Tommorrow, August 19, is World Humanitarian Day. As I shared with you last year, it exists to commemorate the lives of the tens of thousands of people who work in disasters and emergencies in an effort to help people affected by tragedy and hardship. Held for the first time last year, it also remembers those who lay down their lives in the line of such work. On August 19, 2004, a truck-bomb was driven into the compound being used as the UN headquarters in Baghdad. 22 people, including the UN’s top humanitarian worker in Iraq, were killed in the aftermath.
The bombing of the Canal Hotel marked a shift in the aid context, after which humanitarian workers were increasingly seen as targets by people who- in contravention of international law- chose to attack them, whether for ideological, political or financial motivation.
It would be nice to be able to say that this trend is decreasing. However last year (as I’ve written previously) a higher portion of humanitarian workers were violently killed, injured or abducted than UN Peacekeeping soldiers. Earlier this year, seven staff working for the international NGO World Vision were corralled by extremists into their office in northern Pakistan and murdered with guns and grenades. Two weeks ago today, ten staff with the long-standing and highly-respected International Assistance Mission in Afghanistan were stopped on the road and executed, an attack claimed by the Taliban. There are many other incidents that happen each year, which get little notice globally, beyond the small community of international humanitarian workers.
In this vein I want to share with you a story that happened to several colleagues and I with the organisation I was working for at the time, during a field visit in Sudan’s volatile Darfur region. Those of you familiar with Darfur in late 2007 may recall details of the incident itself. The story is not a light one, and for those of you reading this who may have been exposed to violent situations yourselves, I’d ask you to exercise some discretion in deciding whether you want to keep reading.
In any critical incident it’s natural that memories of what happened differ slightly among various witnesses. During several rounds of debrief, both official and informal, several of us, including the three of us who were able to recall the whole incident, told our stories repeatedly, and they came up remarkably similar. The story below is my own perspective, but it matches closely enough to those of the others that discrepancies are insignificant, and gives a coherent and pretty accurate overview of what happened.
This is the first time in nearly three years that I’ve succeeded in writing out this account in its entirety, although I’ve told the story multiple times face-to-face, including to the Herald Sun who ran an article on it in early October 2007. I’ll share this over three consecutive posts, as it’s quite long (in true MoreAltitude style- would you expect anything less?).
For those of you not familiar with Darfur, it’s a large and highly impoverished region in the west of northern Sudan. Roughly the size of France, it has a population of a little over 6 million people. Due to a complicated array of factors- including political disenfranchisement, social marginalization, religious colonialism, disputes over mineral resource rights, and tensions over natural resources such as water points and pasture land for cattle- a civil revolt took place in 2003 against the Khartoum-based government. Several rebel groups were involved, the largest and most significant being the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
Khartoum responded by sending in conventional forces, and also armed a militia group, the Janjawid, with interests in the area (allegedly populating some of its ranks with released prisoners). A brutal put-down ensued in which the civilian population bore the brunt of the violence. Thousands were killed, and up to three hundred thousand reportedly died from the knock-on effects of the war (displacement, disease, malnutrition). Villages were burned to the ground. A quarter of a million people fled to the deserts of eastern Chad, and two to three million fled to displaced persons camps in sites around the region.
The situation remained fluid and complex. The government lost control of the Janjawid, and the rebels split after various members signed different agreements with the government. Pre-existing ethnic tensions and resource disagreements created new lines of conflict in an area that was largely anarchic. Peacekeepers, under-resourced, without a clear mandate, and further crippled by Khartoum’s meddling, were unable to cover the vast, roadless terrain, and for the most part remained bunkered down behind wire fences in their bases.
By late 2007, the warfighting had broken down into a highly complex series of sub-conflicts with shifting battlefronts and alliances that changed weekly. There were at least twenty-seven different warring factions, and that number was changing. Banditry was rife. NGOs, habitually unarmed, made easy targets from which radios, vehicles and money could be pilfered with little risk or resistance. Between 4 and 5 million of Darfur’s population were considered ‘war-affected’, and at least half that number were reliant on UN and NGO support in some way.
I travelled to Darfur in September of that year on a brief support mission, to check in on some of the projects my office was funding in Darfur, and to spend time with our office in Nyala (capital of South Darfur) to see how they were doing, and what could be done to support them better. About a week into my trip, I went on what was planned to be a multi-day field visit south and west of Nyala, towards an area called Rehed-al-Birdi. I was with six colleagues, travelling in a pair of clearly-marked NGO Land Cruisers. We anticipated it would take us about four hours to reach our destination for the day.
