Of Lorries and Rebels


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Africa » South Sudan » Kaoda
April 20th 2005
Published: June 9th 2005
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Boat from AswanBoat from AswanBoat from Aswan

Quite representative of Northern Sudanese dress. The picture is illegal as it is of an object of "national security".

Of Lorries



“Shok!” the cry goes out, and I amateurishly duck, trying to flatten myself against the
roof of the truck-cum-bus. The thick branch bristling with two-inch thorn is too low, so I
make a stupid face and stick out my arm to shield my face. It’s a good thing we’re
moving so slowly, or this would be very dangerous, rather than adventurous. The
branch knocks off the turban from my head. I’m just happy to be alive, but luckily the
people in the truck following us retrieve my turban from the tree. In fact we’re traveling
in a convoy of 5 buses and trucks, for safety and mutual aid as we drive through the dirt
trails overgrown with the thorn trees of the savannah. The problem is that we’re at the
beginning of the rainy season here, and although the rain two days ago was merciful after
the fierce cloudless sun of Khartoum, it means that the roads are soft and muddy, and
we’re making slow progress.

This is Sudan, the African country with an Arab flag, the largest surface area in the
continent, and possibly more of a police state than I’ve ever been in. Most of the roads
are unpaved, even in the capital, and most cities are little more than a collection of flat
mud structures with mud courtyards (in the north), or round huts with thatched conical
roofs (in the area I’m in), spread out across large areas. I arrived on the deck (and under
a lifeboat) of the Aswan-Wadi Halfa ferry about 10 days ago. A French guy, Xavier, was
on the same boat and has plans to head out to Yemen. So, as I promised him when we
first met, I’m sticking to him like a fly on shit. It was his idea to go “trekking in the
Nuba mountains,” which is where we’re currently headed.

I got a rude introduction to travel in Africa when, crammed along with 9 other people in
the back of a pickup shared with barrels of gas and spare tires, we journeyed 20 ½ hours
from Wadi Halfa to Dongola. The road is little more than a series of tracks in the sand,
which we followed with frequent flat tires and breakdowns. We were mercifully
traveling at night, and every breakdown was an opportunity to stretch out and nap on the
sand. The stars, naturally, were amazing, but sleep was more imperative, so I didn’t see
much of them. I spent a day in Dongola, by the banks of the Nile, walking around and
trying to adjust to my new surroundings. The market was small and hardly sold anything;
fruit and vegetables are more expensive than in Egypt, and the only food available was
fuul (prepared differently than in Egypt), and fried fish with more bones than fish. No
more traffic, no hassle, no sheesha joints or fruit peddlers: just the sun baking down. My
turban works pretty well against the sun, but my companions were suffering. I had been
warned against drinking the water in Sudan, and also strongly urged to take anti-malarial
tablets. Lariam is supposed to be the most effective, but it can also make you crazy,
while the 2nd best, doxycycline, apparently increases one’s photosensitivity and is an
antibiotic. I bought some doxycycline in Egypt, but didn’t bother to take any, and from
day one I indulged in green- and brown-colored water, as well as various cold “fresh
fruit” drinks, all of which are definite no-nos for 3rd world countries. Luckily, I haven’t
had any problems so far. In fact, there
Crazy Frenchman on LorryCrazy Frenchman on LorryCrazy Frenchman on Lorry

This is basically how I was sitting as well; perched among the luggage. You can see the "savannah" in the background, although it was usually much denser than this.
are more mosquitos in Turkey than in Sudan. In
Dongola they told us that smoking sheesha had been banned, so that habit came to a
quick end.

We had been told that inshallah we would find a bus to Khartoum the next morning, so
we accordingly turned up at the Souq Shaby around 8:30, riding rickshaws. The “bus”
was in fact a large truck fitted with seats, generally resembling an American school bus.
We didn’t fight for or camp on any seats, so we got the worst: the back row of the bus
where the uneven road shakes you violently and occasionally throws you high into the
air. I was kicked out from my window-side seat by one wave from the hand of a very fat
man who wielded immense authority, possibly due to his weight. When we finally
merged onto an asphalt road, I’d never been so happy to be back in “civilization”.

