Dr. Henry Reitzug of Puyallup, a member of the board of directors of Lakewood’s Northwest Commercial Bank, is on a mission to Darfur, Sudan, as part of Tearfund, a leading relief and development charity, working in partnership with Christian agencies and churches worldwide. Dr. Reitzug has been sending his observations of the country and people and we are reprinting them (in a series) with his permission. Read the other installments (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen)
Nyela, South Darfur, (still here) – Thursday June 12, 2008
The sign at the airport said “Nyela International Airport”. It is located on a bit of a plateau ‚Äì coming from the airport and descending from the plateau, there is an expansive, phenomenal view of the surrounding area, which unfortunately is not phenomenal to look at. The misery index is very high. Approaching the airport I could see why it was called international. The single airport building was dwarfed by several giant 4-engine UN airlift cargo planes, a Jordanian airbus and too many helicopters to count.
There were UN conveys on the road to the airport with soldiers sitting in the back of pick-up trucks, in desert colored fatigues, weapons across their laps, wearing their ridiculous powder blue helmets with the white “UN” on it. Might as well paint a bulls-eye on them. At least we know whose side they are on (neither), which is more than you can say for most of the armed folks in pick-up trucks and Land Cruisers.
There are two ways into the airport from the front, one is to slide yourself through the baggage scanner – the lady attending it won’t notice – the other way in is the front door, informally guarded by several local men. If you bring your luggage with you through the door they might tell you to go back outside and run it through the scanner which will deposit it inside the building and which won’t be noticed by the lady attending the scanner screen. The screen is angled 90 degrees to the scanner, and the lady is another 90 degrees to the screen, talking to the men attending the door. The men might also just ask you to open the luggage and give it a cursory look-see (at a 15 kg ‚Äì 33 lb limit, no one would waste good space on bad stuff. That must be the premise!). Sometimes they just let you walk in without the cursory look-see, especially if you are with someone they know, like the Tearfund driver.
I have acquired some experience with the Nyela International Airport ‚Äì I have been there repeatedly in the last few days. Yesterday I was booked to fly to Geneina but because of the disaster at Khartoum airport, all flights originating from there were canceled, so we were turned back. Today, as I walked into the airport it was obvious there was a backlog of humanitarian workers seeking to travel. Almost everyone flying to anywhere in Darfur passes through Nyela.
The distinguishing feature of the ticket counters is that there are no signs of anything electronic. They make up for this deficiency by having three smiling, friendly fellows with yellow and black WFP vests. The one who smiles the most has a stapled list of many names, called the manifest. Somewhere in an office in Khartoum someone decided who would be on the list for each flight. Mr. Smiley took my Darfur ID, scanned the list and assured me my name was not on it. His colleague, who spoke English, explained the obvious. The colleague did explain I could wait for stand-by; I would be second. So I waited.
While I waited, my friend George, the water and sanitation advisor, arrived on a heli flight from Ed Daein, He saw me through the window where the arrivals come in and get their luggage, get their papers checked and then exit, and he came in to catch up with me. No trip through the scanner for him. After I waited for another hour, watching an enormous black bug fly touch-and-go landings in the terminal, the English-speaking ticket counter man determined that he had one seat left that someone failed to claim, gave it to the man waiting ahead of me, and came over to me informing me of my misfortune, “malesh” ‚Äì sorry.
So, the Tearfund driver negotiated me back to the office through midday traffic in Nyela ‚Äì donkey carts being passed by three-wheeled taxis, in turn passed by pick-up trucks, all of them dodging pedestrians, edges of the road washed away in previous rainy seasons, and intermittently everyone just getting out of the way of the occasional land-yacht Land Cruiser, marked UN, coming the opposite way. Since many of them were stolen, you are never sure who is driving them.
The Tearfund office, and its residence a half mile away, are down squalid side streets, littered with garbage, plastic bags, crushed water bottles, decaying food and small animals. Walking to the house last night was scary, open doors with a blend of excrement, garbage, stale sweat and smoke wafting out. Mongrel dogs were picking through an area piled with mounds of garbage causing us to do a little detour. In the midst of it all a dozen little boys were playing soccer, using various little piles of rubbish as goal posts. The saddest was passing a cardboard shack, obviously patched after repeated assaults on it by wind, dust, and rain. It is home to a man who receives food help from the various humanitarian agencies. Apparently he chooses to stay there rather than move into an IDP camp.
Life is very, very harsh here. Seeing huge cargo planes unload enormous supplies for this area, driving down the main street and seeing one major NGO after another, and knowing that each of them hires many people as drivers, guards, cooks, cleaners, admin assistants, and many actually as the hands that administer and distribute the aid to their people, it is obvious that poverty and starvation has become the main employer here. Without the 14,000 aid workers in Darfur, their organizations, and the many more people they employ and utilize, the people of this part of the world would starve in huge numbers. It may not be the Berlin airlift, but what is going on here is much more vital, touches many more lives by ten-fold, and is an enormously complex endeavor. Each day I am more aware of my infinitesimally small role in this effort, but feel nonetheless privileged that God would allow me to be part of it.
Please bless the people of Darfur by praying for this effort – and for their salvation. Without that, this won’t make a difference.
Blessings to all of you