The woman sat on a camp stool, her face and shoulders drooped as if shouldering an oppressive weight, the expression on her face fragile and cold, almost bitterly so. She seemed preoccupied, almost as if lost in a daydream, as she chewed on the cap of a ballpoint pen. UN Peacekeepers in dry, dusty uniforms drifted around her like old smoke, as oblivious to her as she was to the quiet, withdrawn sunrise that promised only another day of relentlessly oppressive heat. The troops, a mix of Pakistani and Kenyan men, loaded boxes of medical supplies and furled tents into mud-caked white trucks; in the stillness feverishly shocked refugees looked on from cots around the woman. They seemed resigned to an unseen, patiently waiting fate.
The woman, middle-aged and somewhat tough looking, had a telephone in her hand, an Inmarsat BGAN satellite telephone, and she looked at it with sure dread in her heart, the way one might hold a dead snake. She had been waiting for a call, yet even before the phone rang she knew what the answers to her questions would be. They were stupid questions, she muttered to herself, tiresome because of their relentless futility. But like the sick people surrounding her, she had run out of options -- and now everyone knew, everything was out in the media now. Aid agencies had been expelled from Darfur because Sudan's leader had been charged with War Crimes by the World Court.
But something had changed. The world had run out of options for these people because the vox populi, the "free" press, had lost interest - again. Everyone it seemed, almost everywhere, had constructed complex, interlocking walls of legal terminology to cushion the blow from all the hideous images coming from Darfur, and vacuous infotainment had taken it's place. Incessant blather replaced intelligent discourse -- and the problem simply vanished in the night... the way homeless people hiding in plain sight always manage to. Yet like the homeless, the kids in this tent had nowhere to hide, for there are no walls to keep away this particular kind of night. Jackals circle outside in the shadows, just beyond the cracking veneer of civilization, predators waiting to move in the next time an American idol checks into rehab or drunkenly crashes into another parked car.
But if you had been in the tent you would have seen something odd in the woman's face: taking care of these children had been her life, her calling, and she could not see beyond the will to protect these innocents that had consumed her. You would have seen the crushing bite to the jugular that comes stalking in the night - because she has seen it all before - and you can feel the pain in her eyes. Yet, she methodically pokes away the sandy topsoil on the top of her boot, looks at the reddened dryness that has settled on her shoelaces, then reaches down to the ground and picks-up some of the scorched earth and sifts it through her fingers.
"Sand in an hourglass," she says quietly. You would note she speaks English out of habit, but she is from France. The phone rings while the last of the reddened earth runs from her fingers. She brushes her hands on her thighs and opens the phone: "Yes? Paul? Yes, bad connection!" she says too loudly. All the children stare uneasily at her, then at one another. They have seen her face and they know.
She listens, is too tired to interrupt, or to even plead anymore.
"Ocampo backed us up, didn't he? And the government won't back down?"
She listens, covers her head as if warding off blows.
"Will we at least have an escort?"
She listens, shakes her head as if she can't believe what she's hearing.
"Paul, you can't be serious! That's absurd! You can't believe that... they'll never give us safe conduct! Not now!"
Her head is in her hands now, and she is almost in tears. She wants to ignore the voice on the other end of the line but she can't. She is as trapped as any other patient in her little clinic; she can feel the spreading dread in the anxious faces looking her in the eye, yet she is unaware they simply mirror her own expression.
"Paul! Please! Do you know how many new cases we have here now? More than five last night! More this morning. What? Yes, yes, confirmed meningitis. Multi-resistant TB is presenting now as well in some of the older men, in numbers I've never seen before. Have you been able to get..."
She pauses, listens, then stabs violently at the air with an outstretched finger.
"Paul, no! That will not be enough and you know it." Another pause; her hands are shaking now. "I think a few will stay, regardless, but not enough. Yes, a few of the nurses, the local ones, perhaps. And a few of the nuns that arrived last week have said they will stay. But that's fewer than ten, Paul, for more than ten thousand. And don't forget that's with a strong vector within the children. Okay, I know you understand! There are twenty five hundred kids under age ten, in this camp alone, Paul! A fifty percent mortality rate! Do you hear me!?"
