Friday, December 09, 2005

Very Bad Girls in Darfur

Copied from my travel journal...
December 8, 2005
Nyala, Sudan

It’s the “Friday night” of Sudan right now. All offices close on Fridays and nothing happens here. But not for Refugees International! We’ve spend the past two days sitting in the Government of Sudan’s “HAC” – otherwise known as the Humanitarian Affairs Commission. Since IDPs are not protected by international refugee conventions (having not crossed an international border), they are technically the responsibility of the government of Sudan. And so, while the UN and international NGOs and their local NGO partners provide all the services in the camps and do all the work, the government of Sudan can still say who goes in and who doesn’t. So – you’ve all heard about the firewood problems in Sudan, I think. Where women go out to collect firewood and then get attacked and raped. We went out on firewood protection patrol with the African Union on Tuesday morning. This involved hanging around the AU camp until they were ready to go. We drove our own vehicle surrounded by pickup trucks filled with Nigerian peacekeepers. I attach photo. After driving into Ottash camp, we then picked up the AUCIVPOL(Civilian police from Uganda, Senegal, and Ghana) and then the Sudanese police. The Sudanese police have no car of their own. We drove out into the bush and felt like we were on a safari. Is that a woman there? Is that someone with a donkey? Oh no! Camel herder- do you think he’s the Janjaweed? After about 20 kilometers, we pulled over into a clearing and got out of the car. The Sudanese police sat under a tree and we went over to shoot the shit with the Nigerian peacekeepers. They posed for photos with us and told us that “Sudanis not Tamam”. (Tamam is our favorite word here – it means OKAY, I think. Everyone says it to us. Our cook at our guest house greets us each morning by shouting loudly, TAMAM TAMAM! Conversely, the children in the camps greet us by shouting OKAY OKAY OKAY!)

We asked the Sudanese police how they would hear a woman if she was being attacked. They said – she will come to us afterwards. Okay, I get it – it’s RETROACTIVE policing we are doing here. Anyway, after 2 hours, we piled back in the cars and drove off. No problems whatsoever. The next day we were supposed to meet the Commissioner of the AUCIVPOL in another camp called Kalma camp. This camp is infamous because its about 100,000 people and they got fed up with the government of Sudan police and the HAC and threw them out of the camp. They are not allowed to go back in now. We had a permit from the HAC, drove to the police station on the outskirts of the camp and there encountered our first problems. The stamp on the permit to travel within Darfur did not match the wording on our travel permits (to travel around Sudan) which also did not match our visa to get into Sudan! Basically this “police station” was a hut with four beds in it where the guys sleep. They have their toothbrushes stuck in between the reeds of the hut wall. And on one of the walls they have a really gruesome painting of man kneeling on someone’s back and stabbing him. They told us it was a reminder to always be watching your back because there are spies everywhere and a spy will stab you in the back. They said it was from the Quran.

After a lot of back and forth, they then said they had seen us taking photos (of the ladies selling oranges at the checkpoint) so wanted to make sure we had photo permits (which we did). Nothing would satisfy them so we all had to pile into our car (because of course they didn’t have one) and head back to the main HAC office in Nyala. We could have refused and just driven off and what could they have done? They had no car to chase us with! After arguments with them, they said to us “You two ladies are not enough to do an assessment. You would need more people. We think you are spies.” I think that would make us the most incompetent spies of all time, if that were true. Finally, we agreed to apologize and get the correct paperwork. All the international NGOs laughed when we told them this and wrote letters in support of us.

Fast Forward to Thursday morning. We go to the AU base to go on another firewood patrol. We get to the Ottash camp and the firewood patrol has already left. The CIVPOL doesn’t have radios, cars, or any way to help us find them so we decide to interview them about their experiences in the camps. We walk outside of the CIVPOL office and stop to take some photos of the kids and a woman at a well. The HAC spy us and signal us to come talk to them. We ignore them and start to go back to our car. They come to fetch us and start yelling at us. We plead ignorance. We go to the “HAC Shack” and talk with them. A woman narcs on us. She was hanging out with the children and saw us taking photos. So we have to show them our camera.

Embarrassingly, some of the photos were of Sally and I in the local market trying on clothes and looking silly in our guest house. I erased the one picture I took of the children. They claimed that I was spying on the camp by taking photos of the African Union. Six of them gathered around me and my camera and clucked their tongues. “You are spies!” they said. Once again we had to give the guy a ride to the main HAC. The guy laughs when he sees us return. “It is you again! You are very bad girls.” After much talking, finagling, scolding, telling tales about the US, complaining about the IDPS and how they are all spies and politicians, and discussing Jackie Chan, they gave us our permit. But there was no one around to stamp it! We came back to get it stamped in an hour. The guy was still not there.

As tomorrow is the last day we are in town and all the offices are closed on Fridays, we became frantic. I went to a meeting and Sally and our driver/translator drove around town until they found the guy with the stamp’s house. They picked him up. He stamped the paper. They picked me up. We all went to a photocopy shop. We all went to the National Security office. More discussions. Some tea. Cigarettes were handed around. More discussions. More talk. Then we all got back in our car and drove to the guy with the stamps’ house. Then he turned into the nicest guy in the world. He introduced us to his mom, his wife, and his newborn daughter. Invited us to dinner. Gave us chocolates. As we sat awkwardly around his apartment and watched Sudanese tv, they passed around some spray deodorant which we all sprayed under our arms. And then we left.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sleepless in Sudan

Just read the blog of Sleepless in Sudan - really awesome. http://sleeplessinsudan.blogspot.com/

Although I've been dreading this mission since we suddenly got our visa at the last minute (hurray?), now I'm actually excited to go. Darfur is mystifying and horrible. Last time, I was so overwhelmed by my anger at the 'international community" and their inability to do anything to stop the violence that I ranted and raved for pages upon pages in my diary (which was saved on Mamie's computer and since she left, I no longer have access to). Probably for the best since it's depressing reading.

