From Khartoum to Juba, tapioca-sack class

This is the rough end of international air travel, here on the tarmac at Khartoum airport, baking in the morning sun while they load the feed-sacks.

They are full of sorghum, millet and tapioca: food for the soldiers who will perch on them, all the way south to Juba and the civil war. It's the ultimate economy class: even Richard Branson draws the line at making his riff-raff travellers eat their seats. But the food-sacks are the only luxury. No windows, no seat-belts, no complimentary face-wipes and in- flight magazines. No steps. To board the ancient Boeing 707, you stand on the Hi-Loader and rise like an old-time cinema organist into the belly of the aeroplane. Up we go, everybody looking straight ahead or down at their shoes, like middle-of-the-litter executives in an air-conditioned lift, except that there's no air-conditioning on the Hi-Loader, only the hot reek of kerosene and, beneath it, persistent, the characteristic aroma of Khartoum, the faint, sweet, over-rich onion fetor of human shit.

Inside the cavernous belly, we dispose ourselves, trying to look insouciant. The Sudanese officers do it best, sitting stony-faced on handy sacks. Their soldiers are less successful; some are nervous, others sullen, a few illegally drunk, flat eyes in sweat-slicked faces. Islamic warriors who die in battle proceed directly to heaven; Allah will forgive their early-morning acquaintanceship with the siddiqi-bottle, and as for the government ... well, everyone knows about the government: furious fundamentalists, holed up in their spanking new parliament-building on the other side of the Nile. There are tanks by the television station and soldiers on every bridge: sure signs of a government not wholly confident of its people's high regard.

The cargo door closes slowly, and we begin to melt and boil. I assess the risks: the wild-eyed soldier, tall and skeletal, fumbling for his AK47 every time he changes position. The knot of squaddies, staring fixedly at me, wondering what this whitey is doing, hitching a lift on their private ride down to their private war. The cargo-door itself, daylight clearly visible through its decrepit pressure-seals: if it blows in flight, I will be sucked out, along with all the other buggers, whirling and yelping, those with guns firing wildly into the inhospitable air. I can do nothing about any of these dangers, so load myself on to a tapioca sack, next to an old man in civilian clothes, a bandage round his head, and a boy of about 10, perhaps his grandson. They, alone, seem full of pleasurable anticipation, chattering happily. How odd to want to go to Juba; don't they know there's a war on? Insurgents, government forces, rapes, disappearances: a nasty little war, by all accounts, except there aren't any accounts. I suppose I should write one, but I'm on holiday: a cargo-jet hitchhiker in convertible trousers and a sweat-stained hat, thumbing a ride to Harare. Juba? Just a transit-stop, a quick fag in a war-scarred lay-by.

The old turbojets fire up and we thump and rumble across the tarmac towards the runway. Back in the Khartoum Hilton (views of the Nile, dominated by a giant Pepsi hoarding), the Americans - aid envoys, commercial diplomats, chancers, politicos - are munching their comfortable breakfasts: sausage, two fried over-easy, orange juice, coffee, how-are-you-today-sir? Liberal, earnest, well-meaning, they drift around the lobby, interesting themselves in the food ("Hey, look! It's Tex-Mex night in the Hilton, Thursdays!"), admiring the absurd Sudanese coffee-pots (a wisp of grass in the spout for a filter), never realising how much they secretly despise the courteous, gentlemanly wogs and their ramshackle, merd-smelling city.

Full power, now, hauling ourselves down the runway. A surreptitious flurry of prayer-beads. The jittery soldier cranes to look through the solitary porthole and drops his Kalashnikov. A creak and shudder of turbulence; the jittery soldier retrieves his rifle and leans back on his sorghum- sack; sunlight moves across the cabin through the porthole; as the temperature drops, I snuggle down on my tapioca and fall asleep.

I dream of Americans in horn-rimmed spectacles and lightweight suits, moving like men themselves in a dream, between Hilton and Club Class and air-conditioned meeting room, writing on yellow pads with gold Cross ballpoints, summarising their reports, shuffling their overhead-projector foils, outlining and bullet-charting and recommending policies, talking, talking, talking, and always missing the point. One day their tremendous, hallucinatory nation will fall, and its epitaph will read: "Here lies America; none the wiser."

Ten thousand feet above Juba, the old 707 shudders to a near dead-stop in mid-air and drops like a stooping hawk, spiralling down to confuse any rebel SAM missiles. I am pinned against the side-wall; then we level out briefly, a burst of power, and whomp on to the runway in an angry scream of reverse thrust. The cargo door opens; the soldiers slouch off glumly; the old man and his descendant giggle and prod at each other, pleased to be home. Twenty miles to the south, rebels are regrouping; government forces are wondering what the hell they are doing there; women are wondering whether today is their turn to be raped. Back in Khartoum, people are going about their business, driving their taxis, selling single cigarettes from cardboard box-lids; chatting in that demotic Arabic which always sounds like near-hysteria; earning a crust, raising their families, hoping for the best. The Americans in the Hilton look at their watches and jot down another policy objective; a global embargo seems the best idea. UN resolution! Global police! Nigras, spics, kikes, wops, slopes, gooks, commies and now goddam Muslims (ie, fundamentalist terrorists): starve the bastards out so the world can be safe.

And over the Blue Nile the Pepsi sign broods, poised to catch the sunset. !

Comments