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)
Friday morning, in the relative safety of Khartoum, Sudan
On Wednesday evening, my last night in Geneina, Sarah our sweet British water and sanitation engineer came to eat supper with Mike Barton, the soon-to-be thirty year old area commander, and me, and told an absolutely chilling story about how her friend Tom, who works for the UN Division of Safety and Security was trying to facilitate the passage of the phalanx of trucks, horses, camels, and other assorted Janjaweed rebels through town earlier that day. He stood on a corner, stopped other traffic, and had the misfortune to have a white NGO stand next to him, taking priceless pictures of the whole m?©lange.
Pictures are forbidden in Sudan, especially of airports, government or rebel forces, or official stuff ‚Äì the few I have taken are in health related situation, not in government or rebel group activities. It creates in an instant response, if noticed, camera gets broken, media (SD card) is taken, photographer is arrested or beat up. The Janjaweed do not arrest, they act like the lawless animals they are and work their own justice. In this case, the white photographer, realizing his danger, slipped into the crowd, the UN fellow next to him received their ire instead. He is Egyptian, an Arab like them, but they grabbed him, took his Motorola radio, his Theraya (Satellite phone), mobile phone, money, and anything else of value, dragged him into their truck and beat him to pulp non-fiction.
One of their own guys who knew this UN fellow, stopped the slaughter with, “what are you doing?” They would have killed him. That’s the Janjaweed, “devil on a horse”, – aptly named. They control several of the towns I was to visit, curtailed by the evacuation. After that chilling story we had a very quiet dinner. Both Sarah and Mike know Tom, and know that this will be deeply traumatizing for him. This is why all NGO’s working in this area get a week of R & R every 8 weeks, 6 weeks if you work for the UN.
Sleep that last night in Geneina on my mat, which was too short for me and had curtailed previous nights’ rest, ended at 3 am. Someone started shooting intermittently in our neighborhood. A few burst, then some single blasts from a big gun, then sporadic rounds, then silence, and when you thought it was over, it would start again. Heightened alertness and deep restful sleep have never co-existed well. We all got up tired. On top of that we had a dust storm the previous evening, it ended power for the evening ‚Äì no fans or lights ‚Äì and coated and penetrated everything, even your teeth, with fine grit.
The morning however produced a clear blue sky, no hints of trouble, and it seemed the previous day’s transgressions had been forgiven. God’s mercies are new every morning, even here. I had my luggage ready ‚Äì sat phone and BGAN safely packed in my supply of sweaty clothes ‚Äì and we went to the Geneina airstrip at 11. Baggage check-in produced the usual search of the bag, but by the third layer of evidence of personal hygiene dysfunction it was abandoned and my BGAN was safe. They do not have a scanner at this airport, neither for your bags, nor to walk through, so you get frisked. They do that task well. He slowed down on my bump and scab from the horse accident 6 weeks ago and just as I thought he was getting a little too personal ‚Äì checking for vasectomy scars? ‚Äì he found my USB thumb drive in my pocket. He pointed and said, “What this?” I pulled it out politely, showed it to him, said “It is memory drive for computer,” the light went on inside his head and he relaxed, smiled, and said, “Ta-mam, it okay,” and covering his embarrassment at trying to bust the oldest guy on the plane, he smilingly waved me on.
After checking in, you get to wait in a 15 foot square enclosure, right off the only taxi-way connecting the landing strip with the refueling pump and the off-load area. The enclosure has a metal roof, lashed together reeds for siding up to the 5 foot level, permitting ventilation, including when large planes revved their engines near the fuel pump, discharging a haboobing quantity of dust through our ventilated refuge. This went on for 3 hours. We watched as one huge un-marked cargo plane after another, of many different makes but all of them the airlifter type with the wings over the top of the fuselage, came in, went through the taxiway, were met by flatbed trucks, forklifts, and crews of guys in dirty white cassocks (I don’t know what they call the robes they wear and it is probably sacrilegious on more than one count to draw on my altar boy experience to label these ‚Äì whatever, you get the picture). Negotiating the narrow taxiway between the refueling area and the roof of our holding area was a major challenge for several of the 4-engine cargo haulers. One of them inched his way through with his wing tip 6 inches over the top of our roof. I stepped outside for a moment to a safer distance.
