Letters From Nuba Mountain

By Lawrence T. Peter
February 3, 2003

Letters from Nuba Mountain is the first of a three-part series of articles by Lawrence T. Peter describing his experiences in Sudan as a cease-fire monitor with the Joint Military Commission, Nuba Mountains between April-July 2002.

[Prologue: I am a retired Naval Intelligence Officer (1998); my last assignment was with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Virginia Beach. It was that assignment that brought me back to America (in 1994) after the previous 10 years overseas in Panama, England, Italy, with detours to Gulf War I and other picturesque locales.

In January 1999, I received a call from a still-serving Navy colleague informing me of a need for someone with my background to support the Kosovo Verification Mission in Pristina. I went there in February as the Director of the Fusion Center (a politically acceptable term for an information collection, analysis and dissemination effort). The Fusion Center included 40 multi-nationals, some active duty, some retired, some civilian, mostly men but a few woman. We evacuated to Macedonia in March, worked the Kosovar refugee situation and then returned alongside NATO when the bombing concluded.

The Kosovo Verification Mission is its own story and is really only pertinent to my efforts here in the Sudan in that, if one is rewarded for one's labor, then the reason I found myself being asked to come to the Sudan was because of my experience and performance in Kosovo.]

I. The US Government is repeating in Sudan what is now fairly standard for international missions, i.e. the contracting of US citizens to do work overseas for which almost any other involved country would send (and does send) active-duty military. Part of it has to do (maybe the vast part of it) with the concept that the presence of a US soldier sends certain political signals about US commitment. I guess folks like myself who are under contract don't carry the same "gravitas" or maybe better "political baggage." I think the Secretary of Defense is right when he says he doesn't want to stretch the force too thin; if he were to have any troops in Sudan, he'd have to have a plan to get them out if the operation went pear-shaped. For we few US civilians, I guess this is no big deal. Lose a contractor here or there and you haven't created a political storm the same as if you had a private killed or captured. (Sudan was recently reconfirmed on the list of terrorism-sponsoring states, along with Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Cuba and North Korea. Sudan doesn't have a US Embassy, and the US Government promises to prosecute anyone who tries to circumvent restrictions on US exports to Sudan. But yet, I was exported to Sudan - what was wrong with that picture!?)

In my consideration as a taxpayer, it seems silly that tax dollars go to support troops which we can't (or won't) deploy. Surely there are five suitable soldiers who could do the job that I and the other four Americans who are part of this effort, are doing. As a retired Naval officer, I can sympathize with colleagues on active duty (of any service) who complain that efforts such as I am currently involved in, should be their opportunity...they claim rightly that theses efforts are in part, why they signed up. But, as the guy in Sudan (and who went to Kosovo) I think it is great. The Navy would never put a guy into Kosovo or Sudan (although it did launch a few Tomahawks into Sudan on 20 August 1998), so even if US active-duty got to play, the Navy would not likely be part of the team.

I came to the Sudan in April (2002) as one of a number of international monitors in an effort called the Joint Military Commission Nuba Mountains (JMC). The JMC is part of what appears to me to be a multi-faceted approach to rehabilitating Sudan. (The other 'tests" for the Sudanese government have to do with slavery, atrocities against civilians and some legal matters, but I cannot speak confidently about those efforts) The JMC is backstopped by an ad-hoc grouping of countries called the Friends of Nuba Mountain (There is a website of sorts; The Nuba Mountains/Joint Military Commission, but it is not very good and is, to an extent, reflective of the effort, i.e. trying to do this mission on the cheap -- although there is a lot of money being spent, the amount is certainly minor when compared with similar international missions,)

The Friends of Nuba Mountain is composed of almost a dozen countries (including the UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, Holland, Canada, and Denmark) with the US and Norway being in the lead. Retired Senator John Danforth negotiated a cease-fire agreement (signed 19 January) between the Government of Sudan (GOS) and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). That agreement is the foundation of the JMC. The original agreement was for six months and renewable by the GOS and SPLA by mutual agreement. The GOS (in late June) and the SPLA (in early July) agreed to renew the JMC for an additional six months. Everything we hear is very supportive of the peace effort. The GOS Army says it doesn't want to fight and so does the SPLA. The situation is obviously more complicated, but I am reminded of what President Reagan said, "There are simple answers - just not easy ones."

I view the JMC efforts as being part of the War on Terrorism. After the attack on 11 September (and particularly as a retired Navy officer), I wanted to be involved in the War on Terrorism in some manner. When this opportunity came up, I asked my wife, for permission to participate, had a discussion with our daughters and also obtained a leave of absence from my regular employer. With their agreement, I joined the mission.

