Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sudan - Arriving

The South Sudan mission has urgent need for a surgeon, said the memo.  Please respond by late in the week if you accept the mission.  A far cry from Darfur, I assured my wife.  I thanked her for her blessing and kissed her and our tiny girl.

I was briefed in Belgium a few hours then shuttled to Nairobi, then to the de facto capital of South Sudan. 

The airport was a single, crowded cement room serving as receiving terminal, passport control, and baggage claim.  A giant mirthless man at a card table smashed my passport and travel pass with an inkless rubber stamp.  I collected my bags from the tin slide.  When I turned around, the immigrations man was now a customs man rummaging through my things.

Always the optimist, I assigned the urgency of the surrounding crowd to claustrophobia or heat.  Still, I was nervous. 

“What is here?” asked stamper-man in Darth Vader’s voice.  He shook some wrapped boxes I was carrying.  I had no idea what they contained – they were given to me by mission headquarters to deliver.

I have no idea seemed like the worst possible answer, so I guessed.

“Some books and some sweets.”

The bustling crowd went quiet and watched – let’s see what the white guy brought – as the huge man picked at the strapping tape with huge thumbs.  He handed a package to me and I pretended to be a surgeon completely stumped by devilish wrapping.  What happens when I unwrap a box of hand grenades in a crowded African airport? I wondered.

He got bored before the surprise was revealed and pointed at the door.  Before I got there, a man calling himself Lazarus took my passport and my travel pass and disappeared.  I’d been given his name in Nairobi, so I felt confident…

Kidding.  By now I felt confident of absolutely nothing.  Nairobi felt like a country club compared to this Wild West popsicle stand.  Lazarus was nowhere and I was standing in a dusty street outside a dusty airport evacuating like a fire drill.  I put on sunglasses to cover up fear and do some surveillance.

Soldiers.  The only people not leaving the airport were soldiers.  WTF?  I was sure I’d read of a peace accord several times in the briefing literature I was provided.  Peace was relative, I would learn.

Lazarus then appears from nowhere and shoves me onto the floor of an idling Rangerover festooned with mission logos.  He slams the rear door; filling its window is a decal:  a big red circle-slash over an AK-47.  No weapons! is the message.  But for whom?  Volunteer surgeons?  Water/sanitation volunteers?

Lazarus drives me a hundred yards.  He empties me onto the airstrip I arrived on half an hour ago.  There I await a pilot.  Surrounding me are cows, mud huts, tall bushes, and more soldiers.  Like the opening scene of Platoon, a hundred or so troops are filing into bellies of monstrous flying personnel carriers.

So far, every leg of this journey has brought me to a smaller, scarier place.  I’m steeling myself to depart the unpaved capital on a four-seater Cessna bound for a Nile-bank village in the “formerly” contested south:  Bor.

Next:  Threat level one.

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