Finally after three hours they allowed us to get on the Dash 80, after identifying our bag one more time prior to our boarding and its loading, and then we got to use the taxiway. There is just one pump at the Geneina airport and our plane had filled all four of its tanks. Prior to the world’s realization that the largest number of casualties of the various wars between Darfurian factions were the children who were starving and its resultant mobilization, there were only 2 fuel storage tanks here. They are old, completely oxidized, and three-quarters covered in years of accumulated haboob driven sand. I counted at least 12 new ones. Not even the concrete bases for them were covered in sand yet.
There is no taxiway adjoining the runway. You taxi to the end of the bumpy sand and crushed rock runway, turn around, and then give it your best shot. Taking off is not the problem, landing is. Along the runway there are several memorials of previous landings gone awry. One is the front half of the fuselage of a four engine jet, cleanly sheared off in front of the wings, its engine cowlings in various states of recognizability scattered around the scene, and a little further on, another hulk just off the runway, more badly mangled than the other, trying harder to blend into the native environment. Both wreckages do not look like they are more than a few years old. There is a third one near the area where planes are parked, its nose is down, its side is blown out, it is a smaller plane, and it looks more like sabotage after being parked.
Once we were airborne, and flying over the large wadi that Geneina is built around I felt tremendous relief. I thanked God for allowing me shelter under the wing of the Most High, for being my refuge and being faithful to shield me, and now rescuing me (Psalm 91). I had not slept well any of the four nights in Geneina, part of it was the bed, and I had felt the tension and insecurity of trying to serve God while being in a place where each man is a law unto himself and evil is allowed to abound and flourish. Rapes, murders, looting, pillaging, torturing are all done here without fear of reprisals or justice. It is the most dreadful place I have ever visited. Being assured that hell is like this and much worse (even hotter ‚Äì it was 118 yesterday), makes me very glad for my relationship with Jesus Christ and the comfort of the knowledge that I am His ‚Äì for good. Anything less than that could be terminal insecurity and a place like this is there to make that clear.
That security, which I wish all of you can embrace in Jesus Christ, is what continues to sustain me. I arrived in Khartoum last night about 6:30, after a three and a half hour flight, was taken to one of the two guest houses Tearfund has, and deposited there ‚Äì alone. 6 beds here, only one set of sheets to be found, a rat entered the door when I did and went straight to the kitchen ‚Äì must be a teenage boy rat ‚Äì and it was stiflingly hot. Fortunately it has air-conditioning, removing it from the Geneina/Hell category. The fourth floor views of slummy Khartoum are not encouraging, and as mentally fatigued, physically tired, and digestively challenged as I was, I thought it was time to come home and forego the Uganda part of the trip. I am exhausted.
A check of available travel options back to the States by Catherine at Medical Teams would not get me out of Khartoum until next Tuesday. It is clear I need to follow the plan, rest up for two days here in Khartoum, even if alone, and fly to Uganda on Sunday morning. Where I am weak, God is strong, that has been the case this entire trip, and once more I am reliant on Him and His sustaining strength. With that in mind I had a good uninterrupted 7 hour sleep. Instead of the lumpy mat I slept on in Geneina that was ideal for someone 5′ 9″, I had a full thickness mattress here, and I found a three inch thick foam pad to place on top of it.
Having left Geneina and feeling safe I feel compelled to pray for Mike and Sarah, devoted Christians ‚Äì we had prayer and Bible study every day while I was there ‚Äì so that they may be able to carry on God’s work in spite of the hardships, mental anguish, anxieties, and inconveniences. Please join me in praying for them, for their safety, for encouragement, it was evident they needed that, and for inner peace in a world at war around them.
I don’t know what the Uganda portion of the trip will bring. I will see my friend Felix and will see what he shows me, do what he wants me to do to serve his people ‚Äì I was there in 2005 for a month, and as a church we have invested in spring improvement projects and in a community center there. I will write when there is something to tell. For now I thank all of you for your earnest prayers to have me safely delivered from Darfur ‚Äì I was viscerally aware of the many prayers going to the throne of God, and it has given me a peace I could never imagine, even before I left – and I ask that you would provide prayer for this coming trip to Uganda, that God would be honored, lives touched, and I would safely return. Shuk-ran (thank you ‚Äì last Darfurian word I will use, promise!)