A Good Day in a Bad Place

A piece written while on deployment in a restricted context sometime, which is why all proper nouns have been changed within the text.

The day I get my permission to head north we get clearance to get into the camps. They’re controlled by the military- an affront to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)- but this isn’t our country so we work with what we’re given.

The Checkpoint is twenty k’s north of Town. The IDPs (our user-friendly acronym for Internally Displaced People; the word refugee relates to people who flee across an international border and has specific conotations under IHL, while IDPs stay within their country of origin) come through here to get to the camps. The UN reckons up to 190,000 of them are stuck in a tiny strip of coastline a few kilometres long and about sixty klicks from here. They’re in an area known as the Safe Zone (SZ). The SZ is a few hundred metres from the battle lines pitched between the army and the rebels.

Sitting in the SZ, these civilians are getting shelled by either the army, or maybe the rebels, or maybe both. Nobody knows. But we do know that they’re getting shot at if they try and leave the SZ by the Rebels, who are using them as a human shield to stop the army using aerial bombardment and heavy artillery, and that the SZ is one of the greatest misnomers since ‘misnomer’ was first coined. It’s not a pretty picture. One of the worst, actually. Dozens are getting killed each day, hundreds more injured and maimed. The IDPs trickle through in small groups, risking their lives to do so. When they make it to ‘safe’ territory, the government considers them as possible terrorists, so it takes them first to a screening post deep within the military-controlled north where there are no international monitors, before shipping them south to the Checkpoint.

The Checkpoint is the second screening post. The IDPs get trucked here, then dropped off and detained for a while. Maybe a few hours. Maybe a few days. Military intelligence is looking for any rebels it can find hidden in the population. They’re not wrong to be worried. A few weeks ago a female rebel blew herself up at one of these checkpoints, killing nearly a dozen people including three soldiers. However it doesn’t merit locking up an entire subpopulation of the country on the basis of their ethnicity.

The Checkpoint is up in no man’s land. Aid agencies haven’t gotten in here for six months. We’re going this morning for the first time.

We’re doing a wet food distribution. Wet food means cooked meals, as opposed to dry food, which means uncooked raw rations (usually for a week, or several weeks, in one go). The arriving IDPs haven’t necessarily had a meal for several days, maybe not since escaping the SZ. We’ve been told the day before that there are 2,700 people arriving at the Checkpoint who’ve recently escaped the war-zone. It takes time to collect the food we’ve ordered from local suppliers. The town is small and no one place can manage that many meals, so the pickups spend a couple of hours zipping around town. We’re aiming to get up there for lunch.

Partway through the morning we get a call. Some of the IDPs are already being moved out to a different transit centre. That means doing two distributions, or splitting the team up. We have four trucks, so either option works. Adaptability is not a luxury in a rapidly evolving relief context, it’s a modus operandi. A little after eleven, we’ve got two thirds of the rations loaded up and we head out to the district adminstrator’s office, who will need to accompany us out through the military crossings to the Checkpoint. We’ll meet the fourth truck there.

I ride with Arnold. He’s a young man with a broad, white-toothed smile and a sweet face that is currently covered in furry stubble on account of not shaving for lent. It was his twenty-ninth birthday yesterday. His wife and young child are currently trapped in the SZ. He made it clear to the team that he did not want to celebrate, although his wife was able to make it to a satellite phone and call to say that everything was alright. Such conversations are rare. Satphones are confiscated by the rebels, so civilians conceal them at their own risk to maintain contact with people ‘outside’.

Arnold has a CD of late 90’s American pop music playing in the car stereo. We get to the district administrator’s office and we’re informed that there are now 1,500 IDPs moved on to another camp, and 1,200 still at the Checkpoint. We’ll split up, and two cars will go north, two cars will head west to this other camp. We’re still waiting for the fourth truck.