A young man walks into the tent, stops dead in his tracks when he hears the woman talking about these high mortality rates. He fidgets with a camera, an old Leica M, and pretends he isn't listening to the woman while he threads a fresh roll of Kodachrome through the base.
"Goddamn it, Paul. You're asking me to commit murder!" She listens again, but now her face is contorted and red: "Chad! You can't be serious! Those camps are already overcrowded! What about Nyala? Why can't we... You can't be serious! Paul! No!"
But apparently, the young man thinks, Paul is serious. He looks up from his camera, looks at the woman and not knowing what else to do he takes her picture. She ignores the young man as one might a noisome fly; he takes another picture of her, moves slowly away to take pictures of children in the shadows bathed in fevered sweat. He watches the woman as she turns away from him, listens as she lowers her voice a little. He can feel the familiarity in her voice now, like maybe once upon a time she and Paul were more than friends.
He turned and looked at her again. She was one of the French docs, some kind of infectious disease specialist from Paris or Lyon. She looked sixty, maybe older, but willowy in a soft-faced kind of way, and he might have thought her beautiful even so but for the dark circles under her eyes. He looked on while she told Paul she would check-in once the convoy reached Nyala, then she broke the connection and put the phone in a small canvas case by her side.
"I'm supposed to ride with you," the young man tells the woman as he walks up to her.
The woman turns and looks at this new annoyance: "Excuse me?" He finds her accent thick but her English precise.
"Most of the convoy's already pulled out. Someone told me I'm riding with Hasam. You are too."
"What was that all about?"
"Staff at al-Bashir. Someone has spoken to the UN there - I think. We have safe conduct to Nyala. But only for today."
"Peachy." The young man looks around the tent. "You going to stay? Tough-it-out here?"
The woman seemed to hesitate on the plains of a vast indecision, then looked at the young man: "Who are you? I've seen you around, but never..."
"Luke. Luke Pattison." He held out his hand. "New York Times."
"You're with MSF, aren't you?"
"Yes. I've seen you around for a few days. Have you learned much?"
"Oh, hard to say. I flew in with CARE last Wednesday," he said.
"Well, Ma'am. After three years of graduate school, all I can say with certainty is that I'm the bestest, most well-educated do-nothing in all of Sudan!"
The woman tried to smile at the young man's humor. "We all chose our place, don't you think? One way or another?"
"I suppose. Can I help you with anything?"
She looked down at the case by her side, bent over to pick it up. "No. We'd better go now."
The woman stood and walked over to a nurse; they speak for a moment, exchange knowing looks and a brief hug, then Catherine walks with the young man into the softly gathering morning.
The air conditioning in the Toyota SUV belches foggy blasts of drenching mist from time to time, and Catherine DeSaunier wipes droplets from her arm after the latest dousing. Hasam, the driver, rattles on about Chinese technocrats and how it is they, not the Darfuri rebels, who are the real threat to the Sudan. Catherine detests the man. His rodent-like face, she tells herself again, does little to hide his true nature; he is a plant, a spy. His job has been to report on the various agencies present at the camp, and their activities, to his handlers in the government. He always has on new Adidas running shoes and truly vile smelling cologne; his extreme body odor and the cheap cologne are potently nauseating.
The Time's photographer sits behind her in the back of the Land Cruiser, entombed within a huge pile of shifting cardboard boxes. She hears him cock the shutter of his Leica and fire away from time to time but he has otherwise been silent.
"Say, B'wana Luke, you ain't CIA, is you?" she hears Hasam ask, and she can't help moaning.
"What?" she hears the kid say.
"CIA? You CIA, is you now?"
"What you mean, B'wana Luke."
"If I was CIA, Hasam, I wouldn't be riding in the back of this shitty truck!"
"Oh yes, I see. Hah-hah. Yes, I see." Hasam's laughter is polite, unconvinced.
Catherine, however, has never considered the possibility. The kid is too inept to be CIA. She rolls her eyes, looks out the window at the scorched landscape on the other side of the thin glass. "Hasam, how far to the checkpoint?" Though only 40 miles west of the camp in Zalingei they have been on the road for two hours and her bladder aches from the lurching undulations of the drift-strewn road.
"Oh, Doctor-missy, maybe five more miles. Thirty minutes, no more. Many land mines... go slow."
