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It is strange, the rituals we find ourselves carrying out before the unknown – detached acts, learned by rote and made solemn by the occasion. I shaved not once but three times, showered twice, arranged my books first by content, then by colour, then by size. I put on the cleanest of clean clothes – a red shirt, blue trousers, grey desert boots – and stepped out of my dark concrete room onto the street and into the dust of El Fasher.
Outside our compound, as we made final preparations for the mission, there was silent activity, conversation pared back to what was strictly necessary – all the more lucid and eloquent for its truncated, list-like form: ballistics blanket, full medical kit, small medical kit, run bag, 180 litres of petrol, camp beds, water, food, fire extinguishers, satphone, HF radio, VHF radio, radio call-sign list, travel authorization, GPS, white-and-blue flags. Body bags were stored under the back seat of the Toyota Land Cruiser ‘Troop Carrier’ – a large and highly prized car known throughout Darfur for its speed, agility and long desert range. A car used by aid workers and coveted by killers. Take off the roof, attach a machine gun and you have a ‘technical’ – a makeshift instrument of war capable of striking deep into the continent. We called it the ‘Buffalo’ and with its dual fuel tanks, power and relatively light weight, it could cover a thousand kilometres without refuelling. With this car, the chance of attack and hijacking increased, and we had four of them and one hundred kilometres of sand, scrub and stone before us – a lawless area of Sudan known as the Janjaweed Damra. The instructions were simple in this flat no-man’s-land whose aridity was starkly etched in dried-up water courses and burned-out villages. Drive as fast as you can.
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