Still parked at the administrator’s office I get out stretch my legs and see our fourth truck caught at an intersection just the other side of the compound’s wall, our logo plainly visible on its door. I give the driver a big wave and he waves back. The army have blocked the road while a convoy cuts north through town on its way to the battle front. I watch a column of a dozen drab-olive infantry fighting vehicles pass, soldiers in black turbans perched on the decks and guns bristling skywards, while Britney Spears croons oops I did it again from the speaker in the open door beside me.

At the edge of town there’s a military roadblock. We’re crossing from the relative civility of the town into the militarized border region. We have the district administrator with us but our three-vehicle convoy is waved over to the side of the road and we sit at the barricade for fifteen minutes while a procession of army trucks pour back in from the battle-front. They are all painted white and look like supermarket lorries. I ask Arnold but he doesn’t know what’s in them. Earlier I’d seen a passenger bus with blackened windows. I was told they use them for bringing injured troops back from the front so that nobody can see inside.

While we wait, a pair of buses enter the roadblock. Arnold points and says, “IDPs”. I look, and between the barred open windows of the old bus dark faces with wide white eyes stare out. There is fear written there. They don’t know what is happening. The soldiers may speak little or none of the IDP’s language, and the reverse is true of the IDPs. The army isn’t going out of its way to look after these people. They will be moved to another camp, which will be guarded inside and out by armed soldiers and surrounded with coils of razor wire- a detention centre in every aspect except its official name. They have just escaped a place that is about as close to hell as it’s possible to get on this earth, but their journey still doesn’t have an end in sight yet.

We get waved through. The district administrator’s vehicle leads the way, the only authorization that will let us access this area. We’re on the North Road, a now-infamous route that connects the country along a north-south axis and which for a while was the contested access route that both sides of this war fought for. It is a narrow two-lane road. It’s rough and undulates in great waves. Arnold says, “artillery” as the truck navigates a crater that months have smoothed out. The town was the site of heavy shelling not a year ago. In hindsight the strategic shift that the 25-year civil war has taken in recent months is quite striking.

There are checkpoints every couple of kilometres. Sentries stand all along the road. There are foot patrols and soldiers two to a bike. There are watchtowers and earthwork bunkers every few hundred yards, buried machine-gun nests should the rebels ever try and retake this area. An enourmous Main Battle Tank on a flatbed truck rolls back down from the front, all camouflage and tracks and yawning canon. Although I’ve been in conflict zones before, I’ve never seen such an intensely militarized location as this. The fighting moved on from this area months ago. None the less, I’m uneasy as we finally come up on the tail end of the convoy of fighting-vehicles I saw pass us earlier. The Backstreet Boys are singing everybody, rock your body

It’s a no-no for NGO vehicles to mix with military convoys, as it confuses onlookers as to our impartiality in the conflict. Also, if some rebels do decide to take a potshot at the military target, we don’t want to get caught in the middle. It’s not an idle concern. Later that day there will be a claymore attack on this very road, about forty k’s north of here, despite it being ostensibly in army hands. A military convoy is hit by the lethal remote-detonated explosive mine and a number of soldiers are killed. Later I find myself wondering if it was the same convoy that we followed.

We reach the Checkpoint. It’s a village in the middle of fields, dotted with abandoned, destroyed buildings. As we pass through another barricade Arnold points out that we’re now in no-man’s land. The screening centre is in a former school, a three-storey cement-block structure painted yellow surrounded by a high wall. Razor wire surrounds the wall in turn. Soldiers guard the entrance. We talk our way in. The soldiers don’t like us here. Arnold is nervous. His people are on the inside, and he knows the soldiers would rather see him locked in there as well. They don’t trust us. Government propaganda, propelled by local media, claims that NGOs like ours are providing support to the rebels. The language is vicious and sadly people accept it without questioning. We aren’t welcome.