Once in Khartoum, waiting by the side of the road for a minibus to take us to Souq
Araby, we were first over-quoted a price (by the assistant), but then later the driver
refused to accept money from us: we’re guests. The streets of
Trees in HeibanTrees in HeibanTrees in Heiban

Not very descriptive, but nice. This is what we woke up to when we returned from Kaoda.
Khartoum are packed with
minibuses, most originating or terminating from in front of our hotel, and mostly sporting
Korean writing and/or stickers. There must be a highly sophisticated mafia involved in
stealing minibuses from Korea and reselling them in Africa. We finally checked into an
oven of a room in Al-Haramein hotel, with a view overlooking the main square full of
people of every description. As there are no tea shops per se, a very common feature of
Sudan is the “tea lady”, sitting by the side of the road in the shade with her tray of coals
and various paraphenelia such as milk powder, ginger, and cardamom, and a couple of
metal boxes strewn about which serve as seats. It’s quite a good idea, and must be great
for the women who probably have no other means of livelihood. Women in general wear
a large piece of colorful cloth wrapped around their heads and other clothing, which I
think makes for quite an attractive view. There are people from all over the country,
from the slender and very dark Dinkas from the south, the white jalibeyya- and turban-
wearing lighter skinned Arab types, and everything in between. It may
Loaded LorryLoaded LorryLoaded Lorry

View from Hored Deleb. This is the norm if the lorry is empty. It's usually more comfortable if carrying cargo.
have been the
sun, but every 30 seconds I’d be stunned by some beauty I saw walking down the street:
an amazing concentration of gorgeous, gorgeous girls. Scarification is common among
men, one very popular form being horizontal lines cut across the forehead. It was in the
low 40s, and the heat didn’t even let up after midnight, and the fan in the room was little
help. They luckily had cold showers in the hotel, which I used many times in a day. We
spent most of our time milling about, visiting the enormous souqs in Omdurman, and
dealing with officialdom. After having paid $100 for the visa, you are then required to
spend another $30 for “registration”, and then in order to travel south of Khartoum you
need to waste time and energy dealing with the folks at the “Ministry of Humanitarian
Affairs”, trying to get a travel permit. They’re (understandably) paranoid about
foreigners seeing too much (especially with all the trouble about Darfur), so they’re very
suspicious of “travelers”. “Only for tourism?” was the recurring question anytime we
had to deal with police. After being told we should write down the names of every town
and village we
Nuba WomenNuba WomenNuba Women

Posed picture, but at least it's descriptive.
may want to visit, our application was denied the next day and we were
told we had “too many places for tourism”. Real geniuses. The guy then told us to cross
out some names and try again, so we just kept the Nuba mountain towns, and this time
got the blue rubber stamp. Incidentally, we could have added more towns to the paper
once we got the stamp, but it didn’t turn out to be necessary.

When it came time to leave Khartoum, we were informed that - as night travel along
asphalt roads is dangerous and illegal - there would be no buses leaving for Kosti after
3pm. The bus station seems like it was built to provide income for some nephew of the
president in the construction business: an enormous area serving absolutely no purpose.
The chaos of the Souq Shaby is infinitely more efficient. First, you pay to enter the
waiting room, where hundreds of people are sitting around, miserably waiting. There are
a number of ticket windows, but they don’t sell tickets “in advance”, and buses only
leave when full, so there’s a constant ebbing and swelling tide in front of the counters, as
people
Water pumpWater pumpWater pump

I was ordered by the police in Kadugli to delete this picture. I didn't.
fight to hand in their cash when a bus appears, then retreat to catch their breath
when tickets run out. Needless to say, I wasn’t much good at the game, and someone
eventually took pity on me, walked me out to where the next bus was being cleaned, sat
me down in the best seat, and told me not to move. When we pulled up at the terminal,
the bus was mobbed by the crowd, but we were safe.

That was days ago. We left Rahad in the back of a truck, and I was completely freaked
out by the experience. As always, the bags were loaded in the most inefficient manner,
the women sitting on the floor amongst the bags, and taking up all available space. Then
the men stand in the remaining space, more often than not straddling the side of the bus,
holding on precariously to whatever they can. I was in the way back, trying to hold on
with sweaty hands, as my jalibeyya ballooned out around the head of a patient lady sitting
beneath me. After about half an hour of traveling in this manner, and already despairing
of my life, there was a
Colorful Women Selling WaresColorful Women Selling WaresColorful Women Selling Wares

The bus in the background is ours. Note how high they load the cargo.
crunch and the truck ground to a halt. Engine problems. I had a
little water in my bottle, and it was getting late, so I shared my water, stretched out on the
sand and waited. Some impatient souls took off immediately, but we waited for it to be
fixed, sleeping all night on the sand as the wind kicked it up and filled our noses and ears
with the red stuff. The next day was also filled with waiting, until all the remaining
passengers got on another truck (effectively paying twice). This time, however, there
were a lot fewer of us, so we were towards the front of the truck, and had the option of
sitting on our bags. The scenery was amazing: brown/red thorn trees stretching in all
directions, with the occasional baobab or tall green tree breaking out of the brown mass.
It was like being in a safari (I’ve never been on one), driving through the middle of
nowhere, to adventure.