Part I: Ambush
After the shooting stops, what I notice most is the silence. It is humming, tangible, pressing itself with force into my ears like some wrapped cloak protecting me from reality. But any sense of protection must be an illusion.
There’s no crying. No shouts of pain. Nobody yelling ‘Get Down!‘ Just that pressurised whine inside my head telling me something’s wrong.
I’m lying across the bench-seat at the front of the four-by-four, head towards Issa the driver who’s down here with me. My nose is inches from the dials of the heater and tape-deck. Black, plastic, slightly rimed with dust. The image of this mundane feature of the dashboard is seared onto my brain with crystal clarity even years later, so intensely is my brain seizing data.
Beads of safety glass have exploded across the inside of the vehicle. They’re sharp-edged little gems of crystalline aqua-marine and they’ve doused the foot-wells, blanketed the front seat, accumulated like blown sand in the creases in my utility vest.
The first conscious thought that goes through my head I hear with startling clarity: This is it. It’s really happening. It’s not a drill this time.
It’s followed moments later by a prayer, shot flare-like skywards in a moment of desperate faith: Jesus, I put this situation into your hands right now and trust you to get us out of here.
I stay very, very still and realise with a curious detachment that these may be my last moments alive.
It will be hours before I realise just how close I am to being right.
The confluence of tiny decisions and circumstances that lead to the resolution of an event of magnitude can seem almost fickle. So minute are the influences that you’re left with a stark choice as, in truly human fashion, you build a narrative around them: either chance is supreme, without mercy or interest, and any coincidence is at best the random interaction of a million events preceding it or some outworking of chaos principles to which people are programmed to ascribe motive; or there is indeed some being we call God, whose fingerprints we find on those spectacular moments that define our lives, and by inference, the mundane and profane happenstance of our daily existence as well.
I recall the prickling sensation I have on the back of my neck standing at the checkout counter while replenishing my first-aid kit from a local pharmacy a week before leaving Australia; an odd sense I’m aware of even then that I’ll be needing the supplies.
I remember, today taking due note of irony, the fervour with which I wrestle my visa from the hands of the hostile bureaucracy of the Sudanese Embassy in London, and the relief I feel reaching Heathrow Airport with just forty minutes to spare before my flight.
I see myself sitting on the British Airways jetliner between Amman and Khartoum, dark in the middle of the night, a flight so empty that there are more flight attendants than passengers, and I am the only person sitting between bulkheads, musing on why nobody would want to be going to Sudan right now.
The entire trip to Darfur almost unravels when, upon reaching Khartoum, I discover that the local admin staff have failed to lodge my travel papers, and I spend a frantic three days unspooling red tape just so I can escape the capital. Speeding myself towards events of which I have no awareness.
Then the minutae of that morning, leaving Nyala. Events that don’t seem relevant in any way in the moment, and yet ultimately give rise to the fractions of seconds and tiny angles of trajectory that mean the difference between death and survival for five of us. Forgetting my travel documents in the compound so that we waste forty minutes going back to collect them. Waiting even longer on the edge of a dusty wadi at the end of town for Abdul. He isn’t meant to be in our vehicle at all but is hitching a ride down to Rehed to see his mother on his week off.
Before leaving the team house that morning, I go back to my room to put more money in my pockets. Just in case we’re stopped and robbed, I tell myself. It’s a principle we’re taught in security training.
I never hear about the local staff member who, walking through the Nyala market that morning, overhears rumours that there’s hostile activity on the road we’re going to be travelling. He deigns to tell his superiors that little gem of a factoid, and our mission is cleared to depart.
We stop beyond the second police checkpoint with the other vehicle, just as we hit the bush, and the four of us with walkie-talkies do a quick radio-check. We switch from the town channel to the one we can use out in the field and make sure we can all talk to one another. After just one week out here the Motorolla VHF handset already feels natural on my hip.
Then we’re traveling across the Sahel, all brown dust and long white grass and knots of leafy thorn bushes. The road is an unsealed vehicle track, double-rutted and sloughed with sand. We’re passing goat herders who show no signs of alarm. Emptied villages. Dry river-beds which we slow down to ford. A transport, passengers waving to us as they come towards us. No signs of danger. We’re all looking.
We’re the second vehicle. In the first is Ghanaian Emmanuel, the team leader, with a driver. We keep a distance from them. Two days ago we had two vehicles involved in an ambush on a road north of here. Because they were riding too closely together, both were snatched in one go. We don’t want that happening to us.