A lot of people don’t understand what my job entails. In fact, my role changes from operation to operation, but generally I support the running of a relief response through a variety of tasks including seeking funding, monitoring projects, managing staff, and a lot of stakeholder coordination. I spend a lot of time trying to point out to my friends that one thing I specifically do not do is stand at the back of a truck handing out food parcels. I observe in no shortage of pointed language that I didn’t spend four and a half years at one of England’s top universities just to hand out food-parcels which we can pay some illterate local labourer four dollars a day to do.

This irony doesn’t escape me as I start unloading food parcels from the back of our truck and handing them out.

I take my first look around. The Checkpoint feels a little like a squatter settlement in an abandoned apartment building. There is a central courtyard that was once the playground, around which three blocks gather in a U-shape. There are tarps set up in the playground for shelter, and people are squatting under them. Most folks seem to be living in what were once classrooms. The place is pretty derelict, and there are a lot of people. Colourful clothes hang from the second and third floor ballustrades, and a multitude of dark-brown faces peer down at us from above. There is no privacy. People wash in their clothes from taps beneath temporary plastic water-tanks. I only see one pair of latrines. Men sit listlessly on the concrete walkway, watching us and not saying much. Beneath a grubby stairwell a child of five or six is curled on a foam mattress, surrounded by a few shabby belongings.

Food distribution is usually a complicated process that involves cross-checking lists of IDPs, measuring weights and volumes to ensure a balanced ration, getting thumb-prints and checking ration-cards. But the military won’t let us stay long. Today we’re an exemplary demonstration of truck-and-chuck. We won’t even get to see all the food handed out, far less know how many people actually get it. We have to work with the numbers we’ve been given and hope for the best- not an optimal solution, but in this case the humanitarian imperative is overriding our other ethical considerations.

However we’re not just about food today. No outsiders have been inside the Checkpoint for six months, and we want to know what’s going on in here. I’ve been asked to do a head-sweep to check the demographics. We have it on good authority that the army is seperating possible rebels from the main population. We’re not entirely sure what’s happening to them. The rebels operate a policy of forced recruitment into their fighting ranks, routinely targeting children as young as 12. The government knows this. Young adults are viewed with suspicion. Our observations are sobering. There are children, and there are older men and women, thirty and up, but there is a gaping hole in terms of teenagers and early twenties. Have they all been conscripted by the rebels? Or are they being systematically separated, and if so, what is happening to them? There is a well-established history of people being ‘disappeared’ in this conflict. Sometimes their bodies reappear later. Sometimes they don’t. As a friend who is very familiar with this country described it the other day, this is a dirty, dirty little war.

We’re edgy. We’ve been granted the opportunity to be here, and we don’t want to blow it by upsetting the military, so we need to play their game. They are watching us all the time. There are half a dozen of them just where we park the trucks, armed inside a relief centre despite international conventions insisting this is illegal. Our field manager exchanges three sentences with a tall skinny IDP who speaks gracious English, and as she does, the soldier behind her takes a photograph of her with a camera-phone, then starts taking photos of our vehicle license plates. When I raise this with her after we leave she laughs cheerfully and says, “Darling, they do it all the time”.

We drive back to Town. The journey takes us about twenty-five minutes to the roadblock. Halfway there, we see another army convoy coming towards us. It’s led by a light armoured vehicle. On the roof behind an armour plate sits a soldier manning a heavy machine-gun. As we approach the convoy, the gunner swings the .50-cal weapon to track our progress, lining it up with our windshield. Car bombs are a popular method to hit at military targets, convoys included, and Arnold, behind the wheel, is of the same ethnic group as the rebels, so they take no chances. I’m not particularly bothered by guns, never really have been, and even since the shooting in Darfur it doesn’t concern me to be around them, other than taking note of their presence and who’s using them. This time, however, the massive muzzle tracking our torsos makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable. A short burst from that canon would literally rip our bodies into halves. I’m relieved when Arnold gives the vehicles a wide berth and drives on the shoulder to make sure our intentions are never mistaken.

