nichollsretirementproject

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

… And A Happy New Year!

..to all those people who have faithfully followed my blog over the past twelve months, to all those who have posted comments or sent emails or who have just logged on and shown an interest in what has been going on in our little world in Rumbek.  

It has been great fun writing bits and bobs for inclusion in the blog, trying to think what might be interesting for anyone following, trying to decide what I could include and what might be best left out if I didn’t want a visit from the security forces!  Occasionally there was a moment of panic when Sunday was approaching and nothing momentous had happened that was worthy of inclusion.  Those were the moments when ‘ Nomination for Fine Face of the Year’ and ‘T-Shirt of the Week’ were very useful as fillers.  I had even built up a few sets of pictures in reserve, for use when absolutely nothing more interesting was happening or when inspiration was at a low ebb. Such are the tricks of the blogging trade.

If you have never written a blog, I can thoroughly recommend it, but, be warned, one of the dangers of starting along this road is Stat Addiction.  I have to admit I am a total addict.  Wordpress, who are the hosts of my blog, plot everything that happens, like some benign Edward Snowden in cyberspace. They report back to me every day how many people have ‘viewed’ the blog and from which country those viewers come.  This means that I could sit up late at night in Rumbek and wonder why my two viewers from the United States hadn’t logged on for a week or scratch my head trying to work out who I know in Mongolia.

Worse than that, the ‘stats monkeys’ at WordPress count the number of views per day, per week and per month, and give them back to me in the form of graphs.  So now I can bite my fingernails wondering whether this month’s total will manage to beat last month’s or will get anywhere near my highest total of 333 visitors and 1,368 views in April 2013.  Or worse still, will it be another month like last September when I got only 399 views?  My fault, I suppose, for going on holiday and not posting anything.  

At the time of writing I can tell you that during December there have been 997 views, so the chances of my breaking the 1000 views barrier are looking pretty good.  How totally nerdy is that?  I had considered phoning our daughter and asking her to log on three times just to get me over the 1000 mark.  But I can’t help it,  Don’t judge me.  I am more to be pitied than reviled.  It’s a Stat Addiction.  Surely there is a group I can join to help me work my way through it.

Anyway, it has been a pleasure writing this blog over the last year and I would like to thank all of you who have responded in your various ways.  Your comments were always encouraging and frequently hilarious.  So, as they say in the newspapers at this time of year, “A Happy New Year to All Our Readers”, even the one in Mongolia, whoever you are.

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What a Year!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys helpfully prepared a 2013 Annual Report for my blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,900 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Feeling Limbotic.

What’s the adjective from ‘limbo’?

I fancy it might be ‘limbotic’, and if it isn’t, it should be.

Well, we are certainly feeling a bit ‘limbotic’ at the moment.  Having been evacuated from South Sudan just a couple of days before Christmas, we were treated to such festive delights as having a cup of coffee in a small café in Brighton, while an insistent American crooner informed us repeatedly just how much fun it apparently is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.  As the rain lashed against the café windows and desperate shoppers scurried to complete the annual shop-fest, we found his narrative less than convincing.

The other problem about arriving home in the middle of the festivities is that the VSO office is operating with a skeleton staff and no decisions about our immediate future are likely to be made until everyone is back after New Year.

In the meantime we scour the TV channels for news.  It pains me to say it, but Aljazeera is, by far and away, the best news organisation for news from around the world.  Its nearest rival, BBC World News, comes a poor second in terms of the breadth of coverage and analysis.

I have always been a big fan of the BBC, and when Algazeera started up, I was highly suspicious of it.  Broadcasting from Doha, I was not alone in thinking that it was some subversive off-shoot of Al Qaeda, but not a bit of it.  They seem to have a wider network of correspondents than the BBC and will often show footage that the BBC will censor for fear of upsetting its viewers.  This sometimes means that the message they are purveying is a sanitised one that steers away from what is actually happening.

