Sixteen Months in Darfur-Part 2

by Jonathan Drake

Editor's note: Imagine being taken abruptly from the comforts of your accustomed lifestyle and dropped into a totally alien environment. Jonathan Drake tells us what it was like for him.

In part one, I introduced you as best I could to the foreign world I encountered when I traveled to Sudan. My experiences growing up had not prepared me for the mental, physical, and emotional challenge that it was going to be. Before I left, I was counseled by a friend, who also worked for Samaritan's Purse in Sudan, not to bother creating expectations because whatever I came up with wouldn't be met by reality. It was good advice, and I entered the experience with a clean slate, as it were.

In my work with the food distribution program in Darfur, I spent the majority of my first eight months out in the field, coming back to our base town of Nyala only on weekends, which in the Sudanese Muslim culture was on Friday. Living and working in the field had its major advantages, such as being completely immersed in the language and the culture, thus being able to learn the nuances much faster-provided, of course, you cared to learn.

Sleeping under the stars every night was also quite amazing. Out in the desolate and unpolluted desert of sub-Saharan Africa, the stars are unimpeded by any artificial light, making them sparkle and shine like I have never seen before or since. Each night I was privy to a spectacular show of shooting stars, some igniting at one horizon and burning brilliantly to the other. Once all of the animals in the surrounding village quieted down for the night there was a deafening silence that enveloped you, and the heavens became a sounding board for deep thoughts. There is a lot of time to think when you are trying to fall asleep under such a canopy, especially when sleep comes reluctantly due to the intensity of the heat, which waned but did not disappear at night.

Time to muse was both welcome and unwelcome: Welcome in that the full-throttle nature of our work did not allow much time to digest what we were doing, thus moments where we could think things through and put the pieces of the puzzle together allowed us to try and make sense of the madness. Unwelcome in that when we paused to think, the magnitude of what we were living in the middle of overwhelmed us, and the doors of emotion shattered under the weight of pressing awareness.

Generally, the work was fast-paced enough that the brutality of every day life around us could go unnoticed by our hearts-a disconcerting thought, but a necessity when a person could fall to pieces were he to dwell fully and fairly on the evil and suffering. The importance of being able to continue to work outweighed the luxury of feeling appropriately about the surrounding circumstances. Having been removed from Sudan for several months now, I allow myself to think and feel but I wouldn't have dared while I was there. We were not robots; we just learned to gauge our reactions. It was stored until such a time when we would be able to properly deal with our emotions.

Much of the time I would think of the things that I had seen. I took many thousands of digital pictures, and in spending many hours trying to organize them I was able to rehash much of my experience and begin to develop opinions from them. When I first arrived in Darfur, I was nave, and several events that occurred during my tenure, the first only a month after my arrival, dramatically shook off my youth and made me realize what it was that I was getting into.

Death of a Town

We used a town called Marla as a field base as it was central to many of our locations. It was a rebel stronghold and was home' to roughly 13,000 people, the majority of whom were IDPs (internally displaced people). On December 8, 2004, I was driving the lead truck in our two-truck food distribution convoy, on our way to finish a distribution in a camp near Marla. The road took us through that town and we had plans to stay at our compound that evening. At midday we approached the town, but less than two kilometers from Marla we encountered a halted convoy of troop transport vehicles stuffed to the brim with young and terrified looking soldiers. Due to the rebel control of the area we assumed they were Sudanese Liberation Army soldiers, but on closer inspection we discovered that they were actually Government of Sudan troops. Halfway up the convoy, which held roughly 500 soldiers, we stopped and my translators and I hopped out to find out what the situation was.

Before we found someone to talk to, and after walking about a hundred yards from my truck, small arms fire erupted from the town, spreading rapidly in a half circle to our right. Immediately the wide-eyed soldiers began piling out of the trucks, loading their weapons and returning fire, running right by me. I stood shocked for a second, then, realizing what was going on, turned and booted it for my truck. No olympian can hold a candle to my hundred-yard dash back to the truck. Spraying sand like a madman I spun that truck around and quickly put the fight behind me.

Marla was burned to the ground. All of the residents were driven off, the wells were poisoned, possessions looted. The host population suddenly found themselves in the same boat as the IDPs, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In mere moments, thousands had become destitute.

Attack helicopters strafed the village, and flew ominously around the area for days to dissuade hopefuls from returning.

I had never seen anything like this before.

My colleague, Dickson Hendley, was returning from a trip to the field when he was ambushed by the Janjaweed who opened fire on his trucks. Windows were shot out, and bullets barely missed Dickson and his staff.

A week before I returned from Darfur I lay awake in my bed around one in the morning, unable to sleep because of the heat, when suddenly a fierce firefight broke out just outside my window. Factions of a rebel movement had gotten into a drunken brawl' with Government soldiers, and the machine gun fire alerted all in the area to their disagreement.

World Overrun by Evil

These things, coupled with the constant display of suffering, challenged me to consider the things I believed about the world. I determined that I was not taught the reality about this world, at least in a way that made the reality real. The reality is that the world is overrun by evil people. As an American youth I knew that evil existed, but I had never encountered it. I had never seen it in the eyes of a man as I did when I encountered a Janjaweed scout. I realized that God has every right to smear us all for even allowing such men to persist, and that His mercy is far greater than we understand.

I realized that my understanding of the gospel, as an American Christian, was limited, and that it was too nave, too formulaic, and too "box-like."

I realized that I did not have everything figured out, and that it is okay to say, "I don't know."

I realized that whatever "Christianity" is, it must be practicable in such a screwed-up place as Darfur, and not just in those air-conditioned and cozy churches, devoid of any conflict greater than budget squabbles, that are strewn across the States.

I realized that in this world there is no room for lukewarm, and it took such a drastically real place as Darfur to teach me that reality and honesty about life, and all that it encompasses (especially faith), is paramount. I was able to compare my life to the stark and contrasting background of war and determine what was important.

In my last piece, I'll show you how these things translated into actual life, and how through that translation, the love of Creator God, the Word of Life, was able to penetrate the hearts of the men around us.

Jonathan Drake served with Samaritan's Purse in Darfur from November, 2004 to January, 2006,
and again from August to October, 2006. After returning to the U.S. in October,he was
unable to obtain a travel permit to return to the project in Sudan because
tensions have risen as the situation there continues to worsen.

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