By Hisham Abass
Translated by: Ahmed Elzobier
June 3, 2012 —
Fatasha training camp
Fatasha is one of the Sudan army training camps located in Omdurman, 15 kms or more west of the capital, Khartoum. There are a number of wards that have been built and then neglected. It’s very clear that they were built to receive small numbers of conscripts, but our number was greater than the capacity of the place. Of course, many of you know the harsh, wild nature of the place and there’s no need to explain further. We arrived there just before sunset and were in desperate need of a rest after the horrible trip – some of us needed to see a doctor. We fell on the ground from fatigue and some went into a deep sleep. But after only a few minutes had passed, while the trucks offload its cargo, a group of soldiers came to us shouting and ordered us to form a queue. We saw other soldiers carrying large sacks to the middle of the arena, our imagination went wild. Some of us who were very hungry thought it was food, those who were thirsty thought it was iced water, but my dream was bigger – I thought of Pepsi-Cola. My God! I wanted to taste the Pepsi-Cola that I’d heard about from friends who had visited Khartoum. They had told us about its nice smell and sparkling liquid. Since my early childhood I had loved sparkling drinks and I started to move my tongue on top of my dry and cracked lips in anticipation of the Pepsi-Cola.
We stood in rows. They screamed at us, calling the group to attention. Then the soldier who was yelling hit the ground with his right foot, saluted and shouted, “Sir!”. The Sir appeared, tall, charismatic and handsome, his shoulders full of stars. Only later on did I realise that these stars indicated the rank of brigadier. The officer, curiously, had a feminine appearance, also his soft skin color showing that he had a very comfortable and luxurious life. Prior to this encounter I had never imagined that a high-ranking officer of the army could be that feminine and soft. The brigadier ordered his soldiers to distribute what was inside the sacks. I eagerly waited for my turn while a soldier handed me an empty paper cup, the type of paper cup used at social events. At that moment I nearly collapsed, I felt so tired as I woke up from dreams of Pepsi-Cola.
The brigadier pointed to a huge cement basin to the south side, directly ahead of us, and ordered us to go there. We went and found inside the basin some filthy water covered with dust, sand, leaves and dirt. This water could have been there for more than a month and he wanted us to drink from it. We looked at each other, dismayed, and then we rebelled.
Revolution and doubts
We started whispering in protest against such treatment, and then slowly our voices turned into yelling and anger. We attacked the soldiers first and used everything that our hands could reach until they fled. Then we went to the officer’s quarters, but the brigadier fled away in his vehicle. Now we completely controlled the camp. But the problem was, we did not know where we were!
Some of us trusted in the living God and left the place, some had collapsed from fatigue, some were crying hysterically, afraid of the consequences of our act. However, in the middle of the night a number of high-ranking officers came to the camp accompanied by huge trucks. We were determined to confront them even if it meant our death. But these officers pretended to be kind, they apologized for the bad treatment we had received and promised to take us to Khartoum immediately, to a better and nicer place.
We believed them, as we noticed that the means of transport was at least better than those earlier trucks. We moved after one hour and when I saw the lights gleaming from Khartoum I was fascinated. My heart started beating. Finally I saw Khartoum. We arrived at an area northeast of Omdurman, called the Khalid bin Walid camp. A vast, deserted area, but with better wards and facilities. Here we found that there were some recruits from Khartoum and Madani.
We stayed there for a week, slept, woke up and slept again, unless the pattern was interrupted by an officer suffering from insomnia and wanting to relieve his boredom.
One time the sirens sounded in the middle of the night. We were ordered to form rows, then ordered to sit down, but we didn’t know why! Then, more than ten buses arrived packed with people of our age or older who started chanting and yelling, "God is great, God is great”. Then they stood before us and performed a military parade. Someone asked them one by one about their dreams and each one of them said, martyrdom. Seeing this, I started to remember the battle of Badr (the first Muslim v Quraish War). They chanted, “We are Al Dababein” (those who attack tanks) – I will tell you more about this weird group – then they insulted all the political parties with the South receiving the most horrible insults. We went back to our wards around 2 a.m. and we started to wonder about this bizarre display. We arrived at the conclusion that they were sending us to our death in South Sudan.
