Friday, August 24, 2007

Sudan: A Year of Peace

Today I was told by my friend that the NGO I used to work for will be returning to Sudan to identify new projects. I felt a pang of envy because I wish I was going to join that mission and who knows, would have perhaps managed programs in the country again. But the feeling soon passed as that chapter in my life is clearly closed now.

Still it got me to thinking about my year in Sudan, especially Darfur. Many people are usually impressed that I worked there for a year. When they find out about my stint there, they usually ask the general question: “how was it?” For a long time I didn’t know how to respond as I never knew what exactly they wanted to hear. Were they expecting some exciting story about whether I saw any killings? Did they want to know whether I was caught in any crossfire? Did they want me to reaffirm that the Sudanese government were indeed supporting the Janjaweeds?

I used to respond with a blank look while trying to quickly muster an impressive answer in response to the impressed look on their face. After returning more than a year or so from the country, I have now perfected an answer (well, at least in my mind). I now say, that it was surprisingly peaceful and that it was the best country I have worked in. This is usually met with a surprised look and sometimes, a little disappointment.

Well, the truth is, it was peaceful. In terms of the continuous killings (typically reported in the papers as “200,000 people are thought to have died in the region and more than 2m have fled their homes”), it had reduced a great deal during the period I was there because a ceasefire had been officially declared a few months before I arrived in December 2004. Apart from that, there was present newly deployed African Union troops in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur where I was working, who had, to a certain degree at the time, been able to slow down attacks as they were continuously patrolling areas which were not too far from the capital. This meant that much of the rebel activities had moved out to the borders of the other Darfurs (North and South), and with that, Government response to these activities.

If it were not for the conflict, West Darfur would be a beautiful place to live (droughts aside). Largely an arid plateau, it also had sporadic forests where animals could feed. El Geneina town itself had a river running through it which apart from the rainy season between August and September when the water rose, would be completely dry and used as a pathway for pedestrians and merchants on camels to get across to the other side of the bank. Darfur, unlike the north of Sudan has mild temperate weather so when I arrived it was winter - none too cold however - kind of like Cameron Highlands during the rainy season at 4am in the morning. Summer was of course terribly hot with a maximum temperature at 50 Celsius on a bad day.

The Darfur I knew in 2005 had no tarred roads, not even the airport, which sometimes was nerve wrecking especially when one was flying in on a Russian plane built in the early ‘60s which seatbelts were sometimes non-existent. Instead, the roads were un-surfaced dirt tracks, and by dirt, I mean they were on occasions where you would step into donkey, camel and goat dung (and if lucky enough…be walking behind the animal just in time to see the disposal).

Yes, I sometimes walked to work and meetings because really, El Geneina was small and the hospital where our main projects were located was only 5 minutes away. It was much nicer then being in a car most times simply because you could get to know the people and listen to the children call out to you “Khawajji-khawajji” (foreigner). When I first arrived in the capital, people and particularly kids used to stare and point – but after a year, I guess they got used to me, and apart from one slight act of animosity from a teenager at the local market, I never faced any problem.

It was even peaceful work wise. Three weeks after I arrived in Darfur, the world’s attention turned to countries affected by the Tsunami, my NGO included. Fewer volunteers wanted to go to Sudan, and my bosses were too busy organizing their response to Aceh in particular to worry themselves too much about Sudan. I would also like to think that I never caused them any particular concern since I kept up my regular reports as expected and usually without reminders to do so.

Most of all it was peaceful at night. I never slept so well like I did in Darfur. I had to get used to the occasional noises at night…especially the first night, in my room alone, with absolute silence except for a kind of a heavy breathing and scratching sound. That creeped me out so much that I didn’t sleep the whole night even though at that time I shared the house with 5 other people including 2 guards. The next day I found out that it was just a resident owl living in our roof (so much for the common myth that all owls hoot!). I eventually saw the owl – it turned out to be a beautiful white owl which seemed ghostly when it flew about outside the darkness of the night.And boy was it dark at night. I have experienced complete darkness in my lifetime – when I camped in the jungle or some place like that. But never have I slept in complete darkness in such utter silence apart from the occasional braying of a donkey or a shot discharged by a bored soldier or the crackling from someone fidgeting with their hand-held radio. Such peace and tranquility which, to this day, I still crave.

During the “Spring”, after the end of the “winter” season, my colleague and I decided to sleep outside in the courtyard which was surrounded by trees – paw-paw, orange, guava, grapevines – none unfortunately which bore fruit but provided a very beautiful garden nonetheless. Those nights were either dark with stars in full sight as I had never seen before (as one is hardly able to in the polluted parts of Malaysia where I live) or just the moon – so bright it shone that I had to cover my eyes to sleep. I now understood why there is a myth in some countries that you shouldn’t stare at the moon so much because you’re likely to go crazy. The moon was so dazzling and intoxicating that I could have lost myself staring at it for hours.

