If a plane carrying Harry Belafonte and me disappeared in a Western Darfur sandstorm, only one of us would make the headline. How that no-brainer was arrived at
The media junket aimed at showing the world the results of famine relief efforts by the entertainers behind USA for Africa, Live Aid and Do They Know it’s Christmas? pulled into the Khartoum Hilton in Sudan’s capital. Marlon Jackson, who’d been along for the Ethiopia leg, had returned to the States; Harry Belafonte was the celebrity left to lead the contingent.
The Darfur region of Sudan has been the site of a terrible humanitarian disaster in recent years, stemming from fighting among Arab and African peoples. In 1985, the scourge was famine, with the future warfare and upheaval lurking in the wings.
A small plane, about a 12-seater, was chartered for an overnight trip to Darfur. The flight west took several hours to cross vast desert; our destination, Al Junaynah, was near the border with Chad. A motorcade of Land Rovers met us at the tiny airport and we endured another hour of spine-twisting bouncing along deep-rutted desert roads.
We pulled into a compound where a local sheik was to host us for the night. His home was palatial, but it seemed to sit right smack in the middle of the desert. We never saw the town of which his compound comprised something of a suburb. Nor did we see any relief camps, famine survivors or aid. We were feted with soft drinks, dates and snacks.
At bedtime, reporters were led to the outbuilding where we were to sleep. A concrete bunker, it had permanently open windows. Cots with raggedy blankets were arranged under a bright, bare light bulb on the ceiling. Around the light bulb flew a staggering squadron of insects of various sizes and exotic shapes. We flipped the switch, pulled the blankets over our heads and tried to get to sleep. Luckily, the desert heat rapidly dissipated and the blankets kept us warm as well as insect-free…we hoped.
In the morning, we found the bathroom facilities, such as they were, out back: a knee-high faucet with cold water and a hole in the floor with two footprints embedded in the cement on either side. We presume Mr. Belafonte and entourage had it a bit better up in the big house.
The return flight was marked with some suspense. As we headed back east over the desert toward Khartoum, the wind at our backs, we spotted out the port windows a sandstorm heading in the same direction. It was an ominous, advancing slab of swirling sand rising several thousand feet in the air. I watched in fascination as we moved past the front that stretched for miles and wondered what it was like to be in its path. An hour or so later, our small plane landed at an airfield to refuel, taxiing up to a tiny one-story terminal and rudimentary control tower. The pilot shut the engines down and went into the terminal. He returned with the news that the fuel truck and its operator had not shown up yet. We deplaned and sat in the dilapidated waiting area. The sandstorm that we had left behind in the dust, so to speak, was on our minds. We played the reporters’ game of “what if.” What if a wire service story went around the world the next day, headlined, “Harry Belafonte Perishes in African Sandstorm”? How many paragraphs down would it mention, “Several reporters from US news organizations also died”? Which of us would have our names named?
Fortunately, the fuel truck finally arrived and we made it safely back to the Khartoum Hilton.
Situated on the banks of the Blue Nile where it meets the White Nile and flows north as the Nile to Egypt, the hotel was an island of relative luxury in a bustling, noisy city. It was far from full, practically the only other guests we encountered were flight crews from Lufthansa. The near-empty swimming pool was a cool refuge the afternoon we returned from Darfur. There was a swim-up bar with submerged stools, but no booze to be had. Khartoum was a dry town, under the Muslim Sharia law in Sudan.
This is where Harry Belafonte and his then-wife Julia stepped in and made up for the differences in our accommodations in Western Darfur. The evening before we were all due to go our separate ways and head back to the US, they invited us to their suite for cocktails. Julie had smuggled a bottle or two of vodka in her luggage. We all listened, spellbound, as Harry told tales of his days at the epicenter of the civil rights movement, a confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr. Stories of bailing MLK out of jail in Birmingham, fellow activist Sydney Poitier, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the March on Washington. It was truly one of the most fascinating evenings I’ve ever spent.