It rained that day, and we spent the night in a village called Hored Deleb, where they had
dirt cheap sheesha, and very friendly people, and the town was surrounded by enormous
mango trees. Of course, there was no running water or electricity. Apart from the round
huts, there’s basically just a main strip with “restaurants” catering to lorry passengers in
transit, and people selling mangoes, and little else. The next morning we were told that
inshallah there would be a truck heading our way, and not to stray far. In reality, no truck
left that day since the rain made the “roads” too soggy, and while we waited for a truck to
come from the other direction (to prove the road is passable), I spent the whole day
smoking sheesha, wandering among the mango trees (and being offered way more than I
could carry), and watching Xavier play McGuyver and fix a man’s prosthetic leg. By the
end of the day, basically everyone in the town knew us. That night I really wanted to
sleep under a mango tree rather than the damp hut of the previous night, but some of our
fellow passengers were reluctant to let us go, saying it was dangerous and such. After a
perfect night, however, we awoke with the sun and realized we had slept in someone’s
backyard. They soon came out, not with sticks to beat us for trespassing, but with tea, a
bed, water to wash, and mangoes to eat. I felt like a deity. They even seemed offended
that we hadn’t spent the night in their house.

Then this morning we climbed on top of a bus carrying passengers to the conference at
Kaoda and head out for the real Nuba mountains. Sudan has essentially been fighting a
civil war against “the South”, namely the SPLA, for about 20 years. This is distinct from
Darfur in the west. The fighting in the Nuba area ended 3-4 years ago -- although the
area is still covered with (anti-personnel) land mines - while the ceasefire in the far south
was signed only months ago. While we were there, there were negotiations going on
between the two sides in Nairobi. The current situation is that certain towns (mostly in
the hills) are under rebel control, although travel between both areas is not only possible,
but unrestricted and common. Kaoda is the SPLA capital of South Kordofan, and a place
our fellow passengers keep ranting and raving about. In fact, so much that we’ve begun
to expect some sort of Mecca of freedom, far from the bureaucracy of the government.
The excitement is contagious, as many fellow passengers are also heading there for the
first time.

We had a bit of a skirmish while boarding the bus this morning: they wanted 10000
guineas extra for our bags, and we refused: especially since the interior of the “bus”
resembled a dungeon and was filled to overflowing, and we were obliged to sit on the
roof amongst the poorly organized bags. A note about money: the official currency is the
Sudanese Dinar, but people only speak in terms of (imaginary) guineas, with an exchange
rate of 10 guineas to 1 dinar. Furthermore, multiples of a thousand guineas are
commonly simplified by eliminating 3 zeros. So, when the man said the tickets were 15
each, he meant 15000 guineas, and we gave him 1500 dinars. It’s all very
straightforward with the exception of English-speakers who sometimes quote prices in
dinars and make a mess of everything. X also frequently confuses people by saying “a
hundred” rather than “a thousand”. He hasn’t gotten used to it yet. They’re usually
honest to a fault, however, and we haven’t been aware of any double-charging of the
“Khwajat”. That word literally means “white people”, and people will call you that to
your face: “Oooo… Khwaja! Kif?” (White man! How are you?) It’s pretty amusing, and
we’ve taken to calling each other “khwaja”.

At the moment, those lucky souls sitting in the front are glancing back at the khwajat
after every low-hanging branch, to see how we’re faring. I’m wearing pants and a tshirt
today, having removed my jalibeyya (after weeks) at the suggestion of our friends; my
arms have grown lazy in the shade, and I can already feel the oncoming sunburn. This
being my first trip of this kind, I’m holding on with both hands for dear life to the ropes
tying the bags, and my heart skips a beat every time the bus leans over in my direction.
I’m at the right hand side, near the front, and it’s certain death (or mutilation) for me if
the bus tips over. I glance back at X: he’s a veteran, having been in Sudan and Chad 7
years ago, and (by my standards) fairly accustomed to lorry travel. No matter how long
the journey, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to nod off on top of a bus: there’s a great
360-degree view of all around, plus there’s always the shok to keep you on your toes. So
I survey my surroundings, hope my camera doesn’t melt in the intense sun, and
daydream. I like what I’ve seen of Africa. This is the _real_ 3rd world I’ve been looking
for.