It might be a stretch to suggest President Bush's administration has an overarching strategy of displacement, i.e. moving into areas where there had been a vacuum or indeed a regime or influence antithetical to US (or western Interests), but at the end of the day, at least here in Sudan, that is the result.

For the First few days in Khartoum, I found myself in the hotel (The Grand Holiday Villa) which I recall having been identified as one of Osama bin Laden's haunts. In short order we departed for our assignments. The JMC has a rear HQ in Khartoum for coordination with the GOS, a liaison office (my assignment) in El Obied to the Sudanese Army Central Command and a primary HQ in Kadugli where the efforts inside the Nuba mountains sectors are coordinated.

The mission is headed by a Norwegian Brigadier General, Jan Eric Wilhelmsen. One of the things that I've learned through participation in these international missions is the tremendous role Norway plays - widely disproportionate to its small size - in international affairs. The JMC is a case in point. Norway is at the front counter and footing some of the bill while the US is playing the effort more with a greater amount of dollars and a few souls like myself.

II. Reality is often different than perception and my preconceptions of Sudan, from what I understood before coming here to what I understand now, have changed greatly. At the most basic, my going-in sense of Sudan was that of a very hostile, anti-American and dangerous place. Yet, two months into the assignment, I was attempting to bring my family for a one to three month visit, putting my daughters into the local Comboni School (Catholic - attended by Christians and non-Christians alike) for cultural immersion and the experience. As it turned out, unfortunately, the visit could not be arranged, but the idea that I would be sufficiently comfortable with the security environment to even consider such a proposal shows how far my perceptions have changed.

Although one hears a lot of how the Sudanese government is difficult, manipulative and hostile toward virtually anything and everything that it perceives may threaten its power, the Sudanese people, by and large, are much different than their government. They love America. This is the story one doesn't hear. In El Obied, I am one of about three white people in a town of 300,000 or so. Yet, I sense no hostility, no anger, no resentment, only appreciation and a strong welcome for me in my capacity as the representative of the JMC (which for Sudanese is synonymous with peace) and as an American, which for every Sudanese I have met so far, is about the best thing they can imagine (that is, an American in their midst). There are not many Washington pinstripers, although from time to time a US diplomat does pass through. On a day-to-day basis I am America, I perform "diplomatic representation" and -- you know what? -- the Sudanese folks I meet think America can do no wrong. I find myself telling them America is not as great as they think, not because America is not great, but because no reality can be as splendid as the opinion they hold of the USA.

In the late 1980s Sudan experienced a severe drought. Then-Vice President Bush visited Sudan, and actually came to El Obied. According to the legend (and that is the character this story has acquired) Bush promised the United States would provide grain and seed to help the Sudanese. The USA delivered on this promise and today, fields of wheat or sorghum or whatever are referred to as fields of Reagan (as in "the Reagan is growing well this year..."). Also, because of the promise, many Sudanese families named their sons after George Bush (e.g. Bush al Sa'ad or Bush Ismail Ahmed Elhj).

Still today, probably 90-95 per-cent of all the United Nations World Food Program Sudan relief comes from the United States (my guesstimate- the WFP had no specific figures to share, but frequent first-hand observations of the WFP distribution sub-office at El Obied are the basis of the figure). Much of the grain is re-bagged for airdrop, consequently the end recipients don't always know from where the relief comes. (If I were King, I would have a small American flag-like a Cracker Jack prize--put inside every bag before it was sealed.)

But, even in the deepest corners, the Sudanese know about America. I had a small (12"x18") US flag sewn inside my vest. When I've visited villagers at some small dirt airstrip deep in the bush, and talked with them, eventually I'd be asked from what country I had come. I'd of course tell them America and then take off my vest to show the crowd. This small act always results in cheers. Just the sight of the Stars and Stripes was a nourishment of a sorts for these impoverished people.

III. In Sudan, information transmission is difficult at best. Much of the flow of information is by word of mouth. Illiteracy rate is high. One of the ways I've attempted to get information into the Nuba Mountains is through the priests. After explaining to the assembled priests what the JMC was doing and answering their questions to the best of my ability, I handed them about four thousand leaflets. I am making these leaflets on the fly, getting them translated and then reproduced in five or ten thousand quantities. You would not believe the response, the overwhelming positive response from the Sudanese who get these. When I go into a souk and pass leaflets out, I am literally flooded with hands, the Sudanese pushing and shoving to get whatever I have to give.

