Bedtime in Darfur

It is late Sunday night and I’m lying on my bed outside, thinking about being kidnapped. I’d feel safer inside. But it’s the hot dry season in Darfur, when temperatures reach 40C and even the locals, long accustomed to the suffocating heat of the Sudan, sleep outside for some relief.

I’m a few weeks into my new job as a Project Officer with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). The compound where I live and work is surrounded by eight-foot cement walls topped with curling rows of barbed wire. We have squat toilets, outdoor shower stalls, and no running water. Electricity is provided by a generator, which the night guard turns off around midnight. When the generator stops, so do the ceiling fans, making it hard to breathe, much less sleep.

I’ve found some comfort in my bedtime routine. In the mornings, I fill up a large water bottle, fold my sheets and pillowcase into a Ziploc bag, and put it all in the freezer. At night, I move my bed outside to the back of the compound, on the other side of the rakuba, the thatched roof shelter, where the women sleep. I shower, change into my loose cotton pants and baggy t-shirt, remove my icy package from the freezer, make my bed and immediately throw myself onto the frozen sheets, which stay blissfully cold for about three and a half minutes. I lie there, rolling the frozen water bottle over my body. Becky, in her striped pajama pants and college T-shirt, falls asleep spread eagle, on her back. Sahar, curled up on her side, murmurs into her phone. I don’t understand enough Arabic to know what she’s saying, but from her soft tone I guess that she’s talking to her fiancée or maybe mother or sister.

I’m getting used to the sounds of the village at night. I can sleep through the braying and moaning of our neighbours’ donkeys and cows, the sun rising over me in the morning. But I wake up with a start to the sounds of gunfire that occasionally break the heavy night air.

The first night I heard shots, I lay awake with my sheet pulled over my head trying to talk myself out of panicking as my housemates snored around me. The next morning, drinking tea under the rakuba, I asked my boss Abdullah about the noise. “You will hear gunshots here a lot,” he explained, legs crossed, glass of sugary tea in his hand. “Sometimes, it is people protecting their homes, shooting to scare away thieves, or people celebrating at a wedding. Sometimes,” he shrugged, “the men here just get drunk and start shooting their guns into the air.”

I’ve been told that if the kidnappers do show up, it will probably play out like this: they will come to the front gate, brandishing guns and shouting demands. Our elderly, unarmed guard will have no choice but to let them in. But the scenario I imagine is this: the kidnappers, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, stealthily scaling the cement wall, peering down at our sleeping bodies as they deftly cut the barbed wire with their machetes, landing with a thud on their feet, inches away from us.

I may have to confront this fear tomorrow. Sahar, Becky, and I have been attending a three-day safety training course for new NGO staff. My friend George, a security officer who runs the training, told me that the very tall and muscular Senegalese soldiers are going to simulate a surprise attack on us. Becky is excited. I am secretly terrified—not only of being kidnapped, but also, of being fake-kidnapped. If I cry, scream, become paralyzed with fear, everyone will know what I already do. I’m not cut out for this.

At the training base the next morning I confide to George that while I’m OK with an ambush-carjacking, I don’t want the nice Senegalese guys taking me away as the token kidnapping victim. “Does this mean we have to cancel the simulated gang rape?” his Russian co-worker bellows, laughing. I glare at him, but George shoots me a look I instantly understand. You have your jokes to deal with all this. Let us have ours.

Outside, we are divided into white Land Rovers and drive in a slow convoy around the base. The Senegalese soldiers jump out from their hiding places and attack us from all sides. They point unloaded AK-47s at us through the car windows. We are pulled out of the cars, blindfolded, and told to lie face down on the ground. I hear George giving them directions in French. I spit out some sand in my mouth as they go through our pockets, take our phones, bags, and shoes. I feel the men standing over me and my heart beats faster. I inhale and exhale slowly, remind myself that this is all pretend. Please, please no, I silently beg. This is mildly funny now, but if you pick me up and take me away I might lose it. “Non, non!” George whispers, “Pas elle! Prenez l’Americaine!” I feel the men move away from me, then hear the cars drive off. George yells at us to get up and take off our blindfolds. “Look around you! Are all your colleagues still here?” We look around at each other—shoeless, sand stuck to our sweaty faces—and laugh, breaking the tense silence. Becky is gone. We go back to the training centre to debrief and she is sitting in the classroom, laughing and drinking sodas with her kidnappers.

Back in my room that night, I lie in bed thinking about the day’s training. A few tips are ingrained for life. I know that the most nervous person in a kidnapping situation is actually the guy pointing a loaded gun, and that if I don’t stay calm, neither will he. I know that if I’m riding in the passenger seat and my car is ambushed, I keep my right hand up where they can see it and use my left to unbuckle my belt. I learned that there is an emergency button on the walkie-talkie I should always carry that sends an alert to the security base. I know that I’m vulnerable because I’m a small (read: easy to move), white woman. I also learned that if I am kidnapped, I will probably be gone a long time.

I think about what it would be like to be gone—for a day, a week, a month, three months. Where would they take me? What would I want with me? I pick a few things from my room and place them on the floor beside my bed. Baggy, cotton-linen blend cargo pants, breathable for long days in the desert sun, comfortable for nights sleeping curled up on hard floors. In one pocket I’ve stuffed Cipro, hand sanitizer, and baby wipes to help offset bacterial infections. Inside another pocket is a bra, and on top of the pants is a headscarf; like the bra, I feel less sexually vulnerable with it. It could also serve as shade, blanket, pillow, and washcloth.

I don’t want to sleep outside tonight. I feel too exposed, too vulnerable. I want to stay in my room, with the windows closed and the door dead-bolted. If the kidnappers do come, I might have a few minutes while they’re trying to break down my door to alert the security base with my walkie-talkie, make a call, pull on my stocked cargo pants.

Abdullah is in the hallway, rifling through the pantry where we keep emergency supplies, but more commonly used for sneaking late night snacks. He’s changed out of his work clothes and into a long white jalabiya. He stops at my open door, looks around as he picks out a date from the container in his hand. “You have not moved your bed outside yet?”

“No. I’m going to sleep inside tonight.”

“You think you can sleep inside? In this heat?”

“I’m gonna try. If I can fall asleep before the fans go out and not wake up in the middle of the night, I should be OK.”

“Oh my God,” he shakes his head from side to side. “Oh, that is too much. OK, suit yourself,” and he walks away, laughing.

A few hours later, I’m still awake when the generator cuts out, staring up at the ceiling fan as it slows to a lazy whirl, then stops altogether. The air in the room pushes down on me. I fling open the window, mentally willing a strong breeze, but there’s only about two feet of space in between my window and the eight-foot cement wall. There is no breeze and it now feels like all of the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. In the dark I fumble around for my flashlight, gripping it between my teeth as I grapple with my bed frame and mattress, trying not to wake anyone. Becky and Sahar have left my spot for me, and I quietly place my bed in the space between them.

I put my phone and walkie-talkie on the ground, within arm’s reach. I’ve left everything else in my room. My little pile, while reassuring, is as ridiculous and futile as my momentarily frozen sheets. If the kidnappers ever really did come over the wall, I wonder if I’d even remember to push the emergency button on my walkie-talkie. Who, amongst the three of us, would stay calm in the face of a loaded gun? Sahar might plead with them in Arabic. Becky and I would probably scream. Would Abdullah and the other men come running from the men’s house next door? Would our neighbours, the ones with guns, shoot at them? Or would we quietly be removed, no one noticing until morning tea, when the men would come outside, and see our three beds still there, empty and unmade.

Natalie Willett is a Montreal-based freelance writer. This is her first published story.