We make it back to the office. It’s a Saturday, early afternoon, but the field manager has barely been off the phone. They’re expecting an influx of IDPs at a camp about an hour out of town, and they need some water tanks put in so that people will have access to water once they arrive. There’s time to grab some lunch, then I’m going to ship out with the boys to put in some tanks.

We drive out to our warehouse on the edge of town. We’re loading the first six of twelve 2,000-litre plastic tanks and six tank-stands. These tanks will then be fitted with taps and set up in accessible locations in the camp. Water-tractors will then come along throughout the day and fill them up as people draw down the water. It’s a pretty simple principle, really.

It takes us half an hour to load the tanks. They’re not heavy, but they’re big and awkward and take three of us to lift into the back of the trucks. We’re not talking pickups any more, either. We have a pair of large transport lorries for moving this stuff around. Once the tanks are in, we go about loading the steel base-frames. These are a lot heavier and take a bit more muscle-work, but soon we’re ready to roll. I make sure I have all my paperwork, hoist myself up into the three-seater cab, and the two trucks are rolling.

The countryside is beautiful up here. It’d be wrong to categorize this as a poor country. The vegetation is lush, and over the centuries the countryside has been transformed through the construction of earthen bunds that trap water in depressions so that the effects of the ephermeral monsoon season can be smoothed out through the year. It’s green and moist and the sun shines thoughout most of the day. The houses here are mostly cement-block with terracotta tiled roofs, pretty cottages set in verdant gardens. Fields are divided into paddies by low grass-covered berms and there’s lots of evidence of activity.

We’re heading to the Camp. This involves heading west, then swinging south again. It’ll take us an hour. We’re not going into no-man’s land this time, but this is still the secure zone, and so soldiers, armoured vehicles and checkpoints are the norm. Near settlements, there are bunkers every few hundred yards. Bored sentries watch us pass, leaning on their sandbags, or letting their assault-rifles swing from one lazy arm. Behind the large glass bulb of the windshield, the sun is strong and I feel hot.

The Camp has been identified by the government as the place to take the main influx of IDPs once they’re released from the war-zone. A vast area- hundreds of acres- has been cleared to set up a relief town. We pass the first portion of the Camp, and government contractors are building a city of corrugated tin shanties, gleaming silver in the sun against dark earth. It looks revolting. It looks like an oversized chicken farm. It looks like it will be hot as Hades in there when the sun hits them, and I can’t imagine anything worse than trying to live there. The place isn’t populated yet, but people will start going there in a few weeks.

We get stopped at the entrance. Soldiers ask to see our clearance papers. They search the truck in front of us but let us in the second go through. It only takes us a few minutes and then we’re into the Camp. This is more like the sort of camp I was expecting. It’s been planned, so its been divided into a series of large grid sections, all seperated by access roads. A village of temporary shelters has been set up in rows on each section, tarpaulins stretched in a tent-shape over wooden poles. They are all largely identical save for the specific NGO logos on each tarp. It is all very geometric. Against the bare mud, it looks very stark and depressing.

This is a newer camp and people are only just being brought here, buses arriving each day to offload another forty or fifty at a time. We swing around behind the back of two sections then turn into the heart of the camp. Dark-faced IDPs watch us from in front of their tents, or where they are gathered near water-tanks, washing out in the open. The camp itself is surrounded in coiled razor-wire, and there is wire on the inside as well, to make sure the IDPs can roam only so far. There are soldiers patroling some of the roadways. Deep drainage ditches run around the edge of each section, but they’re not doing a great job. It rained last night, and there are great pools of standing water and mud everywhere, and especially around the water-tanks. It looks filthy, and I wonder how people can stay even remotely clean. Malaria is not endemic here, but with people coming in from a malaria zone, it’ll only be a few weeks before we start having our first epidemic.

We pull up along one access road. A new load of IDPs has just arrived and are being registered at a section to the left. They are gathered underneath a spreading tree, seeking some shade from the sultry afternoon. A line of them are queued back from a man leaning on the hood of a UN pickup truck, taking down their registration details on a clipboard. Others are gathered on the ground, sitting on suitcases and surrounded by scraps of their former lives.