The international community and America may soon realize a "success" in Sudan. Reports daily suggest that the civil war, now twenty years and counting may soon come to an end across the country, not just in the Nuba Mountains. I tell many Sudanese (and Americans), "You know, America and Sudan have much in common, we are closer than you might think." There are always raised eyebrows at this suggestion, but patience and politeness -- hallmarks of the Sudanese response to me, give me the opportunity to make my case. I tell them: "First, America and Sudan are both blessed with tremendous mineral and agricultural wealth. Second, both America and Sudan understand what it is like to be a colony of the British; America cast off the cloak of King George III's tyranny on 4 July 1776. Although independence didn't come to Sudan until 1 January 1956, we both share that legacy." "Finally, I tell them, 140 years ago America experienced the horror of a civil war, when brother fights brother and family fights family. Today, in America, there are still families deeply scared by that war. If my presence here can help you bring an end to your civil war, then my efforts are worthwhile. The international community cannot make Sudan be peaceful, we can only help Sudanese find peace among themselves."

February 4, 2003

Sunday Run up the Desert to a Helo

The Joint Military Commission Nuba Mountains, Sudan (JMC) needs helicopter support. The helos provide logistics movement and medivac capability for the de-mining team. If this were a traditional military operation, a squadron would be part of the team. As it is, international operations like this typically contract out what isn't donated directly. For the helos, we had the money, but not the airframes.

In much of Africa and I guess around the world, the MI-8 is the airframe of choice. It is relatively cheap (you can get these birds for as low as $1300 per flight hour, all inclusive except fuel, or much higher if you are happy to pay more. Your choice, everything is negotiable). The first helo came in from South Africa in mid-May. The crew was badly treated by the company, who told them that they would be providing logistics support to a UN mission and living in a "Hilton-like" hotel. Of course, the reality is much different. Sort of a bait and switch deal, the company believing once the crew was here with the bird, they would complain, but not quit.... which is what happened.

We need two birds, that has always been the requirement. But the second bird has been a bit of a challenge getting here. Turns out the helo support was contracted with one company and then subcontracted with other companies. The second bird came from the Ukraine. As we spend some time together, I am learning that this crew is a pretty good bunch as well, although they speak virtually NO English (isn't English the international language of aviation??). This Ukrainian MI-8 was cross-countried from Kiev, along the Black Sea coast, through Turkey, and then down. We heard a rumor they were in Cairo, then another rumor that nobody has heard from the crew and the company can't be reached as they've scooted with the money. Then finally, during the last week of May, voila! The bird and the crew turn up in Khartoum. Finally. Then the checks and certifications from Sudanese Civil Aviation. All is good to go.

A few days later the bird departs Khartoum headed south. The JMC is trying to build good relations throughout Sudan. One man-a Muslim holy man, Sheik Abdurahim Al Buray- has become known to us. He lives in a small town between Khartoum and El Obied called Zariba. We have offered him support in the past and we offer to give him a lift to his home on the Ukrainian MI-8. The flight goes well. The Sheik (whom I would later meet for lunch) is a very spiritual person.

[Thousands of Sudanese conduct pilgrimages to his town to be in his presence and receive his blessing. He is Sunni, but also known as a "sufe" or one that has dedicated his life on earth to preparation for everlasting life after death. I've watched many Sudanese kneel at this man's feet and kiss his hands (although I did none of that...). I received (and my family) his blessing and a small gift of perfume. The image of him and me standing together holding hands is viewed with great respect by other Sudanese back in El Obied when I show it to them.]

But, when the helo gets ready to depart from Zariba, one of the engines goes tango uniform, stranding the crew. A rescue plan of sorts is put into place. Many inquiries are made to the availability of spare engines (there are none in Sudan); inquiries are also made as to the best place to conduct an engine swap. We determine it is El Obied. Now to get the helo there.

Zariba is a town without any paved roads. In fact, driving there from El Obied is two and one half hours over desert following trails which appear and then disappear - sometimes you turn 90 degrees in one direction or the other, hoping to find another trail. The trip costs me three flats, one going there and two on the way back. Thorns. They go through rubber like a hot knife through butter. Fortunately, there are so many flats for so many people that tire repair is quick and painless.

We travel up to Zariba on Sunday, June 2. A Beautiful day. (Listening to U-2 "Beautiful Day" and Chris Rhea "Road to Hell" on tape.) The lead vehicle is my Toyota Pick-up Hi-Lux double cab. Two Sudanese are in it, Mohammed, our guide, and his friend, hitching a ride. I am in the second vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado (a bit smaller than a full size LC) with a crazy Norwegian log guy at the wheel. He just bought the Land Cruiser from someone at the Dutch Embassy (only driven into the bush on Sundays by a little old lady...).

