This is the second installment of My Private Sudan from writer and helicopter pilot Allan Cram, in which his recollections of Sudan differ dramatically from reports in many Western newspapers. To read Part I, click here.
Shortly after the Western media ran with the story on scorched earth policy and bombing of villagers, the Globe and Mail sent a reporter to Sudan to set the record straight on the plight of the Sudanese people working near Talisman’s oil fields.
On December 9, 1999, a female reporter filed a story from Mayan Aboun, southern Sudan, and said: “In the last four days, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has launched an offensive in the area around the oil fields where Calgary’s Talisman Energy Inc. has invested $735 million, and the SPLA may have captured key rail lines into the area.”
This reporter also described the rag-tag soldiers wearing plastic flip-flop sandals and carrying AK-47s who had killed 20 government soldiers and captured a dozen more.
We were astounded – normally we were informed of any activity in the oil fields by the Talisman Security department. So we consulted the maps to locate Mayan Aboun and could not find it anywhere. We asked the local workers if they had heard of it and they shook their heads.
The story suggested that the Nuer and Dinka people were “driven from the land where the oil is being drilled” and described “a sense of anticipation that this will be the year when the SPLA will bring Khartoum to its knees.”
The more we read, the more we understood that this reporter appeared to have another agenda. We joked that she was probably out there somewhere wading through chest-deep swamps holding her typewriter above her head, like some Hollywood war movie.
This brought many chuckles to the local Sudanese – both Nuer and Dinka –working at the Heglig camp. No one they knew would willingly walk through the swamp. “Too many crocodiles,” they said. “We use canoes.”
Of course, had the reporter come to Heglig and flown around the area before filing her story, she might have learned that there were no key rail lines within 100 km of the oil fields. And the SPLA were more than 100 km away from the oilfields. And no one from Talisman had heard of any “offensive” against their people or property.
This is the same SPLA described in a 1998 U.S. State Department Human Rights report, which stated: “The SPLA was responsible for extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, forced conscription, slavery and occasional arrests of foreign relief workers without charge.”
The Economist summed up the image of the SPLA when it stated that, “The SPLA has been little more than an armed gang of Dinkas, killing, looting and raping. Its indifference, almost animosity, towards the people it was supposed to be liberating was too clear.”
And this journalist apparently trusted the word of these rebels over Canadian oil workers?
Something about the news coverage from Canada and the US just didn’t make sense. I can accept the fact that reporters misquote, or take quotes out of context, all for the sake of the story they want to write. But this was different. No one saw this reporter in Heglig. We could find no evidence that she ever flew or drove around the oil fields. Or talked with any of the workers on site.
Instead, she and other media quoted disgruntled workers in Canada who had been let go by the drilling company due to the Sudanese training program — a program designed to help the Sudanese become self-sufficient and take over drilling operations and the management of the pipeline. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Teach a man how to fish?
Based on the sheer number of inaccuracies by this “on site” reporter, one could easily imagine the stories being filed from some hotel in Nairobi rather than from the fetid Sudd.
Everyone I worked with felt powerless to do anything about it. When the President of Talisman made statements to the press, the media dismissed him as being naïve. The president of a successful international oil corporation — who actually did set foot on the oil fields of Heglig – portrayed as naïve? Go figure.
Of course this wasn’t the first time I had witnessed skewed news reports. When President Clinton ordered the bombing of the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory outside Khartoum, Sudan, in August 1998, the television images of frenzied mobs ripping up American flags and throwing rocks seemed a contradiction to what I knew of the Sudanese people.
When we arrived in Khartoum, our agent, Salah, said that maybe 10,000 people had protested outside the American Embassy. He shrugged it off, unconcerned – an insignificant number in a city of nine million. What the TV editors wanted us to see at home, however, was an entire city in chaos, anger seething, and placing all foreigners in danger. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Outside the Khartoum Hilton, the bellhops greeted us like old friends. American TV news teams wandered about the lobby arranging taxis and meetings for the day. Hours later as they returned, one reporter exclaimed to me: “The people are so friendly. They filled plastic vials with the ‘contaminated’ soil at the El Shifa factory and handed them to us. ‘Go analyze it yourself,’ they said. ‘There are no chemical weapons here.’”
Welcome to my private Sudan, I wanted to say. Come with me to the Sudan I know, to the Sudan my family knows through my photos and stories. Come and visit the work barge moored to the papyrus reeds; listen to the chorus of frogs and crickets erupting from the dark and fetid swamp; see the fireflies swirling like sparks at night; hear the rumble of thunder and watch the spectacle of lightning set against the endless African sky.
Come see the elusive herd of elephants and water buffalo; the still, silent crocodiles laying in wait in shallow pools; the sleek shape of a lion in pursuit of an unwary antelope. Marvel at the huge clumps of papyrus drifting downstream, a makeshift shelter harbouring a family squatting before a smoldering cookfire, fishing nets dragging through the tea-coloured water — a journey that could last days or weeks.
This was the Sudan I knew: the hardworking Sudanese labourers who asked me to bring from Canada shirts and shoes, watches, radios and cameras, and spent hours looking at themselves, brushing their teeth in the convex mirrors attached to the helicopters. The colourful markets, the women with huge baskets balanced upon their heads, the children playing with a stick and an old rubber tire, the elders sitting around drinking tea and coffee — always gracious and hospitable.
In January 2000, my job took me away from Sudan to Yemen, Equatorial Guinea, Bosnia, East Timor and other places around the globe. The smear campaign against Talisman increased, the media now calling the company’s stock “slave stock” and eventually the debacle went political. In the spring of 2003, Talisman Energy sold their interest in the oilfields of Sudan to an Indian oil company.
And nothing changed for the Sudanese people. The civil war continued. People were still killed, maimed, and displaced. The nomads still ignited the grass each November and led their herds of cattle south through the oil fields to the plentiful food.
This strange agenda to force Canadians out of Sudan accomplished only one thing — to ensure that Western compassion and respect for human rights was no longer there. And I have worried for the last decade that the Nuer villagers no longer receive medicine and school supplies, food, water wells — and respect.
I worry about the innocent and gracious people from my private Sudan.
“_MG_435” sidelife @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“_MG_4827” sidelife @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“South Sudan Landscape” sidelife @ flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Elephants in Sudan” International Conservation Caucus (ICCF)