So, what is Algezeera telling me.  Well, Bentiu, the capital of the main oil-producing state, Unity State, is still in the hands of the opposition forces loyal to Riak Machar, the former Vice-President, who was sacked a few months ago by the President, Salva Kiir.

Machar is from the second biggest tribe in South Sudan, the Nuer, while Salva Kiir is a Dinka and therefore represents the biggest ethnic group.

The opposition forces took over two other northern State capitals, Bor and Malakal, but apparently these are now back in Government hands after serious fighting.  There is no way that the South Sudan government can tolerate these three States being in rebel hands, because the three northern States contain all of the country’s oil fields and that accounts for about 95% of the country’s income.

And then, in the past couple of days, there have been reports of a 25,000 man strong ‘White Army’ marching to retake Bor from the government.  This is more of a ‘rabble’ army than a rebel army.  They are not trained soldiers, but armed youths from the cattle camps who are ethnically Nuer and therefore have aligned themselves with Riak Machar.  Machar, himself, has denied that they are under his command.  The UN has described them as a ‘wild-card army’, which makes them even more dangerous because they are angry, mobilised and not under any kind of political control.

The ‘White Army’ is so-called because of the white ash with which they daub themselves as a protection against insects, particularly mosquitoes.  They are reported to be armed with AK47s and machetes.  My guess is that if they come up against properly armed and trained military forces, they will be massacred, but that, in itself, will initiate a whole new round of revenge killings.  And so the cycle goes on.

One of the less endearing features of the ‘White Army’ is that they have pledged themselves to wipe out the Murle tribe that also lives in that area, and there have already been a number of clashes between the two. Once you take the lid off these deep-seated and ancient tribal tensions, there is no telling where it will end.

Which brings me back to VSO and Rumbek.  Ironically, none of the fighting that is going on now, is in the areas where VSO had volunteers.  Lakes State, where we were, remains calm, and the Ministry of Education, where we worked, is busy organising for students to sit the Primary 8 exams, which Linda and I helped to write.  Business as usual.

I am sure that some of our colleagues in Rumbek will have been a bit surprised to see us scurrying away at the first whiff of grapeshot, hundreds of miles away.  However, there had been fighting in Juba, where the VSO office is located, and VSO, as an organisation, is known to be very cautious when it comes to getting volunteers out of harm’s way in the event of serious unrest.

Once the Americans announced that they were withdrawing their non-essential staff from Juba, the writing was on the wall for VSO.

So we sit in our rented flat in wind-whipped Brighton and wait for the New Year.  2014 will certainly be interesting.

 

STOP PRESS.  I’ve just read a couple of reports that the ‘White Army’ has dispersed before launching a big attack on Bor.  Well, that’s a start, at least.

Time for Some Quiet Time.

Both Linda and I have been overwhelmed by the recent responses to the story of our evacuation from Rumbek as reported on the blog.  So many people have expressed their concern for our well-being, offered accommodation or any other help we might need.  So many people have also shared our sadness at what has happened in South Sudan, a country that now seems to have started along a path that is leading to a very dark place, unless something dramatic changes very soon.

From our point of view, we are still reeling a bit from the upheavals of the last week.  Less than a week ago, we were running a workshop on child-friendly schooling and gender issues in education for a group of Primary Headteachers.  Then we got the call that VSO was pulling everyone out of the country and two days later we were in Uganda.   And now we are in a holiday flat near the seafront in wind-whipped Brighton, looking forward to a couple of weeks of quiet reflection, while we try to work out what happens now.  Last night, there was a storm, the likes of which I don’t remember seeing before.  Quite symbolic really.

The news from South Sudan is unremittingly dire.  The power struggle between the two most powerful politicians in the Country, the President and the recently sacked Vice-President, has unleashed forces that neither of them can really control.  Now, the two main ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer are committing atrocities against each other in their respective areas, with each attack unleashing further revenge attacks and so the cycle goes on.

