2020. június 16., kedd

A journey to Darfur's highest peak

In the winter of 2019, I was a guest of the small but committed active couchsurfing community of Kassala on the Eritrean border in Sudan. One day my host excused himself for an unexpected countryside trip, but he offered to introduce me to his friend. Iman, a 25-year-old smiling Sudanese girl welcomed me into her office. As she saw my eyes wandering around the suspiciously nicely furnished room, she answered my first question before I even raised it: her company runs hunting trips. My second question probably surprised her more: I immediately asked whether she could take me and some other people to the Deriba Caldera and the Marrah Mountains in South Darfur. After some phone calls Iman said yes the next day.

The Deriba caldera volcano in the Marrah Mountains last erupted about 3,500 years ago. When it collapsed, a sharp crater rim and two lakes had been formed inside. A point on the remaining rim is currently the highest peak of Sudan's at 3042 meters. The climbing itself doesn’t require special technical skills beyond good physical condition, the difficulty lies in the access itself. Good physical condition needed to climb but it has no technical difficulty but the approach is challenging.

By then I had been traveling in Sudan for more than a month. Last year's demonstrations and regime change did not eliminate economic problems and neither did it stop the inflation, but the public opinion was quite optimistic compared to my previous experience. The country was ruled by Omar al-Bashir but in December 2018 rallies began to rise due to rising prices. Bashir was deposed by the Sudanese army, while he was also indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Following the coup d’état, the country is currently led by the Military Transitional Council, until the elections planned for 2022. I talked to students and taxi drivers from Darfur and South Kordofan province and everyone agreed that the situation is improving and it’s more and more safe to travel.

Throughout my life, I have worked with people with weird hobbies and life has recently brought me two committed Hungarians, Tibor and Zoltán, whose is to climb the highest peaks of every country. Since Denmark and the Vatican also count in this game, it’s easy to complete a nice list of countries as an avid amateur. But when Europe, the American continent, and much of Asia are already done, the little-known African mountains become a pretty nice trophy. So supply and demand finally met, and a few days later we made the decision to head to South Darfur.

Sudan has long been suffering from the divide between its Arab and African population, and the conflict is toppled by the independence endeavors of Darfur. One of the independence movements is the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) which was our partner in the adventure, and the other is the Justice and Equality Movement. Both have been fighting a brutal war with the Arab-dominated Sudanese regime since 2003. As a result, hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring Chad, the rest of the population and the residents of the Chad refugee camps were also terrorized by armed groups funded by the Government of Sudan. With the independence of South Sudan in 2011, Sudan lost most of its oil reserves and a quarter of the country's territory, mostly inhabited by Christians. Needless to say, Darfur’s independence has very few supporters outside the Darfurians themselves.

Three days after landing in Khartoum in early February, my haunting nightmare came true when dreadlocked teenagers in sunglasses  and  long trench coats approached us, one waving a machete while the others surrounded the car with AKs in their hands. ‘It didn't last long’ the thought slipped into my mind.

The previous day we met Sheikh Ali, a former commander of SLA/M, often called a rebel, in the capital of South Darfur, Nyala. He had been released by the authorities after he negotiated his private agreement with the government. This prestigious old man listened to us, then outlined a scenario that was totally incompatible with our original plans as the only way to get up the mountain.

At dawn the next day, six of us squeezed into a Land Cruiser. Iman, our guide and tour leader from Kassala, and two local dudes who joined the expedition. One of them, Mohammed worked in Darfur and Chad for decades and has known everyone. The other one, Rabia managed humanitarian projects in the villages where we were heading to. We were questioned by the police, the Sudanese army; we got permission from the ministries, so the tour started disturbingly legally.

The child soldiers came when we reached the ridge after the last checkpoint of the Sudanese army. Our constantly joking Sudanese has stopped laughing, and we fell silent too. ‘There is no adult with them’ he replied when I asked the reason. We had to wait for someone who is past puberty and have some authority among these youngsters. As we didn't show any resistance, the ice slowly broke and we were invited to lunch. The menu, like every day, was beans with canned tuna, eaten by hand from a huge dish. Eventually an older man came and we were allowed to drive further, finally into the rebel-controlled area.

After half an hour of jolting, we stopped. There was a Liberation Army camp on the mountain, and as if we were watching a film by Béla Tarr, a tiny point started descending, slowly approaching towards us. After ten minutes the point took the shape of a human. He was the commander who could give permission to continue our journey. After a short talk, he walked back over the mountain, and half an hour later the previous scene played again, but now he handed over  the paper we needed.

The paved road ended in a village called Feina, the only way to continue from there is either on donkey or on foot. It was time to scratch the surface and see where we really are.

Prior to the turn of the millennium, tribes in the Marrah Mountains lived in relative peace with each other and with the Sudanese regime. Even though tourists were not very familiar with this region, some aid organizations were present in the area, mostly building schools and running agricultural projects.. The fact that this road is the only way to cross the Marrah Mountains, combined with the presence of the rebel groups was enough to draw increased attention from the government.

Negotiations started with all the about eighty tribes living in the area with varying success, so the situation escalated into a civil war in 2003. By 2010, the Sudanese regime got weary of the stalemate, bombed the villages and invaded the region. This was the year when masses fled even further into the mountains, while the situation of international organizations became untenable, forcing them to withdraw. This year marks the time when the last outsider set foot here: not only foreigners, but barely any Sudanese passed by Feina other than the locals – except, of course, the army.  The removal of President Bashir and the somewhat cooperative attitude of the military and civilian government has made reopened the chance for peace. Or at least the need arose.

