Reporting from a barracks in Southern Sudan in a pair of hot pants and phone sex with the head of the Sudanese rebels

Reporting from a barracks in southern sudan in a pair of hot pants (2)

November 1996

The trip to Sudan to cover the civil war, began, as it continued, with a mishap or two. I had set off from Heathrow airport with a massive quantity of equipment including a Morse code machine. I’d been kitted out with a child’s size flak jacket (in case I got shot) but, of course, being blasé about my survival, I never put it on.

I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt to catch the flight to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and became unfortunately distracted by the perfume in duty free. Missing the announcement for the flight to Khartoum (how on earth can they expect anyone to understand German just because they’re in Germany) I realised, with 5 minutes to spare, that the flight was going to leave. Sprinting through Frankfurt airport with the contents of an electronics shop was not an easy feat. Particularly as the airline staff from Lufthansa kept shouting at me. Time had never been my strong point and I thought they were being unreasonable in insisting that a 10am flight should leave at 9.53. Of course just when you’re in a hurry, a massive fuck up arrives, and before I could get on the plane, the German security officials decided my satellite phone was a bomb. “It’s not a bomb!” I said, “I work for the BBC. Look at all this equipment. If I was a terrorist, I’d keep it more low key.” After showing my staff card I was eventually allowed on the plane. But with the memory of the shouting still fresh, I swore I would never travel on an airline as punctual as Lufthansa again.

The suspicion about my equipment continued when I arrived in Sudan but, eventually, I got through and settled into my hotel. Not speaking any Arabic apart from: “English… you… speak… yes?” would be a slight problem I knew. I therefore hired a translator to make sense of the newspapers for me. I was very prolific filing for the BBC, sending reports on everything from movements in the war to who’d won first prize at the Khartoum zebra show.

Sudan was supposed to be one of the strictest Islamic states in the world, with stoning still a punishment for adultery, and I had to be covered up with long sleeves and trousers everywhere I went. But it wasn’t nearly as controlled as Saudi Arabia or Iran and you didn’t have to cover your hair. In fact there were a lot of women in government jobs in Sudan, mixing freely in the offices with men, although I’m sure they all toed the line and did all cover their hair. I was amused to see the official “toilets” in Sudanese government buildings were in fact a hole in the earth. And in common with the offices, the holes were unisex.

Everyone in the government departments in Khartoum kept asking me if I was Lebanese. I do look vaguely Arab, Mediterranean, Brazilian, Cuban generally “exotic” because of my Jamaican heritage. When I later phoned all the government departments from London, they kept saying to me, “Oh yes, you’re that Lebanese girl.” I kept trying to say I had nothing to do with Lebanon, but eventually gave up and said, “Yes I’m from Beirut.” I met the BBC’s freelance reporter in Sudan, a giant man called Joseph. He told me he had been very thin when living in the South of Sudan but had got fat in Khartoum. Thinness was a problem in Southern Sudan; there had been a famine going on there for years. But there was no shortage of food in Khartoum, quite a few people looked like they’d been kicked out of Weight Watchers. I finished doing all my interviews in Khartoum, including a feature on a failed attempt by Jack Daniels to set up a mega store there, and then had to get on with the real part of trip, covering the war in Southern Sudan.

The latest outbreak of the civil war in Sudan had been triggered by the Islamic government in Khartoum cancelling an autonomy agreement for the south and saying it was imposing sharia law on the south. In the north of Sudan the inhabitants were mainly Muslim and had a lot of Arab blood. In the south they were black Africans, practising traditional African religions or Christianity. 2.5 million people were killed in the civil war in Sudan, and four million lost their homes. It was to become Africa’s longest running civil war. I was covering a story about how the government was using food as a weapon of war against the people in the south, ie starving them out. And on the divisions between the southern rebel movements who had more splinter groups than a carpentry shop. Many of the rebel groups wanted independence for the south. But the government didn’t want to give it as most of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south. You couldn’t fly from North to South Sudan because of the war. You had to go from Khartoum to Kenya and from there to Southern Sudan. All the NGOs and media organisations had their offices in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which was a cool, pleasant, town full of foreigners. I say pleasant, apart from the minor inconvenience that the foreigners had to have armed guards on their homes.

I was on a quest to track down the elusive leader of the main rebel group in Southern Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA. The SPLA had an office in Nairobi, (well it was more of a shed), which I went to to make contact. They said I could interview their leader, John Garang, if I took a flight to the south of Sudan then crossed over the border into northern Uganda. This was suicidally dangerous, the border was heavily mined and the north of Uganda was controlled by a loopy rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, “Christian” fundamentalists, who thought that if they rubbed themselves with special ointments they couldn’t get shot. They would have got on well with my uncle I thought. Nonetheless I was so desperate to meet John Garang I agreed to go to Northern Uganda, and was about to jump on the flight. As I’d only just emerged from 13 years of clinical depression, in which I’d wanted to kill myself, I had little regard for my life and no sense of danger at all. Of course I didn’t tell the BBC of my plan, knowing they would ban the trip. Luckily the flight was cancelled, or I would probably have been killed or ended up as a sex slave to a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army with 25 kids.

Instead I took a UN plane distributing corn into Southern Sudan. Flying low overhead, I could see it was barely like a country at all. Flat and marshy without any roads, towns or electricity it looked like something out of the Stone Age. I arrived at a barracks on the border with Ethiopia that was being held by the SSIM, the South Sudan Independence Movement, a rebel group that had split off from the SPLA and was allied with the government in Khartoum. Several factions had split off from the SPLA, often along ethnic lines, but the new groups were like a virus, splitting off and multiplying again. Thus there was the SPLA, the South Sudan Liberation Movement, the SSIM, the South Sudan Layabouts’ Organisation and the South Sudan Cattle Rustlers’ Group. As a result of the infighting between these groups, more southerners died at each other’s hands than were killed by northerners during the war.