Meanwhile all foreigners are being withdrawn.  A few days ago a US military helicopter was fired upon by unknown gunmen during an attempt to rescue American citizens from the town of Bor.  Three or four Americans were injured.  A day later, a Dutch plane, also trying to evacuate foreigners, was shot at, though, thankfully, no-one was injured.

There are reports that the forces loyal to the former Vice-President have now taken over large tracts of the north of the country including some of the oil fields.  There is no way that the government in Juba can sit back and let that happen as the oil provides over 90% of the new nation’s wealth. Apparently there has been sustained shelling in the northern town of Malakal.

And now the UN is reporting the discovery of mass graves on both sides of the ethnic conflict.  It really is very depressing.

The country had a chance to build a nation.  It had the support, both moral and financial, of many friendly countries to help it to put those plans into action.  The British government was a major player in the effort to build a stable, democratic, modern state.  It provided millions of pounds for Education, Health and various other sectors.  The VSO programme was just a small part of that support.  And now, within the space of a week, the country seems to have disintegrated into factional fighting and bloodshed that has swept away all the progress that has been made since Independence.

Dark times.

Summing it all up.

Summing it all up.

This is not one of my pictures. I found it on a news report about the unfolding violence in South Sudan. It shows a Dinka man carrying his boy near a UN base in Juba. Both of them are clearly very scared.

I’m posting it because it brought a lump to my throat.

The latest news is that the ‘rebel’ forces are now claiming to have taken over the town of Bentiu, the capital of Unity State in the north of the country.

If this is true, it is highly significant, because Unity State is where most of the oilfields are. Whoever controls Bentiu, controls the oil revenue, so the Juba Government can’t just sit back and let that happen.

The other question is what will Khartoum do to stoke the flames of insurrection in South Sudan? On the one hand, it gives them a great opportunity to create more mayhem by funding rebels in the South and further weakening their breakaway southern neighbour. On the other hand, political instability, or indeed civil war, in South Sudan threatens over a billion dollars in revenue that Khartoum can expect to earn next year, just for letting South Sudanese oil flow through its pipeline.

South Sudan looks set for a long period of misery. This picture seems to sum it all up.

We’re out!

I am writing this blog entry sitting on the balcony of a small hotel in Entebbe, Uganda, looking out over a banana plantation.  Actually, the hotel in is a scruffy little backstreet with a dirt road, a couple of warehouses and lots of corrugated iron roofs, but, sure enough, in the middle of it all, is a small plantation with about fifty banana trees. 

Uganda is an incredibly green and fertile country.  When it was going through its development agonies under crazy leaders like Idi Amin forty years ago, it was the fact that bananas grow anywhere that kept the population from starving. 

Coming into Uganda last night was a real culture shock.  Entebbe Airport is small, but spotlessly clean and very efficient.  The Customs Official, (not usually the nicest of people in many countries), was delightful.  “You have come from the Fireworks,” he said.  “We must look after you!”  After the day we had just had, I could have hugged him.

Up and down like… ?  What was the expression?  Well, whatever it was, it summed up our ‘evacuation’ yesterday.

Our day started at Rumbek Airstrip at about 8.30am waiting for a flight that was supposed to arrive at 9.00am  At about 9.40am a twin engine, propeller driven, sixteen-seater plane roared in and we scurried on board, – no formalities, no check-in, no ticket, no ground staff, no security checks, just get on the bloody plane.

We then flew north to Wau to pick up five more volunteers.  Wau is a bigger town.  The people there are probably a bit more worldy-wise people than Rumbek, and certainly the officials  at the airport have mastered the art of complicating everything if at all possible.  The volunteers’ bags were thoroughly searched, and then there was a problem about whether the immigration official’s list matched the plane’s manifest.  So the volunteers were stuck in the Departure area. 

The plane was re-fuelled and we stood around watching about 100 heavily armed soldiers boarding another plane, bound for Juba, and presumably on to the fighting. And we waited.  Eventually the concerns of the officials were allayed and our noisy little aeroplane took off again to take us to Yambio, which, from the air is just beautiful.  I’ve never seen vegetation like it, with forests as far as the eye could see.  Another couple of volunteers joined the party and off we went to the little town of Mundri.

