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Angier Peavy – Darfur

After a day or so of meetings in Khartoum, I got on a humanitarian flight to Darfur to prepare for the visit of Secretary of State Rice to operations there. I kept thinking about 8th grade science when flying over Sudan.  Remember looking at an onion skin under a microscope and seeing all of those nice squarish bits with little black dots in the middle?  That’s what a village looks like from 15 thousand feet up with each house in a square compound.

As we say in Texas, you see miles and miles of miles and miles in Sudan.

Sand, rocks, sand, bare outcroppings, sand… well, you get the picture.  Given the denuded state of the region, it is easy to see what happens when it rains. There is the path of an occasional river, there the raw gully of a flash flood, there the broad swath of an overflow, and there the tracery of green which marks the line of  water.

The Darfur region has been in the news because of the ongoing humanitarian disaster going on there with hundreds of thousands of people displaced, thousands killed, thousands missing, and thousands raped.  In the South there is an element of religious intolerance with conflict between Muslims and Christians and animists; in the North, it’s said to be between Arabs and Black Africans, but there is way too much history and conflict and long-standing land and affiliation issues to render the situation that simple.  Suffice it to say that hundreds of thousands of people are suffering.

My major work was at an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp, which houses about 70 thousand people.  I went up there to see the place and walk through the program. This camp was set up and is maintained by US funds. It has acres of neat brush, wattle, and plastic enclosures with well-defined passages and wells and latrines and miles of windbreak walls of plastic sheeting.  The inhabitants are fed and given medical care, and they looked reasonably healthy and reasonably calm.

We worked through all of the details which arise on or can arise on a visit by a high-ranking official.  We had some trouble just riding around because the sand was deep enough to defeat even a Land Cruiser in low gear in 4-wheel drive. Toyota, by the way, is the vehicle of choice for just about all of the military and humanitarian groups, and fleets of Land Cruisers swept around the area.  All of these vehicles are a bit of a climb for a short pudgy person, so I needed upper body strength to haul myself up and into the four wheel drive behemoths.

Occasionally a bit of the desert moves and you realize that a camel is striding out.  Tiny donkeys with enormous bales of brush on each side and a person on the back trot amiably along.  Many people ride sidesaddle, but most ride with legs along the donkeys’ necks so that they can steer with their toes.  Carts drawn by bony horses with rather fine Arab heads pull carts, and women walk with enormous bales and bundles on their heads.  Neck muscles in this part of the world are very well developed.  Even little children can easily balance a large jug of water on their heads.

There is not much to do in a camp, so we were a source of endless amusement and curiosity.  The children knew “OK,” “Good morning,” and “what is your name,” and used them indiscriminately.  They loved to shake hands.  There is a strong dimple gene in this population so you see lots of adorable little mites with huge eyes, long eyelashes, and enchanting dimples. The kids were all well-fed.  You could see that many had suffered from kwashiorkor (that is a protein deficiency which eventually leaches the color from their hair) but the blond hair was growing off.  I mentioned to someone that the kids were certainly cute and active, and she said very matter-of-factly that the weak ones had all died.

At the end of the day we all went to our lodgings to rest up for game day which dawned bright and broiling.  One thing which had really concerned us was the danger inherent in having hundreds of little children running around a motorcade of enormous vehicles, so we had asked for help to keep the kids from running into the path of a car.  I invited children to come over to the area where the Secretary’s car was to stop and got about 300 lined up, and we did some rehearsals with me standing in for the Secretary.

One grandmother was determined that her grandbaby be part of the scene.  The baby was barely knee high and wore yellow plastic beads and a pink scarf and a bright and ruffly dress.  I put her on the first row where she solemnly gazed around and clapped her little hands with the others as we taught them to clap and chant “Welcome, Welcome, oh Condoleeza!”

The motorcade arrived and the Secretary greeted the kids and shook hands and assured them that she was “OK” and then went into the camp for the program which included a briefing with Non Governmental Organizations working in the camps, a demonstration of income-generating activities for the women, and several interviews with the press.  She also met with some of the women of Darfur. Their story, however, is not just their tragedies, it is that they have survived and are taking an important role in the camp community.  That meeting, of course, was closed to press and held in private, and the Secretary emerged from it visibly moved.

When the Secretary left, we again had to keep kids from running between the cars, and I had particular problems with some old ladies who were determined to get up close and personal to ululate and thus show their respect and gratitude.  Having developed a rather fine ululation myself over the years, I managed to get them to stand with me, and we all trilled together as the motorcade swept away.

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