On the right side of the road, behind the drainage ditches and a bit of wire, IDPs from the neighbouring section have gathered. People are talking, wanting to know who has arrived, wanting to hear news of loved ones still trapped ‘inside’. When our staff eventually disembark the vehicles, they will also take part in this process, desperate to see which of their friends has made it out. This is a small country, and everybody knows everyone. We’re not supposed to talk with the IDPs, but staff do what they can when nobody’s watching, and the crowds and traffic gives us some cover. Each time we enter a camp we are ‘scanning’ for this sort of information.

There is a queue in front of us- a couple of water bowsers, some INGO vehicles, the UN coordination team, a bus. I never thought I’d see a traffic-jam in a relief camp, but here one is. We can’t get through. So George and I dismount and start walking to try and identify where we’re supposed to deliver our tanks. The ground underfoot is damp. We find a UNOPS guy and he waves us towards Section 4 and hands us a hand-drawn map.

In the truck, Andrew still can’t get through the narrow access road, so we keep walking. It takes us about ten minutes to walk the three or four sections to where we need to be. This end of the camp is underpopulated- the place is getting filled up section-by-section- but we can see where new shelters are being put up for expected arrivals, latrines being dug and water-tanks installed. At an intersection, a pair of soldiers loiters at a razor-wire blockade. We feel scruitinized. We find Section 4 and identify where the tanks need to go to be most useful, then have to wait for a quarter of an hour while the first truck finds another way to get to us. Casual labourers are putting up latrines over pits that have been dug, and there seems to be lots of activity here. Overhead, the afternoon has taken on a distinctly muggy tone. There are towering tropical cumulus clouds that promise a good storm somewhere, full of shining edges and dramatic shadows reaching high into the atmosphere. With the bleak foreground, the sense of foreboding is magnificent.

The truck finally reaches us, and we start to offload the tanks. We pull each one off, then carry it carefully across the drainage ditch and drop it in position near the latrines. The ground is soft and I’m glad I have my new hiking-boots on, though they’re going to get grubby. The tank-stands are all in the second truck, and that truck is still caught in traffic, so we can’t do anything about them just yet. A sharp crack of thunder races across the open ground and makes us all look up. A few miles away, the air has turned dark grey, and splinters of burning electric light dart downwards from the clouds and leave streaks on our retinas. It isn’t supposed to rain at this time of year, but somebody clearly forgot to tell the weather.

We keep offloading the tanks. I’m quickly getting quite dirty. I made the mistake of wearing a white shirt today. It has our logo on it, but pretty soon you won’t be able to tell. The wind is gusting now, that restless, threatening pulse of wind that rushes through, then dies back, and you’re not entirely sure where it came from or where it’s going. It carries the scent of raindrops and ozone on its breath. The lightning and thunder are quite close now, and striking repeatedly. I look up at the clouds and the light is soaked in drama and contrast, throwing everything before it into dark silhouette.

We’ve offloaded the fifth tank- the last in this truck- and Andrew still hasn’t arrived with the stands. I offer to go and get him, and get about twenty paces up the road from the first truck when the first plops of rain start to fall. They are big and fat and cold and we all know exactly what they mean. I stumble to a halt, turn, and dash back to the truck. Everywhere I look, people are scampering for cover. I am nearly run down by a large waddling gentleman in a UNOPS cap. Then the sky opens. Water falls in sheets and the horizon vanishes into grey. Seconds later I haul myself up into the open back of the lorry where George and Joseph are already sheltering, and we share a collective giggle as I wipe water from my hair and shoulders and look down at the streaks of wet mud down my shirt and cargo-pants.