The Sudanese, Mohammed, at the wheel of the lead vehicle really knows how to make that machine move. We are flying along at about 40-60 kph. The Prado has tires which work well in the sand (although it gets a couple of flats as well). Evventually (Norwegian accent slipping in...) we stop to give the vehicles a rest. Mohammed lets some air out of the Hi-Lux (street) tires for more traction. Mostly, all the vehicles we have coming through are equipped with street tires. In the mud, now that the rainy season has started, these tires might as well be bald. Another challenge for the Norwegian log guy!

On the trail again... we begin to do some leaflet distribution. Actually it is the lead vehicle with Mohammed which does it first. Take about half a dozen leaflets... let them go out the window as you drive by. Good idea...oops, maybe not. The natives are so hungry (literally) for what we've got to give... little kids run immediately after the leaflets...here we come in "dash two" (the second vehicle), WATCH OUT, whew, tragedy barely missed. From then on, we (dash two) drop the leaflets. Same reaction everywhere. They want this information badly...they want whatever there is to be given-from whomever-badly.

We arrive, finally. No problem to find the helo. There it is out in the open, about a dozen Sudanese hanging around. (By the time I leave about four hours later on the return trip, there are about 500 Sudanese hanging about.) The Norwegian, Bjarne Giske (Lt.Col, JMC Chief Administrative Officer) and I begin negotiations with the crew.

Giske tells them they must try to use one engine to get to El Obied. Empty the helo of all cargo, empty the fuel to the minimum and then try to fly the 50 or so miles. The pilot/mission commander speaks no English, we speak no Russian. Somehow with pointing and drawing we learn the pilot's view that each engine will only lift 5000 kilos and the bird weighs 7000 kilos empty. Bjarne says they must try because if it stays in the desert, it will take at least a month to repair (I think August is a more reliable estimate). The captain borrows my satellite phone to call Kiev. There is a heated discussion lasting about 5 minutes, then an abrupt termination. Bjarne again tells them they must try. They balk. I say wait, I have an alternative. I go back to the Prado and fish in my bag. I come back to them and hold out my hand. I've got a Bic lighter. I say, no problem, accidental fire, I sign the report, you go home to Kiev, insurance takes care of all. No problem, accidental fire. Boy, the Ukrainian crew's eyes get VERY large. They talk among themselves...they agree to try to fly the bird in the morning.

A working party unloads the bird. These Ukrainians are all older guys, former military I'm sure. The flight engineer still wears some old Russian uniform items. I don't think he has any other clothes. Now its time for lunch. We go into town to eat with Sheik Abdurahim Al Buray in his compound. He has his assistant at the helo location with us all afternoon, an older man who spoke very good English. I learn that everything in this town belongs to the Sheik, that the Sheik is known to all Sudanese and many Muslims throughout the world. Sheik Abdurahim Al Buray is an elderly man. I observe that he seems to have Parkinson's like pope John Paul II.

Sudanese meals are a bit different than how westerners eat. Normally the plates of food are bought out on one tray, and you use your right hand, sometimes with a piece of bread, sometimes directly and take a mouthful of food from the plate to your mouth. No use of knives, forks, or spoons. And, I should mention, the food items are, quite naturally, Sudanese food items, rather than what westerners may be used to. I've learned over the years to try everything presented at least in a small quantity, then concentrate on eating more of what I like rather than what I find disagreeable. Actually, compared to some Sudanese meals I've had, I find the items at the Sheik's lunch very enjoyable. I particularly enjoy one dish; and almost instantly there is another plate just for me, from which he eats as well.

After eating, I take some images with my digital camera. Digital images have become a real currency for me. I take these images, then give them away. Sometimes I give the images to one man and let him distribute them further. That gives him status as well...like after eating with the Sheik, I show him pictures of Laura and the Girls, which elicits a long exchange.

Our goodbyes said, I begin the trip back to El Obied with Mohammed in the Hi-Lux. (Bjarne stays behind for the attempted flight. The pilot knows his aircraft - on the next day's test flight, the bird only lifts the front wheel. Bjarne brings back three of the Ukrainians back with him, two remain with the bird. They will rotate guard duty three days on-four off over the coming weeks while the on-site repair plan is cobbled together.) Our two and one-half hour trip begins with about one hour of daylight left. Mohammed is a wild driver, but safe and he knows how to drive in the sand. Eventually it gets dark and you can't see the trails anymore. I keep my eyes on the stars and occasionally we pull into a village and Mohammed asks directions. We actually get back more quickly than the trip out - don't ask me how. Every moment is an adventure, and I guess, the last mental image I want to leave you with is that of Mohammed driving as we encounter a herd of camels which had gone to sleep for the night. Camels EVERYWHERE. You know the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look, think "camel-in-the-headlights..." In short order we see lots of hooves and camel rumps, and almost hit one, but we make it through without further complication.