I sat down with some of my friends and planned how to escape. We were a group of young men (seven or more) from Kerma; those I remember are: Abu Haurira, my friend of 16 years, Yahya Abdel Hamied, Mohamed Al Hadi, Mohamed Hassan, Dya Al Dein Abdel Wahab and Smai Naser. We met and decided to escape around the time of early morning prayer. Our plan depended on Sami and Dya because they knew Khartoum very well. They said that we could go to the nearby Arab village where we could hide till we found a way to enter Khartoum. We agreed on that plan and when the zero hour arrived we sneaked out while other people were going for prayer. But we had gone only a few meters away from the camp when we discovered that our friend Abu Haurira was missing. I told them I would go back to find my friend, but my colleagues refused to let me go alone and they insisted on joining me to search for Abu Haurira.
We first searched for Abu Haurira in our ward, but he wasn’t there. He was so fascinated by the boys from Khartoum and their manner of speech that he had gone to their ward, started listening to their stories and slept there – that’s how our plan failed. We reprimanded him and planned again to leave that night. But when the night came, there was strict security around the camp and a large number of buses arrived. A siren sounded around 3 a.m., it was the morning of 24 July 1997. The asked us to form a column and we entered the buses; we wondered where we were going. They told us, to a firearms shooting exercise, but little did we know that it was our first step towards hell in South Sudan.
Leaving for South Sudan
They ordered us to board the buses and our bus moved away, guarded by heavily armed soldiers. I said to my friends that we should stay together if possible, we were lucky to be on board the same bus. We passed through the empty streets of the capital, and its sleeping populations seemed oblivious to our fate. The quietness of the night was only disturbed by dogs barking, as if they realized our destiny and gave us a farewell greeting in their own way, as we had been deprived of saying goodbye to our families. When we approached the airport our bus suddenly stopped, to avoid a collision with the bus in front. One student jumped out of the window while the bus was traveling at high speed and, so far, I have no idea whether that wretched soul survived or died.
Our bus stopped inside the airport terminal, near the steps of a plane which was surrounded by army officers of various ranks. We realized then that we had no choice but to board the plane. During this time we saw some soldiers pushing and shoving one student who was crying hysterically. They handed him over to an officer, a brigadier, at the entrance to the plane, but due to his extreme fear the student pushed the brigadier and fell to the ground with him from a considerable height. Both were in pain and in need of medical attention.
We took our first steps inside the aircraft; I was surprised, because the plane was a shabby old beast. Certainly, for someone like me, flying should have been a happy occasion because up till that day all my knowledge of aircraft was what I had heard from other people. Indeed, boarding a plane was just a dream, a dream of a simple young man who had not left his village and had not seen any big city other than Dongola – if you classified that as city. Until that day, my best traveling experience was in the passenger seat of a car next to a driver. But once I was inside that plane all the nightmares descended on me, for the first time in my life I could see and feel death around me. From what I knew of planes, they have seats, even if the seats were not comfortable; but that plane did not have any seats, it was empty. I am confident that even the pilot himself had no seat. The floor of the plane was dirty and the plane looked even worse than our neighbor Haj Ahmed’s old battered truck. I’m sure he would consider it an insult if he was asked to exchange his truck for this plane.
They loaded the plane as full as they could, so we sat on the floor on top of each other. The feeling of terror and fear was overwhelming, with involuntary urination and passing wind with unpleasant odor all over the place. These poor students deserve entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for the amount of wind they produced that day! I was lucky as I sat on top of another student near the window, but it made me panic when an officer sitting opposite me told me stay away from the windows because they were loose. What a nightmare!
If you looked into the face of my friend Ahmed Ali, also from Kerma, you would think he had died two months ago, from the signs of fear. He tried to reassure himself by talking to me, actually shouting from afar, “They are not taking us to the south, it’s just a matter of training.” I told him pray for God, keep silent, and leave me alone.
The flight took almost two hours, then without prior notice we landed at an airport. We stood and moved towards the door which was now open. I stood by the door of the plane and saw a huge sign that read “Juba Airport”, but what made my fear temporarily disappear was the scenery that I could to see. The drizzling rain was falling gently from the sky onto Juba, as if it was washing away the evil deeds of human beings. It was early morning; the clouds brushed the highest peaks of the mountains around the city, green grasslands and lofty mountains extended as far as the eye could see. The weather was beautiful and refreshing, the opposite to what we had heard about the harsh tropical climate.
To be continued,
Ahmed Elzobier is a Sudan Tribune journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com