I had been in Sudan with the UN for several months now and my tour was coming to a close. By this point everything we did was routine and there was no thrill in the mystery of nature…or culture…or scenery. We were with the same people and the routine was, frankly, routine.
On this day, another Canadian United Nations Military Observer (UNMO), was driving and as part of his duties, we went to pick up an SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] Major from his private accommodation in Bentiu. The Major spent the patrol talking about an imagined insult on a previous patrol, and how the UN owed him an apology.
“On that patrol, I was left behind while others departed for another place” he said.
“Yes, Sir.” Our replies were polite, monotonous, and non-committal.
“It was an insult to the SPLA! It was an insult to me!”
“Really, Sir, that’s terrible” we said…”
“We arrested a man in the market last week.”
Jail in Bentiu was just a couple of decrepit 52-foot trailers with windows and doors cut out and bars welded across; this wasn’t an incarceration facility like we’d see in the Western world.
“Yes. Yes. He was arrested and is in jail until his proceedings. He was selling explosives in the market.”
WHAT! Explosives? From being bored listeners we were instantly transformed into attentive and eager UNMOs. Then he told us he took the explosives home. Home!
As we drove, the Major described the device…and none of it made sense. As he talked, we got more confused because none of it seemed to fit a pattern of what we expected.
When we got to his house the Major went inside and then emerged, holding a small wooden box in his hands and placed it on the tree stump. The top looked like it slid open. A quick scan revealed no wires, and besides, they had already opened the box.
“Be careful!” the Major yelled.
Sliding the top off the rest of the container, I saw a clear bottle with liquid. I also saw metallic silver top with wires sticking out of it, just as the Major described. It rested in a bed of fibrous plastic strands to cushion it. There was a suspicious spicy smell and on the bottle, in bright lettering, was printed “TNT” - It was, cologne…
“Sir – it’s cologne. Look!” I grabbed the bottle and twisted off the top. The Major freaked out, I wasn’t getting through to him. I racked my brain to think of the Arabic word…”Cologne…perfume...attar! It’s Attar!”
In a culture where showing face and respect was paramount, I held onto the box as the driver thanked him for being diligent (even if it wasn’t a real bomb). We backed away slowly with the box in my hands, thanking the Major as we left.
A thought struck me as we left; I turned towards the Major with a parting comment:
“Sir, you know the guy you threw in jail? You might want to let him out …”