Since there has been no tourism-motivated foreigner in this place for 10 years, and not much before either, there was no protocol for what a rebel organization should do with us. With no weapon and no money, with no commission or intent, not as an aid organization or as a journalist, logic got mate: who are we? We didn't ask questions, we didn't take photos; we talked about moving forward and what we needed to do. We showed the peak photo of our climb in Iraq last year, where the same three people smile at the camera under a Kurdish and a Hungarian flag. Ultimately, that was the point that convinced them.

With this episode it has also become apparent that in the absence of the above-mentioned protocol, every decision-making situation will be preceded by endless negotiations, wasting our precious time. Until the last day, half of our day was spent negotiating and waiting for permits. But let's get back to the first one.

We stopped the car next to one of Feina's demolished houses, and we set up the tent between the bare walls. Dozens of locals gathered,trying to express their expectations, which resulted in quite a surreal conversation at a certain point.

‘Leave the car here. And you have to pay $250 for security.’
‘Do not worry; it’s safe because our driver will stay here.’
‘It's not so safe. It's not safe for him. It can be anything.’
‘Okay, then we'll send him back to the army-controlled area and then come back in a few days and pick us up.’
‘You can't leave. You have to pay $250.’
‘I'll give you 25. 250 is out of question. “
‘You definitely pay.’
‘If I understand the situation, you have just kidnapped us.’

When I pronounced the word ‘kidnapped’, the locals froze because this spoken word is quite strong. They started protesting, and I repeated it a few more times because if we can't go anywhere and have to pay, it’s quite clear indeed. A robust old man suddenly appeared on scene and disbanded the meeting with three sentences and turned to us. ‘Don't worry about these. I'm the teacher here, you're going to sleep in the school, and the car can stay there.’

We spent most of the following day to negotiate for donkeys. Dozens of people were deliberating, then one came over and told us what they thought. I declined and explained why we cannot accept their good deal. He returned in another half hour with another offer, and so on. When the village understood our intention, everyone wanted to join us. Finally, in the afternoon, we continued our trip with six donkeys and one guide, wasting the whole day. We even spent part of the night on the donkeys, because we couldn't find accommodation. Maybe just because we were looking for a school.

In the morning we arrived at a larger settlement that everyone referred to as Toronto. Actually the name is Torongtonga but couldn’t hear much of a difference. News had travelled faster than we did. A team of teenagers greeted us, later the Sheikh, the SLA /M humanitarian commissary, the military commander as well as the teachers joined the company. A bunch of kids also showed up with huge guns and a mortar just to remind us where we are. We had breakfast at the market: dried cricket and excellent grated liver, while our hosts apologized for not having real meat. We performed our litany again: we are Hungarians, we go to the mountains, we do not take photos, we do not write anything, there are pictures of our climbing in Iraq, we do not want anything but climb up to the summit of Marrah and see the two lakes of the Deriba caldera. From here, a larger team led us further towards the caldera.

As our rebels had no idea about us, sometimes we also struggled to figure out why things were happening around us. From the caldera we could already see the summit, so we planned to go out there in the evening, sleep on the shore of one of the lakes, and go up the mountain early in the morning. Our companions have no blanket, no sleeping bag, no food and no water. Finally, standing next to the inner pond of the caldera, one of them points to the highest peak of the inner rim: ‘You can climb now and we wait here.’ ‘But that’s not what we came for! The one behind it, you see?’ ‘You can't get up there from here.’ We had to return to the last village, another two hours on donkey, at night.

Kosonga hides in the bottom of a valley next to an orange orchard. Idyllic little village, we wrap ourselves in front of one of the tukuls. The door is open, a small child clears a guns inside, the others smoke huge joint before heading out into the night. In the room on the bed I have a knife next to my head, an AK-47 on the other side, the magazine with bullets at my feet – along with a small plastic box, containing a toothbrush.

We are ready to leave at seven in the morning. At eight, the first couple of people show up, then the commander. His people will be hungry on such a long journey, he says, so they won't leave without breakfast. After the cook quickly shredded a goat, the commander declared themselves ready for the hike, so we could finally leave. We walked on the edge of the crater; our locals were extremely fast, casually stopping, talking, smoking, while wearing rubber-soled Chinese shoes. I used to say this is also a profession, if you live in the mountains for a decade or two and can only ride donkeys or go on foot, you cannot compete with these guys.

They patiently waited for us at the highest point of Jebel Marrah (in Arabic Jebel means mountain), taking the summit photos, showing us around then starting to descend. They also got their first climb, obviously they hadn't thought of coming up all the way here just to look down.

On the way back we figured out that this must have been the first documented climb of Sudan's highest point, and as such has extra value. Some tourists may have come here before 2010, but the highest peak of Sudan at that time was Mt. Kinyeti, which belongs to South Sudan since 2011. According to the locals, Jebel Marrah has not been visited by strangers since 2010, so we can assume we were the lucky ones to first reach this summit in the ‘new’ Sudan.

On the way back we were asked to look at schools everywhere, listened to the problems, and locals asked us to talk about them at home. At the end, the military commander pulled me aside and emphasized that their soldiers cannot be featured in social media, but villages and landscapes are of course free to show. On the last day we spent six hours on donkey without stopping for a single minute. The only thing that keeps us alive is the promise of a shower and a bottle of Cameroonian whiskey smuggled from Chad (the latter arrived, as well as the next one a day later).

At the child soldier checkpoint we just get off, everyone smiled and shook hands and we are on our way back to Sudan within a minute.