"Hasam," Luke said, "there aren't any goddamn mines on this road and you know it!"
"Oh no, B'wana..."
"It does not matter," Catherine interrupts. "Stop here; I need some privacy."
"Yes, Missy," Hasam leers. She grimaces, hears Luke groan under his breath. The Toyota rolls to a stop on blistering asphalt layered with drifting sand and she gets out, walks to the rear of the Land Cruiser and squats. She finishes while Luke and Hasam walk forward and water the sand.
"Goddamn hot as a pistol out this fine mornin'," Luke says. He watches a marled, dog-like creature trot along a ridge off to the south not fifty meters away; they never take their eyes off one another and a shiver passes down his spine.
"You feel alright?" Catherine asks as she prepares to step back up into the truck.
"Yeah; look at that Jackal. Could you hand me my camera?"
She reached in for it, handed it to him through the open door: "Here," she said distractedly.
"Thanks." He took a couple of pictures of the jackal as it trot along the ridge, wondered if it might be alone, or part of a larger pack.
"B'wana Luke, we go now. Got to hurry, catch up to others at da checkpoint."
"Right." Luke hopped up into the rear seat and settled in among the tumbling boxes; the Land Cruiser lurched off down the sand-covered highway. He felt about in his vest for another roll of film and took out a fresh box and spooled it into the bottom of the Leica; he looked up from time to time, hoped to see the jackal on the ridge again -- but it is gone now -- gone into the rising thermals and whirling dust-devils that roamed the morning desert. Within a few minutes the checkpoint became visible hovering within the shimmering black asphalt ahead.
Troops stood between the road and a little concrete compound off the right side of the road; a village of low mud huts sat baking in the sand far off to the left. Dust from the recently departed convoy was still visible, suspended in the thermals over the road.
Hasam pulled up to the checkpoint and spoke with one of the soldiers; anger boiled in the air, hostility seethed in the soldier's penetrating eyes. Words, hostile, hate-filled words, passed like bullets between the two, then the soldier waved them through - but the man glared at Pattison as they passed; other soldiers filled in behind the Toyota as it drove away and watched Luke through the back glass. One of the soldiers turned to speak into a radio. Pattison thought about taking a photograph of him but changed his mind when he saw the AK-47s the other held at their sides.
"Very angry," Hasam said. "Army very mad now."
"Why do you think that is, Hasam?" Catherine said.
"They say you are spy. All of you. You work for this Ocampo."
She nodded, couldn't think of a thing to say. After working in Africa off and on for almost twenty years she was used to dealing with closed minds and official suspicion, but in Somalia and here, in the Sudan, institutionalized paranoia had reached new extremes over the past few years. And now that oil had been discovered in the Sudan by Chinese geologists, any excuse to rid the government of meddlesome western do-gooders would come only as a welcome relief. That perhaps several million ethnic Africans would have to die to sate China's appetite for oil was a consequence of merest inconvenience to al-Bashir and his thugs. Yet she knew the West had more than its fair share of blood on its hands, too; enough to last a thousand years. Words kept running through her head: 'For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,' or words to that effect. She smiled at the thought, smiled at the grim worth of the words.
China had simply moved in to fill the void left by the West's brutal colonial incompetence; the Chinese were simply the newest jackals circling in the dark. Catherine was sure they'd be just as effective stripping flesh from bone as the Americans had been, and the British before them. Things don't fall apart, she told herself grimly. The strong simply pick apart the weak and eat them -- the way they always have. Soon these African's would have new masters, and the weak would take the same path they always have.
The highway ahead was smoother here and soon they were eastbound on well-finished asphalt. Catherine saw they were making good time now and found she was sleepy. She closed her eyes, saw the cold black eyes of jackals on the prowl -- and she turned away from them until sleep came for her.
She felt her head lurch, glimpsed sleep-born images of burning fevers and smoldering villages darting across her mind's eye and she jerked awake, forced her eyes to focus on the harsh landscape beyond the dust-caked windshield. Hasam was chewing some sort of twig; predictably it smelled awful -- like cloves masticated to ammonia -- and he was listening to pulsating music on an old iPod. But now the convoy was visible; they were still ahead but now by no more than a kilometer or so. She sat up, rubbed her eyes and fought to suppress the overwhelming sense of relief that comes from a belief in strength in numbers. She heard Luke fiddling with his camera in the back seat, wondered how long she had been out...