Behind me, back to the glass on the ambulance-style bench-seats, sits Essam- tall, gentle and quiet, with large hands. Opposite him is media man Mohammed, a warm, charming Sudanese man with a voice soft like a plush carpet. Next to Mohammed is Abdul- rotund, cheerful, loudly spoken. He speaks little English and although I’ve just met him we’ve been exchanging spurts of dialogue in our shoddy representations of each others’ tongues. I’ve recently learned Mafi Mushkila. Loosely translated, it means No Worries. I say it, and everybody laughs. Then I lapse into silence and watch the bush slip by.
They’re the last words I have any recollection of before the ambush.
None of us sees the uniformed gunman hiding in the bush to the left of the track as we slow to pass through a tight copse of woody brush. We know nothing of his stance as he raises the AKM assault rifle, whether he fires from the hip or whether the butt is ensconced in his shoulder. We never see his expression, and we can only guess vaguely at his thoughts as he pulls the trigger and rakes the weapon in a single burst from tail to nose, at head-height through the windows of our passing Toyota.
I hear an ugly noise like the roar of machinery, and for a split second my reaction is one of annoyance as I’m catapulted from my private thoughts. I hear three very loud, distinct, bangs, as though a body-builder is driving a sledge-hammer against a steel box, with myself on the inside. I think, for just an instant, that Issa has struck an overhanging branch.
And then, I don’t really remember how, I’m on my side, staring at the tape deck and covered with shattered glass.
Long seconds ooze by. The vehicle is stationary, idling. Issa and I don’t move. I hear nothing from behind us. I sense our attacker is still there. I’m waiting for a face to appear at the driver’s side window, for a burst of gunfire to hose us down while we lie there, but there’s nothing.
So I raise my hands.
Gradually, cautiously. I inch my fingertips up above the level of the dash, keeping my head low. If they start shooting again, and I feel they might, I want to be able to get down in a hurry. I feel spectacularly vulnerable, and almost as though I’m slowly immersing my fingers into molten steel. But there’s no more gunfire yet. So with a feeling of considerable disbelief, I raise my head, first brow, then eyes, then finally face visible.
I see a second gunman, one I didn’t know about, standing in front of the vehicle about twenty paces away beside the bush he’d been concealed behind. His rifle is pointing at me through the windshield. I keep my hands up and my movements slothful. I don’t know it yet, but the reason Issa has had to stop the vehicle is that this guy put two rounds into the front tyre, inches from my knee-cap.
Issa’s up now as well. The first gunman, the one who did all the shooting, is at his window. Words are spoken. Issa opens his door and gets out. There’s urgency in his movements. I allow a slight turn of my head to watch what’s happening without making it look like I’m staring. I catch a glimpse of the back seat. I can tell there are people lying down. Nobody’s moving and nobody’s making any sound. There’s blood everywhere, but I can’t tell what’s going on, and now isn’t the time. I keep my hands raised. In a distant place I’m aware of a slight burning sensation along the skin of my left elbow but it’s not a concern right now.
Now Issa’s around to my side of the car. There are words spoken. The gunmen are angsty.
My radio chatters to life. It’s the first car. Emmanuel. They’ve heard the shots and have stopped a couple of hundred yards ahead in the bush, out of sight. They want to know if we’re okay.
One of the gunmen says something.
“Turn it off,” Issa orders. The driver is a former policeman, I later learn. His cool responsiveness and obedient attitude, as well as his ability to translate for me, doubtless save our lives.
I do as I’m told.
“Should I get out?” I ask. Issa nods.
“Get out,” he tells me.
I move slowly, keeping one hand up, using fingers to unlatch the door. I step out onto the tuft of thick grass beside the four-by-four, and there I anchor myself. In the ambush two days ago, the attackers were interrupted by another vehicle on the road and fled. At the time they were in the process of leading our team at gunpoint into the bush, purpose unknown. The memory sticks. I have no intention of discovering for myself.
I’m focused now. There’s no sensation that you could describe as ‘fear’, only a very intense concentration on staying alive. I know that I can’t actually stop these guys killing me if they want to. I already have a pretty good idea that they’re capable of it. I don’t know what’s happened behind me, only that our clearly-marked vehicle has been fired on, and that now there are bodies lying in the back, bloodied and not moving. But if I can avoid doing anything to actually encourage them to shoot me, then I’m going to make it my mission over the next few minutes to make damn sure I do just that. I concentrate on my security training.
I’m wearing sunglasses. I’m conscious that in a situation like this you shouldn’t wear sunnies. It can appear arrogant, and angry men with guns can get the impression you’re staring them down- something you don’t want. The rule of thumb in surviving a hostage situation is to be invisible. Be polite and obedient without being subservient. You want to maintain your personal dignity and present yourself like a human being, because if you start to weep or beg or make yourself ‘less’ you make it easier for a gunman to see you as detached from humanity and easier to put down. Likewise you don’t want to challenge your assailant.
As I stand there, I seek that middle ground like my life depends on it- because it may well. I tilt my head slightly downwards so that they won’t think I’m eyeballing. And I stand straight, shoulders back, maintaining my personal space and making it clear I’m still in control of my posture. My lips are closed and straight. I breathe slowly and deeply through my nostrils.
Behind me, I don’t know this, but the first gunman is going systematically around each of the shot-out windows, reaching in, and robbing the three warm bodies lying back there.
I’m still looking down, taking in the black boots of the second gunman, ten paces from me not moving and his weapon still locked on me. When the first approaches me, I don’t look up. I see his woodland-camouflage uniform, and the muzzle of his AKM assault rifle as it presses into the folds of my utility vest where my solar-plexus is.
Hands go through my pockets. They find a Swiss Army knife. It’s tossed into the long grass and I don’t see it again. Then I’m left alone.
There’s quiet. Things are very tense. There’s a tangible malice in the air. I’ve only felt it a couple of times in my life and it’s a very unpleasant feeling. Being watched, by something that wants to do you harm. In my minds eye I have detached from myself, and I’m looking down as if from above. I see myself, standing by the open door of the Land Cruiser. I see the two gunmen, one at my twelve o’clock, ten paces out, and the other at my ten o’clock, five paces out. Issa is standing close by as well. I can feel the guns on me, both of them, as though little dotted lines are running from their muzzles straight to my torso; it makes my skin tingle. I’m experiencing very little emotion, but considerable discomfort, like something is terribly, terribly wrong.
I have the distinct thought, if they’re going to shoot me I hope they don’t do it in the gut. The same mind’s eye is projecting an image of me, lying curled in a ball beside the wheel of the Land Cruiser, dying slowly and alone. I still have no fear, but the thought is an unpleasant one regardless.
The sense of malice lingers. I’m worried now. They’ve shot us up, and now they’ve robbed us. Why aren’t they leaving? Why are they still here?
I make a decision to do something. If I keep standing here in the open I’m worried they might decide to take me with them, just by default. I look at Issa.
“Can I get back in the car?”
“Yes, get back in.”
I ease my way back into the front seat under watching eyes. I keep my hands visible, always slow.
Then I hear conversation. It is slightly agitated. I hear the English word ‘Money‘.
“Do you want money?” I ask. “I have money.”
Issa confirms this is what they’re asking for. I reach into my top pocket and find the stuffed banknotes. There’s about one-fifty in USD, another fifty in local currency. I hold these out, and they’re taken from my hand.
Still they linger.
I’m really uncomfortable now. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re talking among themselves. This is taking a long time. Issa is listening. I keep my hands up and try not to make it seem like I’m staring. I want this to be done now. It’s probably only a few minutes- two or three at the most- since the first shots were fired, but it feels like hours. It doesn’t make sense that they’re still here.
Behind me, a walkie-talkie squawks. It’s the first vehicle again. I find out later it’s Essam’s radio.
Then, with no further word or warning, the two gunmen turn and head into the bush. Issa darts for the driver’s door.
I turn in my seat and see that Essam is sitting upright behind me. He’s been shot in the arm. Kneeling in the well, Mohammed is upright too, but he looks horrible. His shirt is shiny, his entire torso saturated with wet crimson. There’s blood running in star-like limbs from the crown of his head where a bullet has cut his scalp. In his arms, he’s holding Abdul. The big man is hanging limp, facing downwards. I can see the top of his head is open, and there’s blood dribbling from the wound in a steady thread of bright red, like a tap that hasn’t been turned off.
“Is he alive?” I ask. Mohammed nods. His face is grim. Then Issa is gunning the engine, and the car is sliding in the soft sand, and we lurch away from the ambush-site and onward into the bush.
Part II: Flight, tomorrow
1. Unsourced, taken from World Prout Assembly: ‘In Darfur, Terror from the Air’ (link embedded in photo)
2. Lynsey Addario for the New York Times, from blog jdasovic.com: ‘Janjawid Militia Renews Scorched-Earth Policy in Darfur’ (link embedded in photo)