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  Field Notes From
Shattered Sudan

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On Assignment
View Field Notes
From Photographer
Randy Olson

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Randy Olson


On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
Shattered Sudan

Field Notes From Photographer
Randy Olson
Best Worst Quirkiest

When you have an assignment that involves 130°F (54°C) heat, Islamic militants, war zones, and living and sleeping in the dust for three months, the only "best" part comes in doing things for others.
I volunteered our chartered plane to help bring supplies in from aid organizations. On the way back we learned that several wounded men had been sitting at the edge of an airstrip for five days. It is standard procedure to pick up casualties or sick villagers if there is room in a chartered plane. But there had just been fighting at the airstrip, and we had to decide if it was safe to land. I made the decision, and there are five men who would not be alive today if we hadn't stopped.

We had gone through incredible gyrations to get permits to do aerial photography, and after one brief (and expensive) aerial-shooting session we were ordered to land. Even though we had all the right paperwork from the Khartoum government, the local authorities in Port Sudan operate as their own fiefdom. They thought we were spies. Security agents showed up in the middle of the night demanding possession of all my cameras and film. After being threatened with jail, we gave them everything except the exposed film, which I had hidden in the suitcase of our guide. We followed my cameras back to Khartoum and waited for them to be recovered. One never was, and the agents never returned the film I gave them. They even ripped all the film out of my cameras.

I was headed to the rebel-controlled south, which has to be entered through Kenya. It was a 4 a.m. flight, and everyone was pretty groggy. The Christian African flight attendants from Kenya were trying to serve drinks and stale croissants in the aisle around the time the Islamic passengers realized the sun was coming up, and they had to pray. In the Islamic faith, travelers are given dispensation to pray less. But this must have been a very religious Islamic group. They vaulted over the seats and around the flight attendants to get to the lavatory to do ritual ablutions, which, translated, means a lot of people were trying to get into the bathroom and use it as a shower stall. The flight attendants made little Kleenex dams around the lavatory so all the water wouldn't run down the aisles. The prayer group then vaulted back around the flight attendants, ripped open the curtain to first class, faced the rising sun, and did their morning prayers. Tensions eased after they went back to their seats.

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