We come to a halt: the road ahead looks muddy, and the driver doesn’t want to take any
chances. Everyone out! We collect straw and pile it in the ruts: it’s supposed to prevent
the wheels from slipping. I’m a complete amateur and barely manage to collect a fistful,
cutting my hands in the process. People laugh and cheer when I drop my puny load on
the road. See if I ever help them again! Our bus goes through without problems, but the
one behind has a really low base and gets stuck, digging into the mud. We try to clear the
mud out of the way, and then push it out to safety. This driver in particular keeps getting
his truck stuck. Once past the hurdle, they keep driving for hundreds of meters, and then
end up having to wait for you to walk up to it: a perfect waste of time. I soon discover a
plausible explanation: our driver has rolled himself an enormous joint and is smoking it
in the partial shade of a thorn tree. We instantly dub him “greenman”. Best not to
interfere. The pattern is repeated every 200-300 meters, and my patience runs thin.
Eventually we reach a point where the driver refuses to go further for the day, so we
leave the bags and start off on foot to a village which is reputedly 20 minutes’ walk away.

I walk with a group of young girls (university students) who watch us with amusement
and curiosity. Unfortunately for us, they speak no English, and my Arabic is definitely
insufficient for the task at hand. I can buy food, haggle for lower prices, and explain
where I’m from and where I’m going to, but I’ve had next to no experience talking to
girls in Arabic, and I don’t know what to say. X keeps repeating “mafi mushkila”, and
although the North African Arabic he uses is closer to theirs than my essentially Syrian
dialect, I know more words and can understand them better. Our feet sink in the mud,
and I take off my sandals and walk barefoot like they are doing: until I step on a shok and
repent, that is. We have no water, and we’re all thirsty. They kneel down to drink from a
muddy puddle of “rain water”. Looks disgusting, and X mutters something about “all it
takes is one drop of goat piss…” Dehydration is too great a risk to take, so I too drink
some. Mmmm… muddy! We exchange names: I call myself Adam, X is Yousef. “So
you’re Muslim, then?” “No, not really.” Adam is a really common name in Sudan. The
girls only have nailpolish on their left hands: I ask them about it. The right hand is for
eating, and has short, clean nails. One girl has some English phrases written down in her
notebook which she reads aloud. She’s cute. In fact, they all are! A guy in the group
points to her and says I can marry her for 10 cows. We both blush. X jumps in and
argues: “no! 5 cows!” Marriage negotiations are done in terms of cows (or the cost of
cows, if you don’t have any). The road to the village takes much longer than 20 minutes.
By the time we arrive I am already wearing a pink-and-black bracelet donated by one of
the girls. It looks a little feminine, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it. Two khwajat suddenly
materializing on foot in the middle of a remote village has people staring. We say hello
to the surprised women at the water pump and cut ahead in line to drink to our hearts’
content. One man speaks English, talks to us for a bit, and then tells us to wait.

I take a large pinch of “sa’ud”, a snuff-like substance, place it between my gum and
cheek, and lapse into silence. The flag looks like the Egyptian one. They told us the
“border” was some ways back, so this must be SPLA territory. A man in a jalibeyya and
another in uniform come over. The jalibeyya speaks English, so I assume he’s a
translator. In fact he’s the commander of this strategic border town. Ooops. I try to
make small talk: so, this is the first SPLA town?” “No, this is a GS town.” “GS?”
“Government of Sudan.” “Oh.” I’m glad my question was fairly neutral, and I wasn’t
trying too hard to suck up to him. We are taken into a small courtyard, given a tour of the
bathrooms, then food and beds are produced, and we are told we should spend the night
there. I was kinda looking forward to hanging out with the chicks at night, but oh well.
The commander himself serves us water and everyone is very polite. The roosters start
while it’s still dark; we wake up around dawn. It’s too hot once the sun rises anyhow.
The sergeant brings us water and tea. Sudanese don’t eat breakfast before 10. We say
we’d like to walk around the market area, and the sergeant escorts us around. I get the
impression it’s pure politeness. The girls see us and wave. We ditch the sergeant and go
walking through the village. Women from a house invite us in, and then the whole
village comes over to shake our hands. All this attention is a bit awkward, and I feel like
I should be something, but I don’t know what. One guy invites us to his house, where he
gives us buckets of water to shower, gives us juice (made from powder), and offers to
wash our clothes for us and takes out stuff to wear in the meantime. I’m embarrassed by
his kindness. He makes us write down his name, and promise we’ll stay with him if
we’re ever in the village again. Soon the convoy arrives and we go to the market to eat
breakfast. A man in uniform tells the shopowner not to let us pay for anything: we are
guests. The driver soon starts honking, and we climb back on top.

