By the time I finally got to Darfur in October last year, its reputation had long preceded it. The same was true of Unamid, a hybrid of UN and African Union troops, which were charged with peacekeeping in the area. I had long known about Unamid, famously lacking in resources, stuck in the sand, peopled with troops from countries better known for their needs than their ability to provide fully equipped peacekeeping units. But hearing is totally different from seeing, and I was curious. I wanted to see for myself.
It took me the better part of a year, but finally I ended up spending three weeks embedded with Unamid – travelling through north, south and west Darfur, with troops from Rwanda, South Africa and Senegal. However long it had taken me to get there, it took no time at all to encounter the rumoured problems – and to contemplate them lengthily while spending hours stuck in sand or broken down on the tracks.
I was in Kutum, in north Darfur. It was a South African base, a tiny, 200-person outpost, barely more than a stone's throw from the village. It had instantly become my favourite base. It had a great feeling – cheerful, with lots of homely touches and, unusually, lots of women, which probably helped the atmosphere. They had made street signs for the rows of tents, and they tended the newborn pups of a dog they'd adopted, played volleyball and even held outdoor night-time DVD screenings. I joked with them about the Kutum Holiday Camp.
But they were bedevilled, just as everywhere else. Their rations had run out and the much-needed replenishments had been delayed. When they showed me the men's toilets and showers I felt like I was seeing sub-human conditions in a third-world prison, not a UN base. Still, they were at the end of their time. They were going home in two weeks. They were happy.
But it wasn't until about two weeks later that the rumours I'd heard took on a fuller meaning. It was a Friday. There was a convoy planned to escort two fuel trucks to Ana Begi in the north, where they would be met by Senegalese troops. There was nothing else for me to do, so I went along.