MGP TV’s Zac Simpson talks about the Machine Gun Preacher’s recent trip to Darfur.
In hindsight, the journey to Darfur was equal parts exhilarating, daunting and horrifying.
Leaving the relative safety of the orphanage at Nimule we didn’t know what to expect, although we had considered that this journey could be our last. The particular region we intended to visit had been off-limits for years and anarchistic rebel forces continued to destabilise the area.
We made slow progress, mostly due to the wet season turning the roads into a coarse muddy soup that threatened to swallow our vehicles. On either side of the sea of dirt, thick stems of green grass burst from the earth to tower above our heads. The growth formed a beautiful natural wall on either side of the road but also provided the cattle rustlers and bandits who tried to rob us with acres of cover. In the end though, circumstances always seemed to tip in our favour (it may have had something to do with all the guns) and we made it to our target.
We scouted the border and discovered that the other NGOs had abandoned the area. We visited regions without fresh water, watched hundreds of orphans scamper the streets in search of food, and passed thousands of squalid shanties that appeared to have been hit by a tornado. Such was the devastation.
As we made to leave, we spotted a corpse beside the road: the body of an elderly woman. I distinctly remember looking at her hands. Her fingers clutched at the dirt as though somehow, if she could have just held on to the bare earth, she might have lived.
And then she moved.
We sprang from the vehicle, bundled her emaciated body into the back of the tray and sped toward the local medical centre. We carried her into the shallow building, where the reek of defeat and lack of hope crushed against our chests like a slab of grief, and laid her on an empty gurney. The well-fed doctor arrived, diagnosed her with cerebral malaria and gave her an IV injection that saved her life.
The doctor was administering the last scraps of medicine left behind two years ago by a retreating NGO. We had no medication to give him but promised to do what we could. We pushed on, thinking that we had seen the worst this region could offer.
But Turalei was worse. As we entered the town we were greeted by a toothless madwoman who cackled and beat at her chest. It was an ominous display of the human misery we would soon encounter.
Within a few minutes we knew this town was in bad, bad shape. Villagers were eating mud and drinking sewage to survive. Haggard adults, more bone than flesh, limped across the carcass of earth to beg us for food.
We stayed overnight, helped the people we could and shot some video to ensure that we could raise the funds to return. And then we left.
We began to fight towards home, only this time we took another route and were soon surrounded by stranded vehicles and tractor-trailers that had fallen sideways to be swallowed by the earth. We passed an airliner that had crashed in a paddock, shot Hyenas that were harassing local villagers and drove through bandit territory in the dead of night. We made it through but the guy ahead of us wasn’t so lucky: he was shot and killed as he struggled to guide his van in the sludge.
By this stage our Mitsubishi L200 King Cabs were beginning to disintegrate. We had lost the braking system on one truck and were reliant on gears alone to slow us down. The other vehicle was also plagued with problems. In the end, we had to drive slower and slower just to keep the cars on the road.
As we neared Nimule we began to relax but we weren’t out of danger yet. We rounded a corner and hurtled in a tribal clash between the Acholi and Madi tribes. 4,000 fighters, armed with pangas (machetes), rudimentary bows, spears and clubs, stormed back and forth looking for someone to fight. In amongst the drunks I saw an elderly man poised for battle and a young woman with a bow in her hand and a baby slung across her back. As the situation escalated we had no choice but to lock and load. Shots were fired and we drove through the screaming remnants of the volatile mob. Luckily, no one was killed. We rolled down the range, careful to stay in low gear lest we plummet off the side of the mountain, and snuck back into Nimule. The Children’s Village, an oasis of safety in a country at war with itself, welcomed us with open arms.