September 28, 2005

Khartoum-Nyala (Sudan, Part 2): Domestic flights in Sudan

By Anon Hammurabi © 2005

One day was spent going over my equipment, looking at a few of the local computer problems, having my passport photo taken for the Darfur entry application and just relaxing. It's a bit hard to relax in 40 degrees Celsius, though, but we had enough water to drink and cigarettes to smoke, so I found myself walking from the computers in the basement offices to feverish naps on the 2nd floor.

In the evening, three NRC officers who'd been at Nyala and were going home to their respective countries came and we all went out for dinner at this Korean place in the basement of Hotel Africa, Khartoum. If you want a good meal that doesn't give you a running stomach, or otherwise polluted merchandise, this is the place. We didn't pay much for six main dishes, spring rolls and sodas for everyone. Mr. P said it was probably the best food available in Khartoum at the moment. It was the best meal I'd had in weeks, I must say, living mostly on spaghetti and half-cooked, plastic-wrapped dishes.

After that it was pulling myself together to make sure everything was packed, since despite my erroneous visa (approved on the grounds that I worked for the NCA, which was totally wrong), the application for going to Nyala had been accepted, and a plane ticket had been bought.
These days (10th of April-10th of May) the runway on Khartoum International Airport is being re-paved, so the airport is closed between 9 AM and 5 PM every day. My flight was at 7:30 AM, but if you've ever traveled by domestic flights in African countries, you know why I went a couple of hours earlier.

Just inside the entrance, which was literally packed with people, luggage and trolleys, and to the left, you had to put all of your luggage in the x-ray scanner. Everything. It was all going through the same scanner marked with radioactive warning signs that sent the luggage to the next room. Getting there was another story.

If you ever feel a little lonely in Khartoum, just order a domestic flight and go for it. You'll have people everywhere and - watch out - luggage being more or less thrown towards the scanner. Both my laptops got trod on. When I had just entered the room, this guy with a couple of hundred newspapers that had to be scanned came in at the same time. "Ha, good thing I don't have a trolley in here," I thought arrogantly, but don't you think the bugger got there before me? Must've been a professional.

Anyway, you can forget everything you've learned about queuing and the subtle airport tricks within the boundaries of good manners, 'cause elbowing may only be too polite in these circumstances. When I'd finally managed to get my bags through, and was on my way out from room number one (still haven't gotten very far!), I had to climb atop trolleys and suitcases and people just to get out of there. No one had thought of making a separate way out of the place, but being a World Traveler I was probably the only one finding it exhausting.

Good thing I've read the Guide.

DON'T PANIC, eased my mind and put an I-give-a-damn smile on my face. When I finally got out, Mr. P - who had so graciously helped me thus far - told me to keep my ticket (reading MidAir) visible, since they only announced flights and other vital information (like fire) in Arabic. I went through a queue with people holding the same ticket as I, had my hand-luggage inspected and was given a thorough, manual search until someone was kind enough to point out that I was on my way into the wrong plane. Thank God - Allah - for someone noticing how confused I must've looked. The security check, by the way, was pretty thorough. The people-scanner was out of order, so they searched all of us individually. As said, Sudanese domestic flights are an intimate experience.

(Mr. P told me on the phone later that this particular day had been more intense than usual, but I'm still a bit skeptic. The funny thing was that no one - no one - picked my pockets! In ANY western country I would have found myself without a wallet or ticket pretty soon. Haram.)

So, at the time of writing I'm sitting on an old Norwegian Fokker 50 (they still have the sign saying "life vest under your seat" in Norwegian) on my way to Nyala. We'll probably stop in Al Fasher (the capital of North Darfur), but nobody can tell for sure, since the pilot is keeping his cards tightly to his chest. Expect a flight schedule from one to eight hours.

What do I see out of the window?

Have you read Dune by Frank Herbert? Does Arrakis, the desert planet, ring a bell?

You may have read about Dune. I'm looking at it.

Desert: sand, rocks, small hills, no indication of any life, and dried out rivers.

I imagine being down there and my throat gets sore. In a very gruesome way, it is beautiful. Life and death (mostly death) clearly defined - your doom laughing at you from the landscape. The Sudanese desert also has a very distinct colour of red, which looks really great from an airplane. But a killer shark also looks beautiful from safe distance.

It happened that we had a "one hour" stop in Al Fasher (which lasted for about two and a half), in a non-air conditioned room without bathroom or ashtrays. Luckily I had my mobile, my cigarettes and some water, so I was able to spend some time doing nothing. The rest of the time was spent casting hidden glances over at some of the Muslim princesses, uhm, air stewardesses who returned them from behind their cover. I must say! If I didn't know what happens to "victims of infidelity" in this country, I'd asked them to join me in the bar. Of course there was no bar either. When alcohol is banned, bars are hard to justify.

When we finally arrived in Nyala, passport and x number of copies of my entry-permit ready, no one was there to pick me up. At least, that's what I thought. I wasn't the only NGO, or "international" on the plane, but all the others were from various organizations and being utterly unaware of the local setting, I just walked ahead out into the sun and the carpark. The latter was 500 metres from the airport. And I walked.

Driving around in rural Sudan is one of the most dangerous things you can do, so if you (when you are an "international," at least) get stopped by someone, you want to have the proper signs ready. The first one is a sign I saw on most cars, stating that none of the passengers in this vehicle has a gun. The other one is a flag or a brand that shows which organization you're working for. If you're out of luck, none of it works.

But this was lucky for me, 'cause I recognized NRC's logo on one of the jeeps and headed for it. After the chauffeur, Mr. Joseph, had fetched Mr. T who was looking for me inside the airport, we - and six people from Oxfam who's drivers were on strike - were on the way into Nyala.

Being the youngest on site, and in many senses a VIP, I was given the front seat so I could marvel at the scenery. The first thing I noticed were two soldiers playing with their Kalashnikovs by the entrance to the airport. I reminded myself that I was an NGO in humanitarian/social science affairs, which of course wouldn't stop them from shooting at us if they wanted to, but the words weren't empty in my mind at the time. My first meeting with "being professional in the field."

After a while, huts made from straw and donkey-droppings became more frequent on either side of the road. People looked really poor, hungry, thirsty and tried to catch our attention with waving and doing dangerous stunts too close to the traffic.

I turned to Mr. T and asked: "Is this the camp?"

"No", he said, and smiled. "These are the citizens of Nyala. They are rich compared to those in the camp. At least they have a chance to live."

Twenty minutes later I was installed in my office and busy working.

Anon Hammurabi is a writer from Northern Europe.

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