While I'll not be able to match the pure passion of "Sleepless", I'll do my best while I'm there.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Fashionably Political?

There's a new singer that I like, MIA. She's a Sri Lankan dancehall/grime/hiphop artist who's about 23. Her song Gangalang and SunShowers are catchy and fun but she's stirring up a ruckus in the UK. Her dad is in the LTTE and she's a Tamil. Since I was in Sri Lanka, I feel particulary interested in the Tamil Tigers. In general, I have a fascination with leftist revolutionary movements - I majored in Soviet Studies in undergrad. Sendero Luminoso, Khmer Rouge, the IRA, the Maoists in Nepal, the Zapatistas, FMLN, Sandinistas, Tupac Amaru, the Anarchists in Spain, the Catholic Workers movements...However, how does one get behind a movement that recruits children to fight its wars and pioneered suicide bombing? However, when I see the poverty in the Vanni as compared to the lush relatively rich South and I read about the riots in the 80s, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the idea of Tamil Eelam. Since the prime minister won the recent election (after aligning himself with the marxist buddhist JVP - Sinhalese chauvinists), there's a good chance they'll go back to war. And that saddens me. Although I like the idea of a revolutionary movement and their stated equality for the sexes, when I read about the difficulties that the former combatants have in trying to regain their lives, I can't allow myself to be blinded by the ideology. Yes, there is a certain seductive allure to it - but it helps to be reminded of the sheer brutality of it all. Assassinations of those who disagree with you. Forced abductions of fifteen year olds who are disappeared from their families and taken back into the jungle to be brainwashed. Complete and utter control within the family structure. "Give one child to the struggle." The photo albums of massacred Tamils on the living room table in the LTTE office of the "Peace Secretariat".

But just because you like an artist who uses the Tiger symbols in her concerts, does that mean you are supporting the movement? After all I liked Sandinista Rock in the 80s and knew nothing about the US role in Central America. I'm a socialist and love Social Realism but am opposed to the Stalinist purges of the Soviet Union. I like the Che Guevera tee shirt but am appalled by fact that the women in Cuba have to work as prostitutes for european and american tourists to make a living. Fashion and politics. To be politically fashionable or fashionably political?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Vanity, Vanity, thy name is Sarah

I've developed a disturbing new habit. I'm addicted to googling myself. I've long been addicted to email but now its gotten worse. When I'm bored, I start cruising around on the web. When I'm through reading gawker.com, wonkette.com, defamer.com, salon.com, slate.com - I turn to Google.

The problem is, I have a really really common name. Check it out for yourself. In order to find myself, I have to add a modifier such as "sex". Now you might ask, Sex? Are you secretly a porno star? Nothing that exciting. I wrote a report about sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers so that's been picked up all over the net. I don't know why I picked up this habit - noone who actually knows me could find me on the web or would know its me because my name is so ubiquitous.

But secretly it amuses me that you have to type in the word sex to find me. What does that mean? Am I a sex addict? A pervert? A sex fiend? I've been going around the UN meeting with military advisors for the UN and talking to them about my report. I feel like its that old Far Side cartoon "what dogs hear" (blah blah blah ginger, blah blah ginger) - all they hear is "blah blah blah sex, blah sex blah blah blah sex sex sex". This was confirmed to me when I visited the Nepali military attache. As I left his office after an hour interview - he put his arm around my waist and tickled me! I guess he thought we had just spent a nice hour talking about sex.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Why is no one spontaneous?

I decided to be spontaneous tonight. I called my friend Diana and asked if I could stop by. It was 8pm. I knew she was home because her husband was out of town for the week. she was suprised and invited me in for some wine. After an hour or two of catching up, I went home.

I miss spontaneity. I sometimes see my friends in other countries or cities more often than I do my neighbors in DC. We have to schedule to meet for coffee, or to say hello, or god forbid, to have a meal. I feel too scheduled and overwhelmed by the tyranny of the calender and clock in DC. Every minute of my days are scheduled. I miss spontaneity.

When I lived in South Carolina, we were always spontaneous. Maybe its because we were slackers, but I miss it. My friends would be driving through my neighborhood and would pull in to the driveway. If I was home, we'd chat or drink tea or beer and then they'd be on their way. They'd leave notes if I wasn't home. It was always a fun surprise to get a knock on the door. In Sri Lanka, I got stuck in a small town because the leader of the Tamil Tigers was giving a political speech. We stopped in the driver's cousin's house who hadn't seen him in months. Within fifteen minutes, we had hot tea, rice, lamb curry, coconut sambol, and fresh pineapple. My colleague, Joel, turned to me and said - if you had unexpected guests, could you do this? No.

So I say, bring back spontaneity! Drop by and visit me! I'll put an extra bottle of wine in my fridge. I'll keep frozen goodies in my freezer. Let's break through the tyranny of the calendar.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Big Week in Careerland

This past week has been really great for me career wise. My event was covered by the New York Times and the LA Times and then picked up by the AP and Reuters. I was on Canadian Broadcast tv, BBC radio, New Zealand radio, and then today - Fox News. Fox News was horrifying... they piled on pancake makeup all over my face and gave me scary "Lindsey Lohan" eyes. After introducing me under the false headlines of "UN Peacekeepers guilty of rape and pedophilia with war refugees!!!!" I then heard my own voice through the ear piece and got thrown. Watching myself with my brand new "Anne Coulter" face as I frowned trying to concentrate on the interview was terrifying. I hereby resolve to lose 20 lbs and get botox in my forehead.