April 08, 2007

Earning the Hazard Pay

By Matt Siller © 2007

5-Dec 6:00pm

So I didn't want to post this until after the fact because to those close, it has the possibility of being alarming. But it has been a year since I've been in Sudan, and up to this point, I really haven't been exposed to much danger, despite the fact that I live in a so-called genocidal war zone.

As outsiders, we kind of take this for granted...

'oh that village got attacked'

'wow... look at those pictures of the inhumanity'

'ouch... one of our camps had gunfire screaming nearby'

'ewww... that Sudanese chopper went down from an RPG and look at the pics of those charred bodies'.

We were removed from the violence and it meant about as much to us in headquarters El Fasher, Darfur as it did to those reading the NY Times or watching the nightly news in the states.

Until now.

Yesterday afternoon the Janjaweed came into El Fasher and attacked our local market, looting the shops and claiming the "Capitol of Northern Darfur" theirs. This of course has upset many an outside rebel. As a background, El Fasher is home to primarily SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) members, or Tora Bora as they call them (those that come down to fight from the mountains... as named from the mountain ranges in Afghanistan). The GOS (Sudanese Army) protects the town in a strange symbiotic relationship by running the airport and government facilities... but the SLA owns the town.

The Janjaweed have decided El Fasher is a strategic point they want and a day ago decided to take matters into their own hands and attack the market and say, El Fasher is ours... ignoring all sorts of peace agreements (UN resolution 1706 and the DPA) that the SLA and GOS have agreed upon.

In retaliation, the SLA has been generous, building up thousands of troops outside of El Fasher, saying... ok JJWeed, you have 24 hours to exit our town... otherwise we level it, you included.

Oddly enough, the GOS (who according to most sources, sides with the JJWeed) has claimed neutrality and not chosen a side in this skirmish.

Even more oddly, the leader of the SLA, and the mayor (wadi) of El Fasher, has skipped town, saying they will not have this disorder, but they choose not to be involved.

So a deadline has been set of noon tomorrow (the 6th) for a full withdrawal of JJWeed soldiers from the town. Otherwise... they come in droves and will not be selective in their targets.

The UN has pulled out of the city entirely, all AU (African Union) woman soldiers are out, and all International Org folks as well.

At 4 PM today, we evacuated all non-essential personnel into southern regions, moving all of our aircraft away from the airport (considered a prime battleground).

Unfortunately for me, I am considered key personnel. Let's forget the irony – Key Personnel Stay in the Danger in the War Zone.

So I helped execute the evacuation of the majority of personnel from this city to a safe zone. A select group of us stayed at the airport, on the sidelines watching the airplane props spin up and helicopter rotors initiate emergency evacuations, one hand in our pocket and another waving goodbye, while distant empty thoughts ran through our heads.

'Stay safe guys. We'll hold up the fort.'

Now most of the guys who stayed behind are former war vets and vigilantes, special ops, adrenaline junkies, smooth operators, the kind of guys who clap their hands together and rub, saying 'lets bring it on.'

Then there are the guys like me... heart beating with bittersweet feelings of 'so this is what it's like...'

The work stopped and we bade farewell at the airport and gathered up back at our headquarters, standing outside, cracking loose jokes, some acting macho, some standing quiet.

Our curfews had been set and the night is said to unfold uneventfully, waiting for our noon deadline tomorrow. We retired to our housing compound, waving hello to our comforted local security guards. It's impossible not to think... my safety is in the hands of these guys... who are probably Tora Bora or JJWeed, depending on the price?

We headed back to our rooms after mess and strangely conglomerate together. It's a bonding experience, I tell you that. The feeling of huddling outside together, in mixed emotions of what is to come in the next 24 hours, is pretty intense.

Will they resort to fighting? Will they stay in their own boundaries? Will they loot the western amenities? It's a lonely feeling, knowing the UN and US Embassy reps and International Orgs have all flown out earlier in the day, taking absolute precaution.

There's a sense of brotherhood forming with the group. Stick with me... we'll keep you safe... keep your head down...

