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Among Darfur Rebels and Refugees: A Road Diary (Day 17)

Thursday, Aug. 2, 2007

Editor's Note: In March, Kurt Pelda, Africa Bureau Chief of the Swiss daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, traveled to eastern Chad on the border with the Sudanese crisis region of Darfur. Over 200,000 Sudanese refugees live in eastern Chad, having fled the violence in Darfur. The region likewise serves as staging grounds for the Darfur rebels fighting against the Sudanese government. During his three weeks traveling in the region, Pelda kept a diary, which provides a portrait of the Darfur conflict that is perhaps unrivaled in its detail and nuance. In daily installments through the beginning of August, World Politics Review presents this important document for the first time in English, concluding with an epilogue penned by Pelda exclusively for WPR. Read other entries.

Day 17: Finally a Straight Answer
A Demonstration of Chadian Technology

15 March

The deadline that I have set for myself is tomorrow. If we have not managed finally to get over the border into Sudan by then, Adam and I will leave this desert backwater and begin our trip back to N'Djamena. Adam goes to the market to meet his friends. He hears from them that the rebel chiefs for whom we have been waiting finally arrived in Bahay last night. This bit of information gives us hope -- but it turns out to be false. A little while later, I receive a telephone call from Sharif, one of the political leaders of the Darfur rebellion. Sharif is still in Abéché. He is there with Ahmed, who evidently does not think it necessary to keep us posted. The car still has to be repaired, Sharif explains. The rebel leadership is struggling with so many problems that it will be several days before it is possible to cross the border. In plain English, this means that we should count on waiting in Bahay for at least another week.

I am grateful to Sharif for giving me a straight answer. It does not take me a minute to decide that it is time to return. I am fed up with the waiting and, above all, with being dependent on the whims of Ahmed, Sharif and whomever else. If these guys cannot manage to get a journalist into Darfur, how do they expect to win a war? We have been waiting already for ten days for Ahmed and company. And now, within sight of the border, we find out that we still cannot proceed. Of course, it would always be possible to rent a car at a horrendous price and cross the border that way. But that would be to violate my own unwritten rule for war reporting: Do not entrust your life to people who promise to bring you into a war zone for money.

While I go to pack my things, Adam returns to the market to make inquiries about a rental car. The prices have nearly doubled since yesterday. Finally, however, he finds a vehicle that is to be had at a reasonable rate. The driver makes a good impression. But the car, a beat up Toyota, is in pitiful condition. The front tires have lost their tread, there is at least one wheel nut missing on each wheel, the rear axle springs are sagging badly and straps have been wrapped around them for reinforcement, and the headlights are hanging out of their sockets from wires. There are also no windshield wipers, though in the desert this is not so important. So, I say yes and the driver, who is also the co-owner of the wreck, even agrees to forego an advance, which increase my confidence in him. We put our bags in the trunk and we are ready to go.

We have driven barely 10 kilometers when the gasoline engine begins first to sputter and then goes totally silent. In fact, I do not think that gas engines are suitable for Africa. Unlike diesel engines, gasoline engines often have ignition troubles. But that is not the problem here. The issue is with the fuel feed, which has become clogged with dirt. Abdullahi, our new driver, quickly solves the problem. One look at the opening of the gas tank and it is clear why the fuel is dirty. Instead of gas cap, Abdullahi has stuck a thick blue cloth in the opening. The gas cap is evidently missing.

Now, as such, this is hardly unusual in sub-Saharan Africa. If I am traveling in the desert with a container of water and I give some African companions a drink, the cap invariably goes missing. Not that it has been stolen. It is just that a cap represents a luxury, which only Europeans would need. A container can easily be closed with plastic wrap or cloth. Where is the need for a screw cap? Tire valves are supplied from the factory with screw caps, but they work almost exactly the same without them. The list of examples of the uselessness of caps and covers of all sorts could go on and on. But there is one exception: In the case of the radiator cap under the car hood, one does not take liberties even in Africa. Without this vital cover, driving would become notably arduous, especially in the desert.

Panne in der Wu¨ste (Bild Kurt Pelda).JPG
Breakdown in the Desert (Kurt Pelda)

Abdullahi surprises me. As we get on our way after the brief malfunction, he puts on his seatbelt. Putting on one's seatbelt is a rarity in Africa -- especially since many cars do not even have seatbelts. In Abdullahi's car, the seatbelts seem to be just about the only thing that is in good condition. I am even more surprised when Abdullahi stops to fill up the tank in Tiné, the next somewhat larger town, and while there buys an actual gas cap. He also takes an extra jerry can of gas, whose cap, however, does not close properly and has to be held in place with a small piece of plastic. But when I see him buying a container of motor oil and then also a large bottle of brake fluid, I start to become somewhat pensive.

The jerry can with the gas is in the back and the gas is leaking out of it. Even with the plastic reinforcement, the cap is not closed tight. The rear windows can only be lowered with a wrench. But even with the windows down, the odor from the gas has a narcotic quality. The tail of a desert fox and a broken CD with citations from the Quran written on it are hanging from a chain on the rearview mirror. This is his hijab, Abdullahi says: his amulet and lucky charm, in other words. Nonetheless, the longer we are on the road, the more he seems to be losing concentration. He is taking the curves too fast, always one gear too high, and he hardly ever brakes before the bumps in the road. Are the gas vapors going to his head? Suddenly, there is a deep wadi just in front of us and the car is bearing down on it at full speed. Abdullahi steps on the brake pedal -- but without any effect. First we land with a crash on the stones in the river bed, then we shoot up the embankment on the other side and roll in neutral until the car comes to a stop by itself.

Now I understand why Abdullahi puts his seatbelt on and why he bought the brake fluid. One of the brake pipes is leaking. The inside of the front wheels is smeared with fluid. Abdullahi needs a plastic bag. He takes the bag in which he was keeping his cigarettes and he disappears under the hood. Two pickups coming from the other direction pull up beside us. While the female passengers in the back of the trucks remain seated and cast furtive glances in our direction, the men get out. They are holding daggers in their hands. But nobody wants to rob us. They just want to help. The driver of the first pickup is evidently a top mechanic. He inspects the side of the road for a suitable piece of wood. When he has found an appropriate candidate, he uses it to seal the leak along with a piece of Abdullahi's plastic bag. "Chadian technology," Abdullahi says laughing. And we get on our way.

"Day 18: U.N. Risk Analysis and an Improvised Solution"

Kurt Pelda is the Africa Bureau Chief of the Swiss daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The diary of his trip to the Chad/Darfur border first appeared in the NZZ Online. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

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