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)
Monday, June 16, 2008 – El Geneina, West Darfur
“ID, travel papers, original copy” the gate attendant barked at me. Producing everything to his satisfaction I was waved into the holding area for my Father’s Day flight to El Geneina. The holding area was dirty, like everything else in the airport at Nyala. Smoking also seemed to be permitted as one corner of the room had a blue cloud coming from a nervous-seeming fellow from Save the Children with a laptop briefcase on his shoulder (every NGO carries one it seems). An imposing-looking guy with a World Health Organization ID badge was animatedly pressing his point with exaggerated French-accented English, complemented by effeminate gestures. His Sudanese audience seemed disinterested. A compulsive European fellow picked up a large plastic wrapper littering the floor near him, looked all over for the scarcest of commodities in Darfur, a garbage can, and finding none, went to the open window and deposited it outside. Darfur has become one big garbage can.
I was spared much more time in this interesting holding area as the WFP decided to leave 30 minutes early to avoid the haboob coming from the east. The evening before a thunderstorm had drenched us from the east, forced rain through the creases of the shutters, into my room and made several small lakes on the floor. More was in store. But first we had to fly north to El Fasher, before heading west to El Geneina.
The Series 300 Bombardier Dash 8 propjet flew that distance at a bumpy 13,500 feet elevation in 25 minutes. At that elevation the wadis down below actually looked like rivers ‚Äì rivers of sand. The actual water runs about 30 to 50 feet underground all year explaining the vegetation and shade trees often seen on either side of the wadi. During rainy season water will actually flow on the wadi, making some of the IDP camps that have sprung up in the wide portions of wadis very vulnerable, very soon.
The flight had a friendly male flight attendant. He invited us to look at the card in the seat pocket in front of us for pictoral instructions. They included a picture of a plane listing in water, and showed how to use the emergency exit in that situation. “In the unlikely event of a water landing ‚Ä¶” Unlikely indeed. It also had a picture of a camera and a laptop crossed through, under a label, “Marufuku”. I left my laptop and camera in the bag, figuring, with a warning like that, I wanted to take no chances.
In El Fasher, some passengers got off, and quickly 16 more got on, encouraged by shouts of, “Hurry, the haboob is coming.” El Fasher is surrounded by sand, and more sand, no wadis, no vegetation, just fuel for the haboob. Coming in, the pilot had steeply banked over the town on final approach, going right over the market place, I could see the oranges piled in pyramids on the stands, the donkeys with their loads of heavy bags, and the typical African jumble of 3-wheel taxis, cars, people, donkeys, horses, and carts all vying for space between the stalls of the market. Too bad the camera was marufuku. Now the plane, with 23 total passengers, and a new crop of b.o., was climbing hard and going straight west, to the wild west of Darfur.
Gingerly landing on a dirt runway, and taxiing to a low building with yellow peeling paint, broken screens and doors, people milling about and obviously no restrictions on access to the runway, it could have been some rum-runners West Indies island landing strip, not one of the hubs of a massive humanitarian relief effort. The fact that no government was in control of this place was immediately apparent. It is a landing strip for whoever wants to use it. Last month during one of the offensives one plane after another landed, bringing in weapons and machinery of war, I was told. It seems calmer now in view of the imminent rainy season which usually stops fighting.
My ride from the airport was delayed so I had to a chance to mill about in the ill-defined area where everyone seemed to hang out. There really was no road or parking area anywhere, but presently I saw the Tearfund vehicle, a Toyota Hyace, a 2-wheel drive vehicle with 4-wheel drive sand all around. The 4-wheel drive vehicles are grounded behind locked doors because of rampant car-jacking, using weapons if necessary to get the job done.
Tim and Mike, the leaders, both from the UK, picked me up and took me to the work compound, dodging garbage and deep sand that the two wheel drive van would get stuck in. The compound is a bit down at the heels, but better than what I had seen in Geneina so far. The town is an absolute dump, literally and any other way. After a quick lunch prepared by cooks on the premises, batting flies with one hand, several meetings and lots of introductions, we went to an early dinner at the Medair compound. They are another Christian NGO from England overseeing medical care in the same area that Tearfund does nutrition. Their living compound was a neatly kept little oasis of shade trees, a large veranda, a spacious and neat living area and kitchen ‚Äì and they fixed a great spaghetti dinner, with cold lime juice to drink, and a great fruit salad. At 8 pm we had to go home because of security restrictions after dark.
After the Medair compound, Tearfund’s place was an awful shock. Not only were the accommodations somewhat squalid, but the Medair place was clean and tidy reflecting the fact that most of the residents there were women. Tearfund’s compound houses mostly men, right now 3 of us, and only one woman. To top off my cultural jolt, my room was tiny and ventilation was through the lower 8-inch strip of a window. The rest of it was covered from the outside. The only other air came by leaving my door open to a corridor. Both my room and the compound are very walled in.
I fell asleep around midnight I think, before the power went off. It was a hot fitful night’s sleep, donkeys across the street braying like babies in manly voices waking me up repeatedly. I have three nights to go before I fly back to Khartoum. Even though my work and my report will be done before then, I doubt I can leave early.
Today was a day to meet the locals; the HAC (Humanitarian Aid Commission) Commissioner’s office hassled me about stamping my travel documents since I am a physician, and they insisted I should be licensed in Khartoum. I explained I was working as a consultant, three more people were paraded, the same argument was repeated, and finally the highest-ranking one, after the same back and forth, now into its second hour, said, “this is a special case, and since you are special we OK it.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I thanked him, he offered me tea, I got the stamp, and we were off to see the Minister of Health, the pediatrician at the local hospital, and Andrea, a German pediatrician in charge of Medair’s medical program. I learned a lot and it helped me formulate a plan for the Baeda Nutrition Program and its Stabilization Center. This afternoon I started teaching the Baeda nursing staff and will continue that tomorrow.
It is time for supper in our home compound; we could not finagle an invitation to a wealthy NGO cousin tonight, so the four of us will see what the cook at work sent home.
Pray for Darfur and for this Godforsaken place. While you are at it, please pray for me as well, I could use a lot of God’s sustaining grace the next few days.
Blessings to all of you