“Traveling is a small dose of hell.”
—a hadith, or saying of the prophet Mohammed
On the third day out of Bir Maza, I dropped off of the cart and walked to a pile of boulders and I stood and watched a dust storm while I pissed on the sand. My urine was the color of green antifreeze, so I knew I was getting dehydrated, and I supposed Shane was as well, so, as I trotted back to catch up with the cart, I told him that we had to make sure and drink more water. Ahmet asked what I’d said and Shane translated it for him and he laughed. By then, it was getting on toward the hottest part of the day anyway, and the horse’s lungs sounded like an old furnace, and so we pointed the cart under some trees and hobbled the horse and turned it free to graze. Then the three of us lay down on mats and slept through the heat of the afternoon. It would take four more days by hoof and foot to get to the Chadian border, but this was, believe it or not, the safest way to get out of Sudan without going to prison.
Why does the West always want to be saving Africa? And why are the wars on that continent always portrayed as intractable and hopeless? Is it possible to “unspin” an issue with only one film? These were the sorts of questions I asked myself when Shane Bauer proposed we make a film about Darfur. They were questions that every filmmaker should ask themselves, especially if they are going to make a film about a war, or a genocide, or really anything under the sun: What can I do to help this situation? What can I add to this that will advance the discussion? The subject of the film should be at the center of the discussion; that’s my philosophy, at least.
I met Shane through the family of activist-journalists around the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a kid from Minnesota who had decided after September 11 to learn Arabic in anticipation of the wars in the Middle East that would surely follow. Six years later, he spoke the language fluently and had traveled to Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, writing for Al Jazeera and various publications. He went to Darfur as a photojournalist in 2006 and had returned with amazing photographs.
He and I set about watching every film about Darfur we could, and decided that what was needed was a film that gave more context, placing the conflict in a framework of the political economy of Sudan and a history of the region. Everything started with an armed uprising by Darfuris tired of being marginalized by their government, who responded by slaughtering and terrorizing civilians rather than directly taking on the rebels. Darfur solidarity groups in the U.S. always made a point of stating that the problems there stemmed from economic and social injustice in Sudan, yet this aspect gets forgotten in the wash of stories about gruesome atrocities and the desperation of the refugees. Shane had lived with one of the factions of the Sudan Liberation Army in 2006, and we proposed to return to some of the rebels who had “started the whole thing” and film them for a couple of months.
First, we wanted to go to booming Khartoum, the capital, and document the new high-rises and highways to illustrate the economic disparity in Sudan. But no visas are being granted to anyone outside of big international aid organizations, because the government knows that journalists will have nothing good to say about them, so they don’t let them in the country at all. We’d have to enter Darfur illegally via Chad, the country right next door and to the west.
I’d been to poor countries before, but this was a whole other level. I think there was one paved road in all of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. The world had used up this country and left it dry and moved on. We spent a hot, humid few days there getting organized and getting sick (this is obligatory) and then caught a United Nations flight to Abéché, in the east, and then to a ragged town hanging off the Chad/Sudan border called Bahay.
The population of Bahay was no more than 300 souls, but up the road was Kariari, a Darfuri refugee camp with 30,000 inhabitants. Shane knew a man there named Oumda (Mayor) Bokhiet , a smiling, warm, and helpful man currently helping run the refugee camp. He introduced us to people from the SLA who lived in the camp, and through them we contacted their comrades in Darfur via satellite phone and arranged to visit. One important point was that we needed to ensure that they could get us out again safely, as journalists were being turned over to the government by rebels under a leader named Mini Minawi. Mini’s group had signed a peace treaty and now were working in league with the Sudanese government. They had grabbed two people that we knew of and those people had been imprisoned for months. No problem, the SLA men cackled over the phone to us, we’re not Mini’s group, we’ll get you out safely, come on in. We also met an SLA fighter named Abdullah, who had been in the refugee camp visiting relatives, and he agreed to travel back to Darfur with us and act as a guide, and he helped us find a truck to travel in.
The land was dry and sandy with red rocks jutting through the ground, something like northern New Mexico, but nothing like any pictures I’d ever seen of Africa. It was my first time on the continent, and I was glad to be in such a stark and unromantic part of it. As we rattled through the desert and got stuck in the sand and pulled ourselves free and got stuck in mud and shoveled our way out, gray coyotes would watch us from a hill and then run away, and huge white birds would launch into the sky and lazily flap away from us. At one point, we drove right through a jumping pack of gazelle, and after they scattered we kept chasing one lone animal with our car as it darted and leapt among the rocks and trees at crazy angles, with us in the vehicle taking sharp turns in the dust and several times turning on two wheels. Shane was yelling at Abdullah in Arabic to slow down, but he and the driver didn’t listen; they just banged the sides of the truck and honked the horn and kept driving. The gazelle eventually began to tire and then simply sat down on the sand, chased to exhaustion. We shrieked to a stop, and in a flash Abdullah was out of the car, drawing his knife and dashing to the immobile animal. He pulled its head back by the horns and slashed its throat, and that night we dined on range-fed venison. Even Shane, who’s a vegan, joined in.