We’ve lost some passengers, and now there’s only the two of us, so we’re sitting in the
prime location: directly above the driver’s cab, where it’s much easier to adjust your
body weight to counter the rocking of the bus. Or maybe I’m just getting used to lorry
travel. Glad we’re not cooped up in the dark dusty downstairs. My arms really are
burning, and I have huge scratches where the thorns tore. Today is more or less the same
as yesterday: we’re stopping every couple hundred meters, and then walking a couple
hundred more. Only when it begins to get dark does our driver get sick of his ganja, and
start to take more risks, and we begin to make more progress. The last GS town before
Kaoda is Heiban, beautifully set at the foot of the hills and in the shade of mango trees. I
try to imagine what Kaoda will be like. If all goes well, we’ll spend a week or 10 days
trekking in the mountains, and we might even try to cut across on foot to Kadugli on the
other side. After Heiban it started to get dark, so we need to get inside the truck. It’s
closely packed with bodies and I’m sharing the top of an oil barrel with X and another
guy. There’s a checkpoint, and I get down and wander around. X shakes hands and chats
with someone with a Kalashnikov. Freedom, here we come!

Of Rebels



Upon arrival in Kaoda we meet up with some of our travel companions, and are told we
can spend the night in the conference compound: sounds better than sleeping on the road,
although that’s not so bad either. Once in the compound we wave at the girls and are
about to sit down to relax and stake out our territory, when two men bar our way. Drunk
with success, I point at the tshirt one of them is wearing: “My country, the New Sudan, is
the best country in the world.” I want one of those! X laughs his assent. The men are
not amused. They want to see our “papers”. X shows them our travel permit from the
GS. His experience traveling in Africa leads him to believe our passports are best kept
on our person. They really don’t know what to do with the papers, turn them around and
hand them back and forth a couple of times. It’s already clear they don’t know what to
do with us. We are told we can spend the night and then see the authorities the next day
to get permission to trek. Sounds fair. Anyway, how could anythjng go wrong in the
land of democracy and freedom?

The next morning we tell our escorts we’re going to get tea, and do so without waiting for
permission. Two beautiful girls are also drinking tea. They don’t speak much English,
but I’m happy as I am. The guy from last night comes over; I think he’s gay, but he
couldn’t openly be so on the GS side. Another example of freedom. Shortly thereafter
we are brought before a “tribunal” consisting of 4-5 men in civilian clothes, and one in
uniform. Again, they ask for our papers, and again they don’t know what to do with us.
One guy, sitting across the table from us under the tree in the courtyard, puts my permit
down and says “so, what’s your profession?” I burst out laughing: it’s written on the
permit. The KGB are so much more efficient at this sort of thing; these guys just look
ridiculous when they try. I weary quickly of official bullshit. My experience in such
situations has led me to believe the best defense is offense. I ask the man who he is: after
all, he isn’t in uniform, and hasn’t identified himself. Is he a soldier? Or a policeman? I
want to know who I’m talking to. His pride is hurt. He bursts out in rage: “I may not
look like police to you, but I assure you I am not a child.” X tells me to stop before I
make things worse. He has more experience with “the African Way”, so I let it go. Then
comes the most ridiculous assertion of all: the man turns to me and says “my friend, I
think you are soldier ”. Me? A soldier? How could you tell? What gave me away?
Was it the beard? Or maybe the hair? The bracelet, maybe? Or maybe it’s my military
manner and walk!