There's a lot of speculation on whether or not the attacks will occur and to what extent. How do you think like an African? What do they have to gain? Are we a strategic target at all? Do they value life enough to respect us? Who is the GOS going to side with if at all? Perhaps the most troubling thing of the whole build up is that the GOS (who's been flying in troops by the thousands over the last 2 months) is no where to be found? Will they side with their traditional unspoken partners, the JJWeed, or will they side with their peace signatories, the SLA? How will that impact us?

It's a nerve racking and adrenaline filled thought, and I can't say I don't enjoy it because it's a feeling of eternal destiny taking shape and to think a crossroads is so near, it's powerful.

Now I've written about it as if attack on us is eminent, which in reality is a very low percentage. But when your in the zone, you think about this stuff. And understanding what it's like is, truthfully, one of the reasons I'm here.

But we will not speculate any further. We'll just keep our head down and stay secluded, aside from the wild video footage that may arise from my freshly charged camera.

I'm not a reporter, and I will be low key. But there's more to this story to come... stay tuned...

* * * * *

6-Dec 9:00am

I spent the night in a restless sleep, every noise sounding like the pop pop AK47 gunfire, loud then faint. My guess is that's probably what it was. As long as there were no explosions, I'm okay with distant gunfire - that's nothing new to this area. Most of it is liquored or 'gack'ed up troops firing into the air in the wee hours of the morning.

So I awoke and got dressed, checked the people outside my room to make sure I didn't miss anything while asleep. The morning was eerily quiet, cliché to say the calm before the storm, but that's what it felt like. I drove to work about 8am and saw a few children walking to school, herders moving their flocks to eat. I was scanning the panorama for any mass movement of people or vehicles and didn't see much. I passed the GOS military compound and they had stocked up on vehicles and people, but there wasn't much movement.

At the office, everyone was gathered outside for their morning smoke, shooting the shit about this and that in relation to what may or may not happen. Our locals came in to work and didn't have much news. The GOS has flooded the markets and the JJWeed are gathering on the outskirts of town. They didn't know about the SLA, but it was said mass vehicles were in tow last night from Millit, a town 1 hour north, gathering on the outside.

Three hours count down to the deadline and the butterflies are growing in the stomach. All of the employees are making final precautions getting ready for bunkering down and/or evacuation. We've packed Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) and boxes of water in our bunkers (at the office and at our residence). We've all made our to-go bags (of which you have a change of clothes, some water, a little food, flashlights, basic survival stuff if you have it. Mine's basically my passport and all my per diem.) We're adding sandbags to the exteriors of the bunkers. We've lined the perimeter of our compound with another layer of protection, our cargo trucks. We're getting all of our 'Go Vehicles' gassed and packed with water. Our comm's team is installing portable internet to two of the vehicles (RBGAN, satellite internet service) and the vehicle maintenance team is changing filters and oil.

Mind you our last resort is to get into the vehicles and drive off into the desert, but it must be a secondary option. Our first resort is to get extracted by chopper at a specified rendezvous point, but if things are too hot, then this also works.

Two hours to countdown and we hear there are mass demonstrations taking place downtown by the locals. Then a hundred or so military vehicles drive in and locals throw rocks at them and scatter. Downtown's now been abandoned, shops closed, people hiding.


30 minutes to decision point. There hasn't been much heard about any negotiations for the JJWeed pull out, and military strategy would think a daylight attack isn't advantageous... so maybe if nothing occurs they'd wait until evening. But it's hard to tell.

I'm at my desk, having been told to carry on as normal and follow up with various outstanding issues. I tell you now that's not the easiest thing to do when all sorts of life saving preparations are taking place outside and I'm in working daily business... my stomach is in knots. So I write this instead and let it go.


The deadline has come and gone, nothing major on any movements or occurrences troopwise. There's no smoke in town or flashes of lights or booms or anything relating to battles in our line of sight. We still are standing by. There's actually an excellent morale right now – and we're all prepared. I think it's more excitement than anything... and 90% says in historical context, nothing will happen and all this will be moot preparation.


A mass of protesting people have been moving toward our second camp in the area, Zam Zam, about 5km away from us. We're getting radio updates from our manager there. "There is a large group of civilians heading toward the camp." Security asks for more details which follow. Finally, "They are out front, are carrying sticks, and have stones in their hands." Security replies "Well don't get hit with a rock, stay indoors!"