I could go on...last night's diner, with two new monitors (one from the government, one from the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army who have been sent up to me for efforts here in El Obied), the Norwegian, three Ukrainians and myself. All trying to introduce ourselves to each other and determine some common way to communicate. Later I learn one of the Ukrainians knows a little Spanish he picked up while in Cuba...so now we can communicate a little better than before. And so it goes in Sudan.

February 5, 2003

Cell Phones and Donkey Carts

Many have asked me what I did in Sudan. I have a ton of stories, every day there was something new. Below is one of my favorite images from my time there. It is of the local (actually there are hundreds of these) Starbucks. What is special about this image in my mind, is that it is symbolic of the differences between the first and third world.

Although the woman is making coffee and tea, over a charcoal fire, sitting on a small hand-made stool on the dirt sidewalk (next to the dirt main street), there is a man in the upper left corner, just above her head, who is making a cell phone call.

Similarly, I've seen many donkey carts, made from the cannibalized transaxle from an old truck or car (typically Bedfords or Landrovers, left over from the British colonial era) and a platform made from pallets from delivered food aid. These donkey carts are typically driven by a man in white robes and a turban--he sits cross-legged on on the platform--in one hand he has the reigns, a rubber whip which he uses to beat his beast of burden (that poor animal) and in the other hand he is talking on a cell phone.

You know, when I told my Sudanese contacts we did not use donkey carts in America, that there were probably no donkeys at all in Virginia Beach, they just could not believe it.

There was a great book by Doris Lessing , "The Marriage between Zones Three, Four and Five," which goes far to explain these circumstances and my experience. The science fiction writers who think the future is all 'new' with shiny this and that and everything is well, futuristic, have got it wrong. Sure there will be places like that, but in the main, the future is a high-low mix of what we've had and what is new, just like in the Starbucks image, or that guy on the donkey cart, or in the brief paragraph below when I am riding on the AN-26.

As the mission progressed, I became a bit more fatigued. Doing the job was one thing, having enough energy left at the end of the day to write missives to everyone was another. What this means of course, is that I failed in getting out some of the better bits. Here are two quick matters which didn't make the final edit:

- I was on an AN-26 headed from El Obied to Khartoum when I realized I had forgotten to call my daughter who was headed to swim camp at the University of Virginia. As I thought about it, I realized they had been on the road long enough to be west of Richmond. I went into the cockpit (we were at 13,000 feet) extended the antenna of the Thuraya satellite/GSM phone, getting it as close to the small window as possible and pressed the speed dial number for my wife's cell phone. In mere seconds the call went through. The call was Crystal Clear: imagine, you are in Sudan flying at 13,000 feet on a 40 year old AN-26 talking on a satellite phone to a cell phone in a car moving west on Interstate 64. . .

- The last week I was there I started attending daily mass at a hospice run by two Sister's of Mother Theresa's Missions of Charity order. The courage, determination and faith displayed by these two women, working in very difficult circumstances, was an inspiration to me. Their service is a testament to their faith, and example of the Spirit working through individual commitment. Moreover it serves in complete contrast to recent problems in the American Catholic Church where some seemingly value position over purpose. Finally, their efforts underscore the difficulty in applying simple explanations to complex situations. In a Muslim country where the theocracy uses faith as a lever to unify the populace, you find people like those Sisters, quietly going about their daily work. The Catholic School in El Obied is similarly run by Sisters. It is the best school in the city, and children of ALL faiths attend. Go figure.

BTW - It was just four years ago (Tuesday, 20 Aug 98) that the Navy launched about a dozen Tomahawks into Khartoum. I went by the Al Shifa Pharmaceutical site, the target of the Tomahawks, I'd be surprised if they were making Chemical weapons there, but then again, who knows?

[Epilogue: I have taken many digital images of my short stay in Sudan and loaded them on a website accessible to everyone:

Sudan Photos

This site has roughly 250 images. While many are of operational interest (airfields and facilities) some are more cultural in nature. For example, I think the images of the Khartoum Cathedral and the El Obied Church are particularly interesting. The parishioners of these magnificent Churches are very active. For me it was a real joy to hear mass, even if in Arabic, of which I understand very little. Another favorite is of the local Starbucks. El Obied has hundreds of these micro-Starbucks at work every day. But no latte--too hard to keep fresh milk!]