After three days of driving, we came to our destination, an area called Bir Maza. Abdullah directed us to a field next to a wide sandy wadi, where everywhere there were clusters of men under the trees playing cards or resting, their rifles and rockets piled nearby. Abdullah jumped out of the truck and was immediately mobbed by friends.
Before long, we were called before a circle of men who sat on mats in the middle of a wide sandy wadi. They were the commanders of the Unity Faction of the Sudan Liberation Army and they asked us to explain who we were and what we were doing. We did, and we must have done an all-right job of it, because afterward they told us we could film whatever we wanted to.
They put us in the hands of a commander named Yusif, who drove us to see villages that had been attacked and to meet people with stories of the war. The situation had changed since Shane’s visit the previous year. There had been attacks four months before by Janjaweed, so rebels had camped in the area to prevent more attacks from happening. It’s a strange war, one in which the men with the guns don’t seem to actually fight each other head-on very often. The rebels we were with had several hundred men spread out over several miles in little clusters. They were well armed and fully supported by the locals, but there weren’t that many of them. I’m no military expert, but it seemed to me that with a few helicopters and some ground troops the government could do serious damage to this rebel faction. Why didn’t they?
The SLA men we talked to put this down to the fact that the Khartoum government had an army that didn’t want to fight. A commander named Jaffar explained: “Sure, they could come with five helicopters. But one or maybe two of them would be shot down”—he motioned toward the truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns parked under trees nearby—"and the crews won’t fly into combat if there’s that kind of danger. Sudanese army are paid very little, and they have no patriotism. So why would they fight? That is why they use the Janjaweed instead of infantry, except that the Janjaweed don’t want to take casualties, either."
A war in which one side raids bases and then quickly steals away into the hills, and the other side retaliates by terrorizing civilians. To understand the terrain of 21st century warfare, you may have to change what you think of as a country. We were in Sudan, but the government provided next to nothing for the population, no roads, no electricity … nothing. The German sociologist Max Weber said that what defined a state was having a monopoly on violence. So what do you call a country where the state cannot control the violence within its borders? Sudan is by no means alone in this. Brazil, for example, is regularly rocked by nationwide coordinated attacks by criminal gangs that the police are absolutely powerless to contain.
We interviewed as many fighters as we could, from the commanders on down to the foot soldiers, and what they said was very straightforward: They were poor and they were marginalized and the only route seemed to be to arm themselves and rise up. That had worked in south Sudan, hadn’t it? As Jaffar put it: “Our demands are very simple. First, we want to stop the killing of our people. We want them to be able to return to their villages. Then they need compensation immediately … And, secondly, we are talking about the government also. We want to be in a position where we can give our people back their rights.”
Changing the government was essential to them. How can one work with a government that no one trusts? All around the area, we saw evidence to support this: here were warehouses built by an international aid organization to house food for refugees, but the Janjaweed had looted and destroyed them. An aid group would fly in and set up a hospital, then the militias would loot that, too, and the group would have to come back and restock the place. It seemed grimly absurd that the aid organizations needed to deal with the government to do their work, all the while running the risk of that same work being undone by the government’s proxy armies! No wonder the SLA wanted to change the whole system.
Yusif was a good guide, but what he couldn’t understand was that we also wanted to film him at work. “What else do you need?” he asked, after we had been with him a week. We replied that we wanted to film his daily routine, or what he did when he wasn’t driving foreign journalists around. Either he didn’t get it or else he didn’t want us with him in that capacity, because he grew annoyed with us and said his responsibility had been fulfilled, and then dropped us in a hamlet called Nar Kaida, where some of his relatives lived, and said he’d be back for us that evening. Days later, he hadn’t returned.
In Nar Kaida, we tried to capture the patient hard work of peasant life. Most of the people were sustenance farmers, eating what they grew and herding goats and camels, completely adept at survival in the Sahel. They were all from another village originally, but it had been vulnerable to attack, and so, when Nar Kaida was abandoned and its inhabitants headed to refugee camps, these folks had reoccupied it, because Nar Kaida sat at the top of a long sloping valley where they could easily see anyone approaching. There were still several empty houses, and we moved into one, and the people of Nar Kaida fed us and looked after us and treated us as one of their own, making sure we always had company when we ate our two daily meals or drank tea. Time had slowed down for us, the two Americans, and we felt like we were fully living in the rhythm of our hosts.
Still, after several days, the tedium began to wear on us. We had filmed everything we could, and now we were waiting to leave. We’d given up on Yusif and had been trying to reach another rebel faction that we knew was in the area, but we could never get them on our phone, and so we continued waiting in the village heat. We made a chess set out of scraps of paper and wood and played with it, and took hikes in the hills. There was one book we had with us that I hadn’t read yet, but it was The Sheltering Sky, and somehow I couldn’t bring myself to read about a group of people traveling through the North African desert and going out of their minds. Call me sensitive.
Finally, one day the connection went through and the Hamis Abdullah Faction of the Sudan Liberation Army agreed to come and get us. They showed up the same afternoon, another group of boys slung with rifles, rockets, and ammunition piled in trucks. We said our goodbyes to the people of Nar Kaida and jumped in.