For the first time in my life I also lived without a steady supply of electricity, water, phone line, cooking gas and for that matter a seated toilet. We usually had to use a noisy generator on the days when our supply of electricity didn’t come through the main line (and even then only came on from 2PM-12AM). We didn’t have access to the internet except through an expensive mobile internet access only to be used for sending reports (in the day I had free access at UN agencies). The phone lines mostly didn’t work and when they did – only after you had dialed for 20 times or more. The mobile network was inconsistent – particularly during the rainy seasons when there would be no communication links at all. I managed to request for satellite TV which I must say helped keep the lonely nights at bay during many periods when it was only I and a local staff managing our projects and staying in the house (apart from our guards and resident hedgehogs, cats and owls).

There was also no shopping to be done – not even for much fruits and vegetables – I lived a year mostly on tomatoes and potatoes. Eggs and apples cost USD1 each and were considered treats rather than a staple. For one year I had almost the same dishes of adis (thick lentil soup), bread (that tasted sandy sometimes), a tomato based meat dish, canned tuna, fried potatoes and maggi mee (instant noodle) supply from home. Chicken was also expensive and so we only had that once or twice a week. Chickens which we Malaysians incidentally called “IDP chickens” because they were so skinny and tough (albeit tasty because they were organic/”ayam kampong”)!

We also had a strict curfew. Although it was relatively safe while I was in Darfur – there was still threats that could not be taken for granted and so there was to be no movement after 9.00pm. It would usually be pitch dark outside as there were no such things as street lamps. Any lights bobbing along the streets were foreigners or those from the North of Sudan walking or driving in cars, otherwise locals walked in the dark without any light to guide them. The only houses illuminated with light came from international aid agencies, government officials or a limited number of wealthy merchants who were profiting greatly from the agencies’ presence.

Despite all these limitations…I loved the simplicity of my life. It wasn’t complicated with too many choices. My life just came down to a few things – work which was slow but uncomplicated thanks to the Sudanese, the same basic meals, reading, watching TV, dates in the house with a loved one (because there really wasn’t anywhere to go – except for one open restaurant but one had to be sure one had their hepatitis shots which we both didn’t).

When I google Darfur, all I find are reports after reports on the problems going on in the area. I guess I wanted to show another side of Darfur – or should I say a side of living in Darfur as an aid worker – particularly with an NGO which was perceived to be small, friendly namely because it was Malaysian. I hope I haven’t done and undermined the problems the people of Darfur are facing. Never in a million years should the people of Darfur live the way they are living which got increasingly worse just after I left. Soon after I left in December 2005, the already increasing number of fighting, hijacking of NGO/UN vehicles and robbery at gun point of these organizations which had begun at the outskirt of West Darfur, finally encroached into El-Geneina, which was further complicated by the cross-border conflict with Chadian rebels, only 40 or so km away to the west. A few months after I left (having completed my main project which was to build and equip a maternity ward extension and obstetrics and gynaecology operating theatres and conducting training); UN agencies and international NGOs including my lone staff who had remained to tie up some minor projects had to evacuate on two occasions as the fighting between rebels from Darfur and Chad, and the Government of Sudan went out of control.

I guess I was lucky, or rather God was watching out for me, especially for my family’s sake who although gave blessing to my decision to work in such a difficult environment, was constantly worried for my safety. Whatever the reason may be, Sudan has so far been the best mission I have had for more than one reason. I truly hope that all the Darfurs, especially its women and children, including the lovely ladies who used to work for us as cook and cleaner, will one day rise above all their problems and be able to live in peace. Amin.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Iraq: Disturbing Images in my Head

And so with another sigh I read an article in the Guardian entitled 'A very private war' on the hire of private companies which provide security services to American individuals and interests, and how more often then not, they hired locals to do a lot of their dirty work, and worked under no jurisdiction, American or Iraqi. As I read that, two images sprung to mind, a pot bellied, tatooed, sleeveless t-shirt clad, lobster burnt caucasian at the HSBC Bank in Amman, Jordan and a weathered Iraqi interpreter who had worked with the American arm forces whom I had met in Malaysia.

When I first saw the former in July 2006, I let prejudices and too many Hollywood blockbusters override my better sense because I immediately felt repulsed by this man and if anyone had been looking, I'm sure it would have shown on my face. I had immediately assumed that he was one of the many independent contractors hired for either security or construction (judging by the pot belly - it would be the latter) to work in Iraq. I was pretty sure I was right as I know for a fact a large number of expats working in Iraq held their bank accounts in Amman where it was safer. I felt disturbed then, because I figured he was one of the many who was benefitting from the destruction of Iraq.