We then proceed (most likely so they feel they’ve accomplished something) to the bag
searches. I know what’s coming (I practiced with the best in Turkmenistan), so I let X go
first: the first to go is always searched more thoroughly, while they completely lose
interest by the 3rd person. Too bad there are only two of us. Do we have a guidebook for
Sudan? No. X has a dozen pages cut out of the LP “Africa on a Shoestring” book. He
also has a very basic hand-drawn map of the country. They confiscate both. They paw
through all his books and diary, carefully yet pointlessly examining the contents and
asking insipid but important-sounding questions. I can’t wait till it’s my turn; I’ll show
them! X is getting angry at their stupidity and says so. I try to laugh and keep things
cool. Just to prove them stupid, he doesn’t empty the contents of one pocket, and they
don’t notice. Strain a gnat but swallow a camel. The composition of the group, however,
is constantly changing, as people wander off and others come to ask the same questions:
Where are you from? Which aid organization are you with? It’s basically a circus where
anyone can join the fun and act important. It’s finally my turn! My bag is enormous, and
I have more than 15 books; I’ll outlast them for sure. Like a salesman, I proudly produce
my wares, explaining the function of and commenting on each item. They want me to be
afraid or else angry, so I’m pissing them off by my nonchalance. If someone’s attention
lags, I call on them to do their duty and search us properly: how do they know I don’t
have dangerous items? I produce my tripod in its case and announce it’s an AK-47.
There’s a lot of excitement, and then they feel stupid. I have a lot of random papers:
business cards from people I’ve met, scraps of paper with email addresses and names,
directions and location names written in Arabic. It’s great fun to watch them officiously
try to act busy while they’re completely lost. I’m getting carried away, drunk with
victory. Even X is smiling. Now for the finale: I produce bag after bag after bag of
books. Please, examine them! They try: “why do you have this book?” “To read.”
“Who is this writer?” As if you’d know! I mention the most famous works of each of
them, but get blank stares in response. They’ve had enough, and I win.

But now I feel violated and am pissed off at their stupidity. I head off under a tree and
read my book. X stays behind and tries to improve our situation by socializing. They
bring us food: there’s rice! Much can be forgiven for the sake of rice! A meal is good if
and only if it has rice, and it’s been weeks since I’ve had anything but fuul. Afterwards
we go to the pump and wash our laundry. The kids playing around are amused to see us
and wave and giggle and try to practice their English. They’re playing dodgeball, and I
take the ball and whack the kid who is deftly prancing around in the middle. The
advantages of being 15 years older! Two armed soldiers come to take us somewhere.
The question “where are we going?” somehow goes unnoticed. We are told to take our
bags.

We march off down a trail winding through the hills, past some huts and little else. We
speculate as to our probable destination: I think we’re on our way to be deported. X says
the scenery is beautiful, but I’m too pissed off to notice. My bag is heavy, and I don’t
like being marched out under the hot sun to unknown destinations. X falls in love with a
chick who walks part of the way with us, talking to the guards. We freely exchange
comments about how cute she is, and then we realize she speaks English. Many people
in SPLA territory do, in fact. We finally arrive at a hut somewhere. There’s a flagpole
outside with the SPLA flag and little else. My shirt is soaked with sweat, and I’m not in
a good mood. They examine a “sealed” (folded and stapled) paper the guards produce,
and then send us 100m away to another hut. They try us by first pretending to not speak
English so they can hear what we’re talking about. Apparently this empty hut is the
regional police headquarters. A man starts to speak to me in basic Turkish: his name is
Bedreddin, and he learned Turkish while working in Libya. He wants to marry the
daughter of Necmeddin Erbakan (a very wealthy former prime minister), and wants to
know if I foresee any problems. Right… He’s shocked and dismayed when I tell him
polygamy is illegal in Turkey. He explains that we can stay here for as long as we want,
and hike around the hills; we can even take pictures if we want! Sounds too good to be
true. I’m so happy I didn’t blow my top, and am instantly in an amiable mood. I later
fall asleep gazing at the stars, glad everything worked out in the end.

The next morning, after buying a breakfast of bread and onions, we are taken back to the
hut, and Bedreddin eventually tells us he wants to search our bags - again. Convinced
that all is well, we agree to this as a matter of formality: he’s much less obnoxious than
the others, anyhow. After the ritual, we are told we can’t stay in Kaoda, but may visit
other places - such as Kadugli and Heiban - places, incidentally, not under SPLA
control. Things begin to turn sour. Maybe they wanted a bribe? They kept mentioning
how they needed money to visit their families. Too late now. We take our bags and
march off again. At least this time our escorts aren’t armed, and are friendly.

X finds a garbage lid along the way: a Frisbee! There’s a lorry destined for Kadugli
parked in the market, but they won’t let us go: they need a rubber stamp from some
official first, but he’s busy attending the conference. They take us to the area where the
conference is being held. We put down our bags and start playing Frisbee, but we are
told to move further and further away, and then are taken altogether to a more discreet
location. We then named the Frisbee “Freedom Frisbee”. In our new location we begin
socializing with some people, explaining our situation, but are then placed under armed
guard and sent to a remote corner of the field, under a mango tree and far away from
sympathetic eyes. We are forbidden to play Frisbee. Sit! Wait! Rest!

