together, and know each other well.

Then there's reading all the local newspapers, reading all the United Nations media briefings, reading all the articles everyone else is writing, the list goes on and on! There's this constant fear of missing something, of not knowing that something is happening, of not having the contacts to follow up on something, etc. etc. It's totally scary I'm telling you. In the end, everyone's work ends up on the internet so it is very transparent. Eveyone sees what you produce and can easily compare it to what the others produce.

So anyways, I'm working on building those contacts now. Once you get in the groove, I'm sure it all becomes much less intimidating. But then there's the issue of resources.

All the rebels, out in the bush in Darfur, have satellite phones. It's the only way of reaching them when they're in the middle of nowhere. It costs a fortune to call satellite phones. The journalists who are on staff for some of the big agencies have all their expenses paid. They have offices with satellite TV, phones, printers, a guy who delivers the newspaper, etc. Then there's Heba, living off a shoe-string budget in an old house without a generator... ie. when the power goes out, I sit in the heat and pitch black, unable to do anything except possibly read a book with the light from my cell phone, until the power comes back.

All this to say that I have quite a challenge ahead of me. It's exciting in some sense. And I hope in six months to be able to tell you that I've made it ... Although Stephane my roommate says it took him 18 months to really get in the groove and feel comfortable. Good heavens.

Here's a pic of Stephane in the front porch/garden of our home with the cleaning/guard staff. Back to work!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ramadan in Egypt

Since I was young, my mother used to tell me and my siblings stories about young children carrying lanterns and singing in the streets during Ramadan. That's what I had in mind as I prepared to spend my first Ramadan in Eygpt, on break from life in Sudan. It wasn't exactly what I got, but close enough. The biggest change in Cairo during Ramadan is that the traffic lets up a bit in the morning, as people are sleeping in. Go out around 9:30am and you'll see empty roads like you've never seen before in one of the world's busiest cities. Of course, the downfall is that around 9:30pm, after everyone has eaten and rested, the streets are packed with people going out. Malls are open until12:30 or 1:00am, and most people, even those who work, don't go to bed until 2 or 3 am. I saw Ramadan through the eyes of young people my age, who have a shortened work day (say 10-3), come home and sleep for three hours, and wake up in time for 'fitar' (meal that breaks the fast) at 6pm. The rest of the night unfolds as usual, except that many go out again, especially on weekends, at 12:00 or 1:00 am for 'suhur', the meal you eat in the early morning. I am used to just waking up before the sun rises, eating some beans and eggs, drinking a glass of water, praying and going back to bed. But here, suhur is a big extravaganza. Restaurants set up special decorations and tents for young people who flock there to "chill through Ramadan" as the sign says. While there might be more happening at night, the days are usually dead. Stores open later than usual in the morning and close early before fitar, and most people are busy preparing dinner or sleeping. I also saw Ramadan through the eyes of mothers of families, and let me tell you, it is a stress. They spend days preparing beforehand, planning out meals and ensuring that everything that the kids want will be present (sweet, cold drinks, etc.) The meals are always huge. If I lost weight during Ramadan in Senegal, I have gained it here. I have never had stomach pains for so many consecutive nights due to over-eating on an empty stomach. But damn, it was delicious.

But that's not to say there is nothing traditional about Ramadan here. Some people do hang lanterns and fabric with special Islamic patterns, especially outside stores and restaurants. And apparently in some of the more "sha'abaya' (ie. poorer) neighboorhoods, the celebrations are much more old-school, with children singing, etc. Unfortunately, I didn't get to check that out. But Ameera (my sis came from Canada to meet me in Egypt), Amr (my cousin) and I ran into a 'saharati' - the old men who walk around neighbourhoods at night with a drum calling people to wake up for suhur. He taps the drum and calls out the names of people in different houses. "Amr! Tim!" he called as he passed my family's apartment. Tim was a German exchange student living in Amr's house about a decade ago. But the old man still calls his name everyday during Ramadan. This one took his job very seriously. He said he had been on TV and in the newspaper. We chatted for a while, then we had to let him go. He had many more houses ahead of him. (Notice all the shopping bags on Ameera's arm - she went a little crazy!)

Of course, the best thing about Ramadan is the sweets after every meal... uh, i mean, the extra time spent with friends and family. (But seriously, desert is considered a necessity because of the lack of sugar consumed during the day, and there is aways plenty from balah-al-sham to baclava to kunafa...) So I'll leave you guys with a bunch of pics: Me and Ameera with the Bahgat sisters; Khan-al-Khalili (a well-known place with windy roads and shops selling everything from papyrus paper to jewellery to belly-dancing outfits); Me and Mimi with freshly coiffeured hair ($4 each); Mohamed, Jassy, Amr, Ameera and Me having suhur at Sequoya Restaurant.
Ramadan Karim!