Landing in Mundri was such fun that we decided to try it twice.  The main road into the town cuts right across the airstrip and the airstrip itself is about as wide as a cart track, with trees on either side.  As the pilot made his first approach, a boy on a bike came out of the bush and proceeded to cycle along the airstrip, oblivious to the impending doom bearing down on him from the sky.  I’m not saying that our landing gear parted his hair, (Africans usually have very short hair), but the pilot certainly had to pull up very sharply and try again.  Very exciting.  Two more volunteers climbed in.

From Mundri to Yei.  Another dusty airstrip, but, this time, one with its own immigration official.  The idea was that we would get our passports stamped in Yei, so that we wouldn’t need to go into the hell that is Juba Airport’s departure area at the best of times.  This is not the best of times.  Thousands of foreigners are scrambling to get out of the country through Juba airport.  A colleague from the Red Cross, who left a couple of days ago, spent seven hours in the airport trying to leave.  The airport ran out of drinking water.

The problem for us was that the immigration official at Yei had already dealt with the one flight that he was expecting yesterday and had gone home.  None of the AK47-toting guards, who were guarding this empty strip of earth, had the official’s phone number and we were faced with the prospect of having to fight our way through Juba Airport’s bearpit, to get our exit stamps.  Eventually, as often happens in Africa, a way was found and the official was phoned.  Twenty minutes later he turned up on the back of a policeman’s motorbike.  We got our exit visas and flew back to Juba for refuelling.

Boy, were we glad we had found the official in Yei.  We didn’t have to go into the terminal building, we just got off our little plane, while it was refuelled, and stood around on the tarmac at the side of the airport.  The main apron and runway was like Piccadilly Circus.  Planes of all nationalities were lined up, engines running, awaiting permission to take off; a German military Hercules, another huge, unidentified mean-looking military transport plane that could have fitted our little plane into its hold, Air Uganda, Air Ethiopia, Kenya Airways, (two in a row), Emirates, Dubai Air and us.  As you might have guessed, we were not the priority.  We had to sit, with engines running, and watch all the big boys leaving for what seemed like hours.

But, hey.  We got out eventually and the hotel in Entebbe even managed to find a meal for all of us at 10.30pm.  I wouldn’t have fancied our chances of doing that in London.

And a few minutes ago there was a knock on the door and we were given the news that VSO have managed to get us on a flight to London tonight.  We should be back in Heathrow early tomorrow morning.

Mixed feelings, very mixed feelings.  Relieved to have been evacuated before any trouble started in our part of the country, disappointed that the work we were doing has come to a full stop, concerned about the people we have got to know in Rumbek and what their future will be and, most of all, saddened that South Sudan has suddenly inflicted this huge wound on itself. All of those planes on Juba airport last night were taking away people, many of whom were there as part of the aid effort to help the country to develop, and none of those people will come back until they are assured that the situation is calm again.  In the meantime millions of dollars will be blocked, while the country takes a huge step backwards.

Will it be settled soon?  The signs are not good.  The President has said he is ready to hold talks with the former Vice-President, who is now, more or less, the head of the opposition forces.  The former Vice-President has said that the only thing he is prepared to discuss with the President is the President’s departure from office.  We live in interesting times.

Rumbek Airstrip on the morning of 20th December.

Rumbek Airstrip on the morning of 20th December.

This was the machine that was sent to evacuate us. It became our cramped home for twelve hours, but we were not going to complain.

The Driver.

The Driver.

From where we were sitting, we could have tapped him on the shoulder.

A Selfie…

A Selphie...

… of two relieved faces.

Hear All About t!

Hear All About t!

This is what greeted us today in the Uganda press. The headline made it sound as if the Ugandans had invaded Juba.

In actual fact, they were just reporting that a Ugandan Army transport plane was sent to evacuate Ugandan citizens.

It’s all in how you spin it.

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