We’re pinned in the back of the truck for more than twenty minutes as the storm rolls through. Lightning flashes for a while, thunder rocking the sky, but then seems to die back. The rain comes down in wind-driven curtains and we’re forced towards the back of the cargo compartment as it blows inside. The road turns to an orange sheet of water dancing as raindrops excite its surface. The drainage ditches fill, and within ten minutes they are brown churning gullies. The tarpaulins of the shelters ripple as the water assaults them, and we know there’s no way the IDPs inside their tents on the other sections can be staying dry.

After a while the storm eases. The rain doesn’t stop, but it eases enough that we can get out again. We are quickly quite damp. We are in time to see Andrew completely miss the turn-off and we signal to get his attention. He eventually pulls to a halt and we wade through an ankle-deep flow pouring down the service road. I wonder how the IDPs are coping with this flowing across the earthen floors of their tents.

We offload the last tank and the stands in the rain. It is wet, muddy work, but we laugh lots. Navigating the flooded drainage ditches is an entertaining hazard as we try and position the bulky steel frames inside the section, and more than one person ends up halfway to their thigh in the muddy flow. I sink to my ankles in sopping wet mud and accept that I’m going to be dirty for a long time. The stands are heavy, and we’re quickly tired and sweating, so the rain is actually quite a relief.

Eventually, the stands are all unloaded. It’s late afternoon. Nearly six. The boys have six more of these to deliver tomorrow, and rather than spend a long time tonight trying to get the first six set up, they’ll come back tomorrow to finish the job. Damp and filthy we clamber back into the cabs and start to leave. Andrew nearly sinks the truck into a drainage ditch when the narrow access-track starts to slip into the still-flowing water and his wheels glide sideways, but we eventually get out without drama. The camp is covered with standing water, and as the rain ends, people are emerging, wading through six inches of pooling brown runoff to get to latrines. It’s not easy to watch. At the gate, the soldiers pay us little attention, and we start the long ride back to town.

Back at the warehouse, we’re tired but pleased to have started the work. It’s dark, and we load up into the pickups for the trip back to the team-house, stopping in town to grab some curry to take back with us for dinner. It comes in small plastic bags but is full of exotic flavours. There’s a blue flashing light, the sort police-cars used to have, mounted on the cab, and in the darkness, they fire this up. While we sit waiting for the curry to come, it bounces off the walls and shopfronts. It’s just another part of making sure the checkpoints know that we’re an NGO vehicle, and not a threat to be shot at. Andrew gets a call from his wife. She’s in the SZ, but she’s managed to negotiate access to a phone, and she doesn’t have any news, she just wants to talk. They haven’t communicated for a couple of weeks and he sits in the back of the pickup with the phone to his ear for a long time, talking earnestly and oblivious to the occasional good-natured jibes coming from the boys in the front seat. If they tease him, it’s only because they understand what it’s like having somebody they care about trapped in the war-zone. It’s a sombre reality that only really hits home when you sit down and look into their eyes.

It’s been a good day in a bad place. This sort of thing isn’t exactly what I’m paid to do- handing out food and hauling around water hardware- but it’s a lot more satisfying than sitting in a field office writing proposals, and I regularly wish that this was my full-time job. It’s important for me in doing my job well for me to understand exactly what it’s like out on the ground, and the day has been good for that. It’s also a great way to build relationships with the rest of the team. And of course, it’s a Saturday, so I can write this off as my day-off if anybody gives me a hard time about it. I don’t get to do this all the time, but I really love it when I do. Now I’m just sitting and waiting for my official clearance to come through so I can get back up north again. It’s easy to forget, down in the pleasant, peaceful capital, that there’s a crisis going on just two hundred k’s north. The odd dichotomy of so many of these countries. But once you’ve seen it with your own eyes, once you’ve heard the stories, you don’t forget in a hurry. Another page in a catalogue of bad places that is getting gradually longer and longer.

3 comments on “A Good Day in a Bad Place

  1. Pingback: A Good Day in a Bad Place « WanderLust

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  3. Pingback: Dear Santa… « WanderLust

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