Winner Of The Losers

One man's life experiences and lessons

EL FASHER, DARFUR, SUDAN

Posted by admin On June - 9 - 2012

Friends–Kind of long, but some thoughts on my travels and a few cool photos. Enjoy, Ed

8 OCT 2005

 

Last Saturday I returned home from Africa.  I would have never imagined as a NATO guy, I would be performing a mission in Africa.  But this was my second trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2 months. My first trip to Ethiopia was in late July for a week to set up the contracts for the NATO office, before I flew solo into Khartoum, Sudan enroute to El Fasher in the Darfur Region.

 

In the Sudan, I performed a recce (site visit) before we would send additional NATO personnel, assess the security situation and establish contracts/agreements for the life support for those to follow in Aug and Sep.

 

Some kids with me when we stop along a road my first night in El Fasher. An Italian officer took me out to see the “sights”

NATO was asked by the African Union (the AU is an organization of African nations which has its HQ in Ethiopia) to airlift over 3,500 troops from Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana and Gambia into the Sudan to perform as peacekeepers.  Over 90 days contributing nations (US, Germany, UK, Italy, Greece and Luxembourg) would provide aircraft or funds to contract airlift for 3,500 troops and 500 civilian police).  We also assisted the United Nations during an exercise to train the African militaries in Aug.  Finally, NATO sent a team of trainers into the Sudan to train 114 officers from various African nations during Sep.

 

Darfur is often in the news, as continued violence erupts in a region (the size of France, which is huge).  It has been a clash of religion, culture, and the haves and have nots.  An estimated 2 million people have been displaced because of the fighting in recent years.  Depending on whose  figures you want to use, between 200,000 and 300,000 have been killed.  The AU has 32 camps throughout the Darfur Region to monitor and protect the people.  I found out these camps were all built with US dollars via the Department of State.  I spent 5 days outside the city of El Fasher, where the AU HQ camp for the military operations in the Darfur is located.  There were 500 troops in the camp, with only 10 non-African personnel in attendance.  We are called  “International Experts” from Western countries. This area is by far the poorest of the poor I have ever seen.  I have been to +40 countries over my career and I can say without a doubt this was the most interesting TDY, and most challenging too (physically and mentally).

A local girl riding a donkey back home for the evening. The primary animal in Darfur was the donkey.

 

There were really two adventures in the Sudan: In El Fasher and then being stuck in Khartoum for 2 days. Actually the people in the Darfur Region were very friendly and I was very lucky to get to visit an IDP (individual displaced person) camp with 30,000 people, the local markets, and visit an UN guesthouse. I saw hundreds of nomads crossing the land and it just struck me: “Where are they going?”  They were traveling where there were no roads. It was like an episode of the “twilight zone”.  Soccer was very popular with all ages. Children were very interested in seeing and touching my white skin.

 

The real excitement started after the Sudanese Vice Pres John Garang “died” in a helicopter accident the day before I was to depart back to Khartoum (the capital).  Gararg was a rebel leader for 21 years against the Government of the Sudan and had only been in office 21 days. He was loved by the people in the Southern Sudan (Darfur). There were rumors of riots in Khartoum.  I had to decide do I stay in El Fasher or do I try to get out? I called back to Ethiopia on my SAT phone to confirm if Ethiopia Air was still flying tonight.  I get a call back: “Yes, but 5 hours earlier because of the curfew in Khartoum.” What curfew? The one just imposed from 1800 hrs to 0600 hrs and enforced by thousands of 18-20 years olds, riding 10-12 in the back of pick-up trucks with AK-47s and positioned at key intersections in the city.

My favorite of a mother with her baby on her back as she was making a wall for a family compound in the IDP (individual displaced person) camp.

 

The day it was announced he died in an accident, riots broke out and over 130 died in two days in the capital (Khartoum), where I had to fly into and out of the country. I did not know the situation on the ground as I prepared to depart El Fasher, but I figured I’d better to get out of the country if I could.  Maybe stupid, but once my mission is done, my focus is always to exit home.

 

My first chance on an airplane out of El Fasher was cancelled at 0830 hrs because it would not be allowed to leave Khartoum once it landed. I was very lucky to be able to get on the only commercial flight of the day at 1030 hrs.  The takeoff was delayed about 90 minutes and we were delayed again in Nyala before going airborne again to Khartoum.  After finally landing in Khartoum, I could not get to the International Terminal fast enough. When I got there, they had already boarded the flight and would not let me process. I am now stuck in Khartoum.  Not cool.

 

I was a man with no transportation or arrangements and it less than 2 hours from curfew in a city in turmoil. OK – time to look tough and make sure I watch my back. I was in the Haj (Pilgrim) Terminal which could process thousands of passengers and there were only a handful of locals and me.  I got outside, pulled out my SAT phone and called the only number (be prepared) I had for the US Embassy defense attaché (every Embassy has a few military folks assigned).  I explained who I was and asked for a pick up. “Hang tight and don’t move, we’ll be there to get you.”  Where was I going to go?  In less than 10 minutes (seemed like an hour), an Army Lt Col was there to get me.  He took me to an US Embassy housing compound (very secure) where I ended up spending two nights and during the day I worked in the Embassy.

 

There were more shootings the next day near the airport (which we have to go around to get between the housing compound and the Embassy) and they locked down the Embassy in the afternoon.  Finally, the lock down on the Embassy was lifted.  We head to our quarters before curfew on Day 2.  On a four-lane highway along the airport, we get a flat tire.  This is not cool either. “I think it’s time for a Hail Mary.”  We make a turn and pull over away from the major traffic.  We are vulnerable from every angle and we know it.  Now it is time to figure out the spare tire on a rented vehicle. There are hundreds of locals within 500 yards. Wish I had a tape, because we could have used it as an audition to be on a NASCAR pit crew.  Here are 3 of us (Army, AF and Navy) trying to figure where everything is to swap out the tire.

A shot of ladies in the IDP camp at the water well.

 

We are in civilian attire, it is hot as hell outside, and curfew is within minutes. Thank God, we had everything we needed.  Matt is completely focused on changing the tire.  I’m helping, but watching like crazy our surroundings; from time to time people are coming up either asking to help (like they have experience) or asking for money.  I’m trying to keep the locals a few feet away.  Inside the vehicle, there are two small backpacks with M-9s (just in case we have to defend ourselves).  Inside my head, I’m thinking: “Please God, get this guy away from us.” Twice I have to position myself to get into the vehicle just in case, but the threats moved on and we got back to work.  We got the spare tire changed, we jumped back in and make our way to the compound.

 

Well another wild experience to add to my 18 years in the military.  The Sudan is clearly off my vacation list and desirable repeat TDY location.  Attached are a few photos from the deep in the Southern Sudan in the Darfur Region, near El Fasher.

A pretty neat photo of two ladies who were walking home just as a dust storm was approaching and you can see it behind them.

NOTE:  If I had stayed in El Fasher, the next day, I would have been impacted by a flash flood and 2 feet of standing water the in the military camp I was just in.  Lord knows how long I would have been stuck there.

FINAL THOUGHTS:  It is amazing the efforts around the world to bring peace by the US and our friends.  It is eye opening to see first hand.  I have had young and old people come to me thanking me for what America has done for them in so many countries.  I honestly do not think many folks truly understand the magnitude of the efforts on-going around the world, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But there is no doubt in my mind, I am lucky to be part of the strongest military force in the greatest country on earth.

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