I then thought of the Iraqi interpreter. He told me that he was forced to work for the American armed forces because he could not work anywhere else including Jordan as they were at one time clamping down on illegal immigrants from Iraq. He was in Malaysia to seek a job and get refugee protection. He insisted on showing me all his photos with the armed forces and the certificates they had awarded him - hoping that it would eventually help him get resettled in America. If only he knew that none of these made any difference and perhaps in his heart he did as he had already been turned away by the American embassy.

From there my mind trailed to a moment back in 2003 in Hyatt Hotel...once again in Amman, when a friend broke news to me that the US was about to attack Iraq and that in preparation to prevent escapes into Jordan, the Jordanian military had lined up their tanks all along its border with Iraq. When I heard this I broke down crying for this act of betrayal by a member of the Ummah.

I then remembered meeting the lovely family of Mercy's Iraqi ex-staff, namely his 80 plus year old parents, in Damascus, Syria in July 2006. As they fed us with so much delicious food, and presented us with gifts (for me a galabeyah and a trinket box), his father, who was a lecturer in Baghdad during Saddam's reign, told of the glory days of Iraq and how he could not believe he had to see Iraq in its current state in his dying years. When I asked the ex-staff why he doesn't continue living in Syria, he answered because my mother and father's home is Iraq.

My mind switched from the old to a youth named Mustafa whom I shared a staircase as a meagre means to protect ourselves and his family in Baghdad in 2003 when the exploding bombs sounded too close for comfort and as the windows in our building shook but did not break. With frightened eyes he stared at me and signalled to me while moving his hand across his neck as if to say we were all going to die. I wonder where he is now.

From a a child in Baghdad to Iraqi children in Malaysia sometime this year. I was in a detention camp for illegal immigrants to do some work when I looked up from where I was sitting to see a family of Iraqis - a mother and a father in their late 30s, two boys between the ages 8-12, and a baby age 1-2 with flat curly locks, behind bars, waiting for their turn to call somewhere - perhaps home, perhaps their embassy, perhaps anyone who would listen. I remember I subsequently gave a big sigh as I turned away and continued my work.

I'm alive

Just a short note to the few who read my blog...I'm still alive and have safely risen from the ashes of doom. What I can't change I am burying for now to deal with when it's worth my while, if ever.

Thank you JK Rowling and the Syed Al Attas family (and the Al Bukhary lecture series) for letting me see light in my mind's darkness.

And so she continues to whirl and whirl...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Ode to Death

Why do I always seek to understand people who will never explain themselves to me? Why does it mean that much to me to know why an ex employee would purposely leave me out of events that I should be a part of? Why does it mean that much to me when people whom I thought were my friends, and with whom I took a step too far, but without force, not wish to associate themselves with me on any level anymore? Why do I still miss someone who has obviously wronged me by accusing me of something I didn’t do? Why do I care when a new friend judges me for a mistake which has nothing to do with her, but which questions my personal morals? Why should such people be allowed to diminish my day that started out well because I got free tickets to a concert I have been dying to see?

This is me.

This is my heart bleeding.

This is my soul slowly dying with every step that I take away from each one of you.

May God's Love be with you Always.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

All Good Things Come to an End

I'm sure we have all felt at some point in our lives that the song we hear over the radio or which a friend recommends just describes how we feel about something or someone. I have many such songs that I no longer need to write a diary. I just play a song and I am instantly brought back to a time and place in my mind's eye.

Offlate I have been listening to "All Good Things (Come to an End)" by Nelly Furtado. The lyrics go like this:

(Lyrics by N.Furtado/C.Martin)

Dogs were whistling a new tune
Barking at the new moon
Hoping it would come soon so that they could die

Honestly what will become of me
I don't like reality
It's way too clear to me
But really life is daily
We are what we don't see
We miss everything daydreaming

Flames to dust
Lovers to friends
Why do all good things come to an end

Traveling I always stop at exits
Wondering if I'll stay
Young and restless
Living this way I stress less
I want to pull away when the dream dies
The pain sets it and I don't cry
I only feel gravity and I wonder why

And the sun was wondering if it should stay away
for a day until the feeling went away
And the clouds were dropping and
the ................. the rain forgot how to bring salvation
The dogs were whistling a new tune barking at the new moon
hoping it would come soon so that they could die

(To listen to the song and watch the video, click

I suppose it summarises how I often feel after a trip or after a sweet but brief affair in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected time.

The lines:

"Traveling I always stop at exits
Wondering if I'll stay
Young and restless
Living this way I stress less
I want to pull away when the dream dies
The pain sets it and I don't cry
I only feel gravity and I wonder why."

...seem most apt.

I think it's time to space out. Too sleepy to concentrate on work anyway. I'll go out, sit on the steps behind my office, face some greenery, listen to the song on my iPod, smoke a cheap cigar and think about my oh-so-short-passionate-yet confusing weekend in Bangkok (8-12 June, 2007).