In the barracks on the Ethiopian border I was sleeping in a deluxe mud hut. I say deluxe as there were no holes in the roof. You did have to dodge the multiple snakes when you went to the loo at night. It was only after a day of being at the barracks that I realised a calamity had befallen me: I had left half of my equipment on the UN plane which had gone back to Nairobi. How could you not notice that you had left the equipment behind, you say. You try travelling with the contents of the average Curry’s and see if you don’t get confused. I’m sure this experience and the terrible loss of my tape recorder in Buenos Aires has contributed to the OCD that means I now check behind me forensically wherever I go. I phoned the UN in a panic. They said there was no way the equipment would still be in Nairobi airport, as it was a den of thieves. But this time I was lucky (or protected) and the stuff was all still there. Keen for my story about the government starving the south to come out, the UN sent a plane to ferry my missing equipment into Southern Sudan. Luckily, in those days, I wasn’t worrying about my carbon footprint.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a barracks, I was heavily outnumbered by thousands of male soldiers, with only one female aid worker for company. Despite the heavy male presence, I decided that, as it was hot, I would throw off my clothes and put on a pair of tiny shorts. It was boiling, I reasoned, bored by covering up in Khartoum, surely it was the time to dress as if I was on a beach. I’m not quite sure what kind of beach is populated by two thousand men with guns, possibly Sicily when the mafia are there on holiday.

Every morning the rebel soldiers would get up at 5am and parade around with their weapons singing acapella. They had wonderful voices, the soldiers, and could have formed a choir. That was the only thing – X Factor voices – that the rebel groups had in common. Although the barracks was stone age, the weaponry was high tech, machine guns and what looked like rocket launchers or anti-aircraft guns. Despite all the heavy weaponry, I loved it in Southern Sudan and decided that when I got married, I would go there for my honeymoon. Of course the mud huts in Sudan were not quite like the mud huts on safari in South Africa. There were no six course meals, no fine wine, in fact, no wildlife at all as it had all been eaten by the starving inhabitants.

I’m not sure what gigantic gene is present in Southern Sudan, but all the men were almost seven foot and the women over six feet. At five foot two they thought I was a child. “Why have your parents let you leave school and come here?” they kept saying to me. “Have you done your O levels yet?” I kept saying I was an adult but they just smiled and patted me on the head.

One night I set out across the bush with some SSIM soldiers, I didn’t know where we were going. I heard a tribal drumming that sounds suspiciously like human sacrifice. When we got to a tiny mud hut, with a collapsing grass roof, there were a load of children banging drums and singing tunelessly. “What are they doing?” I said. “This is the Church of the Holy Redeemer, Aloysius 25th, they’re singing Christmas Carols.” said the SSIM. I looked around the mud hut and did spot a tiny cross. And the place was in keeping with the original Christian spirit, derelict enough for the virgin birth. A minority of the southern Sudanese were Christian, though probably in a similar way as the Santeria Cubans were Christian, most had traditional animist beliefs.

After my trip to the SSIM, who were courting publicity and on their best behaviour, which was probably why I didn’t get raped, I went on to a barracks controlled by the SPLA. There it was completely different, no friendly soldiers at all. I was sleeping in a tent and accused of being a spy. It shows how little regard I had for my life that being stuck in the bush in Sudan with a paranoid rebel group did not worry me at all. I realised later that they were edgy as they were about to launch a major military offensive.

Despite my cool reception, I became obsessed with John Garang, the head of the SPLA, thinking that I could meet him and live happily ever after in a hut in South Sudan. The fact that I had never even seen his photograph, (he doesn’t, as I imagined, look at all like Will Smith), didn’t dent my enthusiasm at all. I was destined, I thought, to be a guerrilla bride. But my efforts to contact him were fruitless, I couldn’t get hold of him at all.

I headed back to Nairobi, my Afro hair turned into a massive bush. They didn’t have any hairdryers where I was staying in Southern Sudan. I was due to come back to the UK on Christmas Day and go straight in to work. After a long, hard, trip I had a piece of good news. Reuters wanted me to carry some footage back to the UK and were prepared to pay for me to have an upgrade to first class. I arrived at the first class check-in wild and dishevelled, very like my uncle after a bad day. “I think you must be in the wrong queue madam,” the officials said. I was surprised they didn’t ask if I was cleaning the plane. “No,” I said, waving my first class ticket, “I’m in the right line.” They checked the ticket and almost fell over in disbelief.

When I got back to my flat, Tarquin had decked the place out with Christmas decorations and dozens of helium balloons. He was so proud of me, he said, when he’d heard me on the radio he’d pulled over the car and cried. He took me to the Connaught for our Christmas lunch which was lovely (although I was surprised that they let me in with my hair looking like I’d survived a dangerous encounter with an electricity pylon.)

Shortly after I came home, my dream came true. John Garang phoned me at home from the Sudanese bush on his satellite phone. I couldn’t believe I was actually speaking to him. Although the conversation was strictly business, this was obviously code for saying he wanted me. It was the best phone sex I had ever had. I say that as I had, obviously, never had phone sex. And the fantasy about living happily ever after with him went into the stratosphere. We would have a giant mud hut, with an en-suite mud loo, a couple of kids, and drive around in a tank.

Of course I didn’t tell Tarquin about my feelings for John Garang. But all was not bright on the horizon for Tarquin and me. And what happened next would precipitate a rapid deterioration in my life.

Next Saturday: breaking up with Mr Right, hooking up with Mr Wrong and getting down with the Mime Minister, Tony Funfair, at BBC News 24.