Even at 5 a.m., when our day began, it was already sweltering in Khartoum. After months of desperate pleading and wrangling over permits and visas with the Sudanese authorities, we were finally leaving the capital on our way to Darfur.
Our flight from the capital into the north of troubled Darfur was with the African Union forces that have been sent to protect the people there and monitor violations to the ceasefire agreement that has slowed the killing, but not ended it. In spite of the unconventional way we checked in for our flight — through the living room of a house near the airport where we weighed our luggage on an ancient scale before throwing it all into the open back of a big flat bed truck that took it to the terminal — the system worked surprisingly well.
But the highlight was without a doubt going through security. I had images in my mind of the thousands of airport security checks I've endured across the Unites States where they demand everything from your jacket to your shoes to your belt and you're left wondering if they're going to ask for your underwear as well. Here there were no X-ray machines or metal detectors or officious, power-hungry security staff ordering you around. Instead all the passengers were called together in the front courtyard of the house, where a man who appeared to be in charge yelled out to the expectant crowd: "Security (pause for effect), That is your problem. OK, let's go".
And that was that.
We piled into several white African Union vehicles and finally, eventually, unbelievably we were on our way — to what? I had no real idea as this was my first visit to Sudan and Darfur existed only in my mind: images of desperately impoverished people who'd been forced out of their homes in the millions, burning villages and ruthless Arab militiamen armed with AK-47 assault rifles, bullets slung across their chests and big turbans on their heads as they stormed past on horseback after plundering village after village.
I knew the fighting in Darfur, which began when local rebels attacked Sudanese government forces and their Arab militia allies three years ago, was not as intense as it had been initially because of a ceasefire in 2004 and a signed peace agreement. However, all sides have consistently violated the ceasefire, and there was now the added complication that the rebels had split. Only one of the most important rebel factions had signed, with clashes breaking out between the two groups that had begun this fight side by side. No one really had any idea if the peace agreement was going to hold, and there had already been demonstrations against it in camps across Darfur where the local people who've fled their homes now live. Many believe it has been forced on them by the African Union, under pressure from foreign governments who are really only interested in Sudan's vast oil reserves. But that I would find out later.