Now that X’s way of patience has failed, I resolve to do things my way and overwhelm
them with civil disobedience. I first find a bucket and wash the previous week’s filth and
sand out of my hair -- more to assert my independence than anything. Then, when it
becomes obvious that nothing is about to change, I practice civil disobedience by getting
up and walking off. The guard tries to tell me to come back; “shoot me!” I say. He
doesn’t speak English but he gets the point, and impotently follows us around as we go to
the market and sit down for some tea. He tries to rally the support of others, and soon
there is a stream of people coming over with the opening question of “where are you
from?” Now, Kaoda is essentially a very small village, and two white men with
backpacks stand out, even in a city of millions. Indeed, in Irbid, the 2nd largest city in
Jordan, after about a day everyone knew where I was from. And here they expect me to
naively answer the question? Homey don’t play dat! I tell them to ask our guard, and no,
we will not return to the mango tree to be forgotten. We were being deported, and I
wasn’t waiting around for any more bullshit.

Many try to talk me into returning under the tree, saying that there must be some
misunderstanding: SPLA is all about freedom; of course we aren’t being held against our
will, etc etc. I think part of the concern is that some of the conference attendees might
talk to us and maybe have second thoughts about SPLA’s “freedom”. They explain the
man in charge is attending the conference, and is a very busy man, so we must wait until
he’s done. I reply we’ve been waiting for days now, and are also busy people; it doesn’t
take long to sign a piece of paper or to say ”you may leave”. After all, we just want to
leave. We finally get our way: a group of men in uniform come out, we explain our story
and one of them (clearly used to giving orders) says “they may leave”, and gives us two
armed escorts to take us back to Heiban on foot, as we requested.

I’m beginning to think it was all some big misunderstanding: that we have been victims
of overzealous pawns, and maybe I’ve been wrong in judging the SPLA so quickly.
We’ve gone about 100 paces when a man on the opposite side of the road motions the all-
too-familiar sign: “ta’al!” (come). So our convoy, soldiers and onlookers alike, go over
to him. He’s on a motorcycle, in civilian clothing, and clearly intoxicated. I have no
sympathy for, nor do I deal with, drunks. After barking at those around he asks us for our
papers. “What for?” I ask, “We’ve been given permission to leave by the person in
charge, and here are our armed escorts. We’ve shown our papers to a dozen people in
town, and we’re through with those games. We’re leaving.” The man explodes with
drunken rage: “You haven’t gotten permission from me! Where is your written
authorization to leave?” “We don’t have one; ask the soldiers escorting us.” “Aha! You
need written authorization.” “That’s your problem, not mine. My authorization is those
two Kalashnikovs; we’ve been told we can leave, and we’re leaving!” “No, you will
come with me to the airstrip or else!” “Or else what, huh? Or else what?” “I think you
know what!” “No I don’t; why don’t you tell me?” Coward doesn’t even have the balls
to openly threaten me. At this point X is pleading with me to be reasonable and go with
the man.

I turn to the guy next to me; he hangs his head in embarrassment. “Who is in charge
here? What is this crap? How many people do we need to get permission from?” “He is
the man in charge.” Great. We’re at the mercy of a madman. He wants to see my
camera, then makes as if he’s going to break it. He’s getting violent. I ask him what will
be happening at the airstrip? He says he will radio HQ to verify our story. Why can’t we
walk over and verify the story here and now? He yells and is getting very aggressive.
The soldiers are complete muppets; why aren’t they speaking up? I finally agree and
board the pickup, and then instantly regret it. Now we’re alone and in his power. But I
don’t want to split up with X. Better the two of us together.

My fears are confirmed when we pull up in front of a collection of huts in the middle of
nowhere and are told to alight. I initially refuse, but then stupidly do so. Crap. There’s
no-one here, and I’m not even sure anyone knows we’re here. I bluff and tell him not to
try anything funny, as our embassies know exactly where we are, and he won’t get away
with this. He barks in response. X is playing the good cop, staying cool and trying to
calm him down, while I’m kicking myself for getting in the pickup, without even a
clearly articulated threat of violence. I walk out to the road and stop a passer-by, trying
to explain our situation and will he please tell the authorities in Kaoda that we are here.
He turns out to be Bedreddin’s cousin and already knows about me. He speaks to our
captor, but isn’t about to stick out his neck for us.

