My first day in Darfur - Diary in Darfur, Sudan

On 30th Aug, I revisited KRT International Airport for my flight to El Geneina. My travelling companions included the new nurse from Norway who would be working in Habila, a new mid-wife for El Geneina, and an expatriate medical doctor working in Habila who had just finished his vacation in Khartoum. We needed to be at the airport by 08:00, an hour after the sky lit up. It's the first time I had a good view of the airport and its surroundings. On the streets there were many people on their way to work and school. Public buses were packed with people, stopping randomly to let people on and off. I saw slums of rusty metal and remnants of old airplanes on the outskirts of the airport. I wondered whether these airplanes had been crushed in accidents, or had simply been taken apart at their end of service. There were many people in the domestic terminal, including many foreigners probably working for other NGOs on various projects in Sudan. The luggage allowance was only 15kg. I learnt that the World Food Program flights were very straight about this, because after all, it was a small airplane. The allowance should be enough for a volunteer like me, who would only be in the field for a few weeks. But the Norwegian nurse was rather nervous. Since she had a 6-month mission, she needed to carry a lot of daily necessities with her. I prayed that her luggage would go through. She had 20kg, but the check-in personnel turned a blind eye. We were both relieved. There were 37 seats in the plane and it was full. We made a short stop after an hour in the middle of nowhere, where we could see a number of UN airplanes and helicopters. Continuing on to EG, two hours later a completely different landscape came into sight. Numerous patches of green were on the ground. Was it a sign of life in Darfur? The EG airport is named 'International', but I thought otherwise. It looks like an abandoned used car compound in the New Territories. There is no terminal or air traffic control tower. After disembarkation, I immediately had to surrender my travel documents to a local official. I turned on my mobile phone with a HK SIM card to check if the roaming service would be available in EG as I had previously been informed: "No Network Detected". Later on, I found out that the heavy rain in the past few months had damaged the mobile phone system, and the antenna would not be fixed for two or three months. On leaving the airport, we were greeted by the MSF driver. He took us in a four-wheel-drive to the residential compound. Indeed there is a lot of vegetation in EG - bushes and small trees. On the way we passed a market full of activity, including hundreds of donkeys and goats running free. Every time our car went past children in their bare feet, they would say, "How are you?" They were not shy of strangers and were eager to practice their newly learnt language. The roads are very bad, all muddy and with potholes everywhere. There are ditches in the middle of the road as deep as half a metre; no wonder a four-wheel-drive is needed to get around. Sometimes the rain is so heavy that the ditches would be filled with water and the roads become rivers. Ten minutes later we arrived at the residential compound, although I wished we could continue driving around to see more of Darfur: the people, the refugee camps, the town, and of course the patients. All the expats stay together in the compound, surrounded by concrete walls and guarded by a watchman. Rooms made of brick occupy 3 sides of the rectangle. The 4th side is a covered common area built with a wood and zinc roof. The ground is not paved. The iron frames of the windows are rusty and squeak when you try to open them. The paint on the ceilings and the walls is peeling off. There is a gas-stove and a gas operated fridge in the open kitchen. Instead of proper toilets, only latrines with no flushing facilities are available. The bathing area consists of a drum of water running from a faucet over your head. Everything is very primitive and minimal, but they all function to a certain extent. There was also a lot of wildlife in the house, including flies, moths, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, frogs, lizards and spiders. As new arrivals, we first settled down. We sat around in the common area listening to the Habila doctor explaining to us the differences between life in Habila and EG. Then all of a sudden, the wind started and picked up speed. From afar we saw black clouds rushing in our direction. First there was lightening, then thunder. Everything happened so fast. Thus we were welcomed by our first of many Darfur afternoon rainstorms. It was rather frightening because the roof was zinc and the wind was as strong as a typhoon No.10. I thought the roof was going to be blown off. But the logistic team had done good work, and the roof stayed put. Forty-five minutes later, the storm had left and the air had definitely cooled and freshened up after the rain. At 19:00, the sky started to get dark. I tried to turn on the light switch, but there was no light. We relied on the compound diesel-powered electricity generator, which would only be turned on from 20:00 to 23:00 everyday. So some candles were lit. We heard the noise of cars and people !K the team had returned from a day of work to the compound. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged. Welcome to Darfur. We chatted a bit and a light dinner was made. Soon it was time for lights out. The noise from the generator died down, and it was bedtime. I was told that the sky of Darfur was full of stars, but in my first evening I could not see any. There were to be many more nights, so I was hopeful. Arthur
Dr Arthur PANG obtained his first degree in Biochemistry in Canada in 1991 and graduated from Faculty of Medicine of University of Hong Kong in 1998. He started his first mission with MSF in December on an HIV/AIDS project in Xiangfan, Hubei, China. In August 2005, he packed again and left for another mission in Darfur, Sudan.