... when the windshield exploded...
... she screamed reflexively, covered her eyes as shattered glass bounced off her arms, then she tensed when she felt the Toyota veering off the road towards a small drop-off...
... she heard gunfire, very close and apparently very accurate -- because more glass shattered and rained down on her head...
... the Toyota lurched and dove violently into a dry riverbed...
... airbags deployed, the cabin filled with dust and bouncing glass...
... she heard Hasam gurgling, looked over, saw him clutching at his neck...
"Jesus Fucking Christ!" she heard Pattison yell... "what the fuck's going on?!"
... the Land Cruiser had slammed to a stop; Hasam's foot still pressing the accelerator pedal all the way down. The truck was jammed into a small depression, pinned in place by the shattered remnants of an earlier flood, the engine roared with furious impotence, tires continued to spin wildly, throwing up a huge dust cloud...
... bullets like hail on a summer afternoon slammed into the left side of the truck... Hasam's body jumped under the impact and blood boiled out his nose, then frothily out his mouth as he fought to breathe.
"We've got to get the fuck out of here!" Pattison said, and though she heard his door opening she felt locked in place, terrified. Then her door flew open, she felt the midday sun searing her consciousness and felt Pattison pushing frantically on her seat-belt release, then his hands on her arms. She felt herself being pulled from the Toyota just as another volley of machine gun fire slammed into the roof. Apparently they were invisible in all the stirred-up dust...
The back wheels were still off the ground completely, the front of the truck pinned in debris, but now there was a large space under the truck and Luke grabbed the woman and shoved her into the shadows, then he ran around and pulled Hasam's body free and pulled him into the makeshift shelter. Luke gasped for breath; Catherine rubbed sand from her eyes, Hasam bled to death slowly between them.
"Can you get my bag?" she whispered through the sound of close small arms fire.
"My bag, on the floor by my feet..."
Luke scrambled over to her side of the shadow and looked around, stuck his head then his body into the light before darting up between the open passenger doors. He grabbed her canvas bag and disappeared back into the safety of their shadow.
The physician pulled out a penlight and shone it on Hasam's neck; there were two massive wounds visible, one rimmed with frothy blood pulsing from his wrecked carotid artery. She turned the light off and held his hand, wiped his forehead while he stared up at her, blinking occasionally as death came for him. Soon he lay very still. A huge explosion, a mortar round probably, shook the ground.
"We've got to get out of...," Luke began, but bullets slammed into the truck again, then he heard men clambering down into the riverbed from just overhead, coming for them.
"Play dead!" he whispered coarsely as he fell to the ground. He saw Catherine fall to the ground and he held his breath as she melted away.
He felt a gun-barrel roughly prod the side of his head and he let his head flop easily away, then someone climbed up into the truck and turned off the engine. The air filled with the sound the hissing and pooping as the engine began cooling, and Pattison could smell antifreeze and gasoline. He chanced a glance at the physician and saw her curled up in a fetal roll, deep in shadow: perhaps they hadn't seen her and that explained why she wasn't being raped right this very moment.
He heard renewed shouting, more gunfire, listened as one of the men overhead screamed into a radio, and then run down the riverbed toward the gunfire.
"We've got to get out of here, and I mean right now!" he whispered; he saw her nod and she reached for her bag, scrambled through the rock to his side.
"Away from here, first. We passed a ridge a while back. I thought I saw some caves there. Do you have that phone?"
"Alright, let's do it..." Pattison pulled himself back into the light, reached back to help her then peeked over the shattered front end of the Toyota. When she was upright he pointed down the riverbed and pointed at some rocks a few hundred yards away. "Stay low! There! Go!"
She ran low and not very fast; he stood, took some bottled water from the truck and crammed them in his camera bag, took a couple of pictures then reached for some brush and ran along behind her trying to wipe away their footprints from the sand until he caught up with her. She was breathing heavily when he reached her; he threw the brush away and took her by the hand, pulled her along the riverbed until they were completely out of sight.