We left Khartoum on a 7:30am Mid Airlines flight to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, on Monday, November 21. The 5:30am ride to the airport was a quick 15 minutes from our hotel. A CHF driver dropped us off, then went to pick up a new CHF employee, Adam Bernstein, who would be flying with us. (Adam is from Mill Valley; skied on the Freestyle team at Squaw Valley – yet another small world story.) As we approached the entrance, I noticed the sign: Khartoum International Airport. I wondered if we were at the wrong terminal, but Mark thought perhaps that was the sign for the airport, and not the terminal. The guard let us in, and we put our bags through the X-ray machine. At the passenger entrance, the attendant took one look at our tickets and motioned for us to get our bags. He then got a porter to take us to the domestic terminal, which, thankfully, was a short walk away.
Pandemonium reigned in the small entryway of the domestic terminal. The ever increasing crowd surrounded the baggage X-ray machine from all sides, poised to lunge at the slightest move of the conveyer belt, which was piled with suitcases, boxes, plastic bags, mattresses, and blankets higher than the capacity of the machine. The belt moved in short spurts, as boxes and mattresses had to be offloaded before the machine could operate. Adam and I tried to make several attempts to get through to the departure gates, but to no avail. We kept getting denied entrance. Meanwhile, motley crews of flight attendants, airline crews, and other people who were clearly not passengers passed through and back. After about a half hour, Mark was able to get our bags on the conveyer belt. Then the three of us waited, making sporadic forays at the gate. Finally, we pushed through with other people who seemed to hold similar looking tickets to collect our check-in bags, covered in red dirt, to be checked in.
The Mid Airlines flight was surprisingly empty, unlike the Sudan Airlines flights to the same destination. There were about 9 or 10 people on the Fokker 50 prop plane, serviced by two flight attendants. We flew over vast areas of flat no man’s land before seeing isolated villages, some of which were burned to the ground. Then, as we approached El Fasher, a small IDP camp next to a much larger camp, both dotted with blue and white tarps covering shelters, pit toilets, schools, and community centers. We landed and walked to a covered shelter, where someone came to collect copies of our Darfur entry permit, and waited for our bags, which were piled on the bed of a pick-up truck which slowly made its way to the shelter.
The only other activity at the airport was United Nations (UN) helicopters and largely unmarked UN cargo planes taking off and landing.
A CHF 4X4 truck, well marked with the CHF logo and flying a large logo flag for identification and protection, came to pick us up. I was surprised to see tens of tiny blue and white taxis at the airport and subsequently, all over town, full of local passengers – little Daewoo TICOs and ATOZs (many of which have their model modified to read: ATO7 or simply O7). On the way to the CHF office and guest compound, we passed many NGO and multilateral organization vehicles and offices: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Program (WFP), International Office of Migration (IOM), Relief International (RI), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Kuwaiti Patients Helping Fund (KPHF), German Agro Action (GAA), GOAL (an Irish NGO), International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), Oxfam, Islamic Relief (IR), UN Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC), UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Practical Action, Spanish Red Cross, Saudi Red Crescent Society, and so on.
The CHF offices and guest houses are in adjoining compounds of two buildings each. It is referred to locally as the “white house” because of the color of the walls, and because of its size. It was the former El Fasher headquarters of Save the Children, UK, which stopped working in Darfur in December 2004 after several staff members were killed in North and South Darfur.
The guest compound is composed of two buildings. One houses the living room, with a satellite TV, dining area, kitchen and two guest rooms. Elzein Abbas, the CHF Program Director of North Darfur has one of the rooms, and an intern, Fatima, has the other. The other building consists of a storeroom/laundry room and three guestrooms, one of which is occupied by Paul Longwe, the CHF Program Coordinator, originally from Malawi.
Toilets and showers are located between the two buildings. There is a cistern that holds water that is pumped into an overhead tank for the two buildings, and a generator that operates from around 9am to a little after midnight (or until the last person in the office or guesthouse has finished working) that provides power for the offices as well as the guest houses.
El Fasher is a small, friendly town – everybody knows everyone else. There are two paved roads in the entire town, one perpendicular to the other. All the other “roads” are dirt and sand. There are two souks (markets) in town, one in the center and the other in the south of town, serving the trucks and truckers. Further south, just outside of town, there is a large livestock market.
Most of the buildings are single or two stories, with flat roofs. The one cinema in town is an outdoor ampitheatre, but is not operating because of the 8pm curfew. There is one fairly spacious restaurant called the Roast House, which serves burgers, broasted and grilled chicken, and lamb and chicken shawarma (all pre-made), and one “garden” area where people can sit out and have drinks. Otherwise, the rest of the places that serve food are kiosks that offer various kinds of meat (liver is a favorite) in addition to some beans and lentils at lunch time (a meal that the Sudanese call “breakfast”). There are also a couple of places that serve juices and sweets (mostly of the baklava kind), and an outdoor “cafe” that serves hot milk, coffee, tea, and apple-flavored tobacco in a water pipe. Add two banks, a couple of airline offices, a number of mini-markets, pharmacies, shoe makers, tailors, metal housewares, plastic housewares, metal workers, charcoal and wood merchants in addition to the fruit, vegetable and meat vendors in the market, and you have “downtown” El Fasher.