Our staff has bunkered down there and the AU protection force (Rwandan soldiers – the best soldiers here in theater) have lined up in their fighting positions inside the camp. The protestors have looted the store in front of the camp and it's now burning. They haven't tried to overtake the camp, but we're fairly confident the Rwandans are the best we have to keep that from occurring. As opposed to other troops here, who, when queried as to what they were doing this morning, told us, "hiding under their mattresses."


In one of Sudan's great many ironies, we hear a funny update over the radio from Zam Zam. The very protestors who were upset with the AU, threatening to overtake the camp, have done an amazing 180. Shortly after the mayhem began, GOS police came rolling up (who are notorious for having itchy trigger fingers in controlling protests). The crowd shifted from angry to scared and, if you can imagine the nerve, has asked the AU to protect them from the GOS with an escort back to Fasher.


Nothing seems to be occurring at this point. The staff is scheduled to have a War BBQ at our residence this afternoon (conveniently enough, our social area also seconds as our security bunker), so we're all breaking early from work to cook, sit outside in the sun, and veg. Will there be a fireworks display tonight? At this point, it's looking like the once tense environment is all bark and no bite, which is a good thing.


It's the waiting that kills you, it's the waiting and what-if's that makes your heart beat. We've gotten through the day and nothing significant has occurred. Our BBQ fell through because we couldn't go downtown to get any meat. The guys conglomerated around each other, having a drink and a smoke, watching something light, "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" to detensify the situation.

There really are low odds that any harm would come our way. But the uncertainty is what makes your heart beat. As dusk and darkness set, the true tension rebuilds. If attacks are going to occur, it's in the night-time that they should be expected. Rumors are flying... thousands are troops are building outside the city limits... was that an explosion in town... I hear some gunfire nearby...

It really is the uncertainty, the anticipation, which drives the hammer into the nail of fear. It's a full moon tonight in Darfur, not the best time to move troops and capture the element of surprise. But an ultimatum was set and no one knows if it was met with resistance or acceptance by the JJWeed.

Folks here are under the impression that between midnight and 8 am we'll know whether or not the rebels mean business. How can you sleep when this thought process overwhelms you? Do you turn your comms radio up loud? Do you sit on the rooftops and watch?

Everything about this situation leaves the senses heightened. Adrenaline is surely a non-stabilizer.

* * * * *

7-Dec 8:00am

Well after a little small arms fire, a few far away mortars, and an aircraft bomber circling briefly, nothing to report. All seems quiet on the Eastern front. Our security status is still red, but it looks like this whole exercise was just that... good practice.

Part of me wanted the story to end in dramatic movie-like fashion, being whisked away in a helicopter while being chased by rebel-filled pickup trucks, flicking them off as we fly into the sunset. But I'll accept the fact that in this situation, less is much, much more, and the ending to a hard story doesn't have to be dramatic.

The groups that are fighting are fickle in their wants and I believe in this place there will be big threats and small battles until major intervention forces peace agreements that concede some sort of regional/government power to them.

There's an accepted risk we take by living in this place and I finally know what that risk feels like when the fire heats up. It's not so much being scared, it's more the intensity of uncertainty. There are people who live for this kind of feeling, professional soldiers, police officers, etc. I suppose you learn to control it to a point that it's almost a normal feeling. I don't think I want to get to that point.

Some may have said, why haven't all of you been evacuated? If the UN and other aid agencies jump ship at the possibility of danger, why not you guys as well? The fact is we have an obligation to support the AU mission and if we all leave it shuts down. So we will keep a minimum staff around until things really get hot. My company's been working in African hot zones for a long time and they're very good at ensuring the safety of their personnel. So I stand by that comfort, accept my decision to continue working here, and at the end of the day can say, "Well, today I earned my hazard pay!"

Matt Siller is a 20 something traveler and adventurist who's found a love working internationally. Aside from working in Texas and Washington DC, he's worked in Europe and Africa outside of his travels. He currently works in Darfur Sudan where he keeps a blog about his experiences.

No comments: