Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Radio 4, lizard poo and the Ethiopian mountains

Well I was somewhat trepidatious at the prospect of spending a whacking two months on a tour of duty at Kurmuk, but my initial impressions are pretty favourable.

Kurmuk is slap bang on the border with Ethiopia, in Blue Nile state buffering north and south, hence a critical flashpoint in the war. Refugees would cross here and troops would be trained, rested and regrouped over the border, so it was heavily hit and you can still see a huge number of derelict and partially destroyed buildings everywhere.

I'm based at compound with the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and its razor-wire fortified compound on one side and the Mine Action Group on the other, nestling at the base of a low hill with views out to the cloudy grey mountains of Ethiopia, chickens scratching in the dirt and almost luminous flowers bravely struggling through the clay just outside my tent.

I arrived yesterday afternoon alone as the advance party, was introduced to all the staff and immediately forgot just about everyone's name, taken to the radio station to survey the chaos within, and had good intentions of getting to grips today with sorting it out and doing a bit of networking with local groups and international NGOs.

Unfortunately today turned out to be a national holiday, marking the anniversary of the death of Vice President John Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005. Garang was leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army/ Movement (SPLA/M), and depending on your view, was a) a nationalist hero and freedom fighter for the south; b) a politically manouevring sustainer of civil war at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives; or c) if you're a woolly liberal, a bit of both, but probably ok on balance. Sort of.

Anyway, using that excuse and the intermittent showers, I spent the morning in my tent, and joy of joys! I can pick up the internet there, so although it flips in and out depending on power surges, I can listen to Radio 4, a little corner of Sudan that is forever Middle England. Except with lizard poo in the corner. Actually, listening to Radio 4 does weird things to my body clock as I'm two hours ahead, so Today finishes at 11, Woman's Hour starts at noon and it goes to “listen again” as soon as You and Yours starts. I enjoyed both episodes of Rob Bryden's programmes on the last few days of Kenneth Williams, so strangely out of kilter with my environment.

Finally got into town, about a fifteen minute walk, depending on how much you get waylaid by kids who all want to chat. The station was in a right state, so – out of character, I know – I took a broom to it and grit my teeth to clean out the spidery corners.

After much sneezing I walked into the market and camped down at a stall for a spicy coffee – bunn (see following blog from Kauda). Soon I found myself joined by a bunch of UN flight guys in mufti on their day off, Hassan with impeccible English and a few of his mates, as well as a couple of Dinka teachers from the local primary school. Hassan fended off a crazy guy who wanted to sing to me to tell me how much he loved me, much to the mirth of the gathered crowd, and my relief, and paid for my bunn into the bargain.

On the way back whilst photographing a group of excitable children building sand mountains, a UN police van stopped to offer me a lift. I was happy walking and was planning to stop at the Peace Hotel on the way back, which sounds like a knocking shop, but has a bar there, and by coincidence the two policemen, Nepalese Basu and Daniel from Zambia, were staying there, so I caught up with them a few minutes later for some bottles of Ethiopian beer. They were great company, educated to a level that would put most British police to shame, and so eloquent about their work and aspirations.

I've been promised a Saturday night party at another compound by a couple of Irish birds I met at the airstrip when I arrived, so maybe two months here isn't going to be quite so painful as I anticipated. I might even find a use for the kazoo.

Oh – and if you're wondering what lizard poo looks like, it's a hard black sausage about 1cm long with a bright white blob at the end. Very curious.


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