This group was camped in a wood in a hilly area near a village called Disa, and were led by a small, smiling man named Commander Ali. They treated us a bit differently from the way our previous rebel hosts had, not assigning us to a handler but simply letting us live in their camp with them. Thankfully, they were near a wadi that constantly had water in it, so we could swim on occasion.
One challenge was to find what to film, as it was clear by now that there would be no fighting, no flashes and no bangs, at least not where we were staying. I once heard of a Vietnam veteran saying that 90 percent of that war was waiting and 10 percent was terrifying. We appeared to be making a film about the former. Sometimes trucks of fighters would leave the camp and we presumed they were headed off to fight somewhere, but there was no way they would let us tag along, despite how much we told them we were ready to film combat. We were their guests and they wouldn’t put us in any danger, any more than they would let us help them dig water holes. We still threw in a hand whenever we could, though, our American work ethic not allowing us to be waited on.
So there would be no “action” in this film, but still we had to make it. We talked with everyone and filmed them, and the boys gradually became less aware of the camera. We asked why they fought and what they thought would come of it all, and they answered, but often their answers were very rote, as if they were repeating dogmas laid down by their superiors. It was their offhand stories and their songs that made the best footage, and which we hoped would add soul to the film.
If nothing unusual was happening during a given day, and the rituals of eating, weapons cleaning, and card-playing continued as normal, I would grab my camera and hike into the hills to film the land. Massive birds, the kind that nest in high grasses, still live in Darfur, unpoached by house cats, their habitats unspoiled by buildings. Some readers might ask, “Why film an ibis in Darfur, a place synonymous with tragedy and horror?” I would answer that I was showing what is being fought for, and to illustrate as many aspects of the place as possible. I’ve always tried to film what is on the margins, to pan away from the “action” to show that normal life continues. We were living with armed men in a war zone, but all around us the rocky land that the soldiers loved rolled on under brilliant skies … This is part of the story as well.
The days slowly went by and eventually it was time to head for home. We said our goodbyes to Ali and his boys and called Yusif’s group, who had assured us that they would get us back to Chad safely. They drove us to the market in Bir Maza and Yusif found a man who owned a truck. “This man will take you to Bahay, safely, for one thousand dollars,” he said. We explained that we didn’t have that much to spend. “Fine,” snorted Yusif, “you find a truck and then call me and I’ll send some men to protect you part of the way.” Then he jumped into his own battered Land Cruiser and roared away, leaving us standing in the middle of the market with our bags.
We spent a week in that market, sleeping in a large tent that acted as the local warehouse and trying to get a ride to Chad. By now, the rainy season was in full force and dark gales crashed into town every other night, turning the wadis into wide rushing rivers. Travel in Darfur was getting more and more difficult. Trucks loaded with people and goods would roll through Bir Maza, but all of them were bound to pass through the towns that we had to avoid so as not to get arrested, so we couldn’t ride with them. We waited. The man with the truck that Yusif had first found for us took another client and disappeared before we could try and talk his price down. One man offered to take us on a horse cart. Another tried to rent us two camels for the trip, but we would have to double up on one while he rode the other. Was there no way to get a third camel? No, there wasn’t. Forget it.
After living in the warehouse for several days, we stamped our feet in frustration and went and found the man with the horse cart, whose name was Ahmet. How much to take us to Bahay? we asked. Four hundred dollars, he answered. When can we leave? In an hour? Let’s go. We quietly said our goodbyes to the other market dwellers and slipped out of town after dark, so that there wouldn’t be a rumor going around that two white men were traveling by cart across Darfur.
Sand, trees, clouds, and rain is what followed. The cart was pulled by a swayback horse whose best years were long past, and riding was uncomfortable. We walked most of the time, our gear stowed on the cart, and there wasn’t much to do except watch the skies for rain and pass the time. So we sang all our songs and Ahmet sang all of his, and then we remembered that we had an audio recorder, and we unpacked it and he sang all his songs again for us. It took seven long days of walking, riding, and dodging storms before we arrived in Bahay with just enough time to get back to N’Djamena to catch our plane home.
Was it worth it? Did we get what we wanted to? Will this film say what we wanted to say in our film about Darfur? Honestly, I don’t know. We recorded a lot of footage in which not a whole lot happened … Maybe we will make a film about those places in a war where nothing goes on. Maybe we’ll film additional interviews to provide more context.
Shane, in his apartment in Oakland, translated the speaking parts and sent the transcripts to me in San Francisco. I watch the tapes and listen to the Darfuri men talking about why they are fighting, and I see a lot of images that I hope will explain even more than the interviews do. We hope the film will add something to people’s understanding of Darfur, and show that it is part of problems that are bigger, older, and deeper than so much of the world realizes. Only a serious and difficult understanding of the world and, particularly, our place in it will yield a true solution to what is going on in Darfur and in the rest of the Sudan, as well as in the rest of Africa and the whole planet.
Or maybe what we have doesn’t want to be that film. We’ll see.