My nemesis has a skin-color and penis complex and yells out: “you are not on top of me!
You are not on top of me!” “I don’t think I’m on top of you; we’re both humans and as
such, equals.” He doesn’t like my response. I think he’d rather be on top. My initial
refusal to comply must have infuriated him; must be more used to threatening and
bossing around pliant villagers. He says he can keep us here for six months if he likes.
The Law of the Jungle! I wonder if I can kick his ass if it comes down to it? I take a
walk around (again, to assert my independence), and X thinks I’ve taken off for Kaoda.
Wouldn’t that be funny! I would have done so, except I’m afraid of what Mr Psycho
might do with my bags. He paws through my camera, and says he will keep it for the
night, while his assistant apologizes profusely for his behavior. He is trying the radio, but
there’s no response. And what if there had been an attack? A handful of commandoes
could wipe out the SPLA in Kaoda in a matter of hours.

Just as I’m beginning to despair, a small group of soldiers arrive on foot. I recognize our
former guard (still carrying his gun), as well as one of the men we spoke to to obtain
permission to leave. They have a written and signed order for our release. My spirit
swells within me, but it’s too early for celebration. My heart sinks when he smugly says
“they’re not going anywhere.” I lash out: “What kind of crap is this? How can he
disobey orders? Who’s in charge anyhow?” I swear he had an enormous orgasm when
he replied “I am the one on top!” I wonder when he last managed to have an erection.
The soldiers are taken back and tried to plead with him, but he was adamant. They
promise they’ll try to return later on with fresh orders, but Kaoda is far, they’re traveling
on foot, and it’s already dark. Psycho - 1, Ozgur Can - 0. We attempt to maintain
dignity by refusing to eat the food offered us.

The next morning. I’ve managed to convince X to take up his bags and walk with me to
Kaoda, “come what may”. Before we can put our plan into action, Nemesis emerges
from somewhere and tells us we have all been summoned before the commander. So
he’s not so much on top, after all! He’s a bit subdued this morning; turns out he’s been
yelled at over the radio, and commanded to let us go. The coward refuses to come with
us and says he’ll follow on his motorcycle. We get to walk with our bags under the sun.
There is an old man in a jalibeyya with slippers and carrying a stick who is presumably
our guard. We arrive at another hut in the middle of nowhere. One guy speaks English
and unleashes a torrent of stupidity: of course, our treatment is just! How do they know
we’re not spies? People coming from the GS side aren’t welcome! (The town is
currently packed with busloads of such people). What are we doing in Kaoda anyhow?
Which aid agency are we with? After about 15-30 minutes of that he goes into the hut
and returns with The Word: “ok, you can go!” “Ok, we’ll walk to Heiban.” “No, you
can go back to the airstrip!” He must be joking, but he has a semi-serious expressiono n
his face. This is the last straw for X, and we are unanimously resolved never to go back
to that madman. We will walk to Heiban, and they can shoot us if they have the balls. A
short while the later the commander himself calls us in, and via a translator apologizes for
and wants to know the details of what happened last night. He takes down notes, looks
serious, and assures us that Mohammad Ali Jumaa (as the tool is called), is a piyon, in
charge of the airstrip alone, and had no authority to detain us. He’s a rotten apple, and
will be punished. I push aside doubts: best to trust, and there’s nothing I can do about it
anyhow. I have a formal complaint addressed to the regional Governor, and I give it to
him while he promises it will reach the correct hands, and be taken into consideration.
I’m optimistically feeling a lot better (again), but this time insist on receiving a written
paper with an official stamp on it, lest the next fool I see with a penis problem detain me.
It is granted, and we set off on foot for Heiban, where we smoke a “freedom sheesha”,
and laugh at the previous four days. Farewell, SPLA! For the sake of humanity, I hope
you never make it!

Epilogue



Thus ends the most stressful experience I’ve had in this trip. The treatment we received
in Kaoda is by no means indicative of Sudanese people who are kind and hospitable to a
fault. I have written it down since (now that it’s over) it’s an amusing story of how
things can go wrong when traveling in “exotic” places.


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8th June 2005

soforlen beraber icseydin ganja - stfu
13th December 2005

Great laugh
Hey there! That's a good story! I know the place pretty well (been there several times during the war) and it all sounds awfully familiar. But believe me: these guys are okay once there is some kind of trust. The Nuba really went through a very, very bad time and it will take a long time before things will become more or less normal again. Sorry for the stress though...
9th May 2006

stupidity?
there is a big difference between stupidity and ignorance... you only have to look at a whole swathe of middle america to see a race suspicious of books... as Bill Hicks recounted... "hey whattya got there... a book? Why you readin' that? Oh Oh... we got a reader here...."
17th May 2010
Nuba Women

hi
this is what we call it beauty of Nuba and they are so respectfull and i like the pressure of mile on their faces even though they livening environment doesnt accepcted to be like that they still happy with it so that imphasise that they live for peace and joy so i love it

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