from ‘Pit Stop in the Paris of Africa’
(from Chapter 11: The Color of Night, Abeche 2006)
by Julie R. Dargis
Rebels roamed the dusty streets of Abeche, a small desert town located midway along the border with the state of West Darfur in neighboring Sudan. Each morning, tanks rolled out of the nearby military encampment to conduct exercises when they were not being deployed along the border. International organizations had stopped using pickup trucks following a rash of vehicle thefts in the city, opting instead to travel in small, unmarked rental cars. Roadblocks, open conflict, and attempted coups were frequent during the dry season. Insecurity continued through the rainy season unless there were particularly heavy rains.
I received a message from the home office. The team in communications was working with a celebrity who was trying to get into Darfur. He was slated to speak at a rally in Washington, DC, and he wanted to talk with the displaced populations in the region before the event to give voice to their concerns. George Clooney wasn’t able to obtain a visa for Sudan, so he asked to travel to Chad to meet with the refugees from Darfur living across the border.
There had been a number of troop movements up and down the border area, and we were under lockdown in Abeche from dusk to dawn. I would be able to charter a private plane through a French pilot that I knew; he had flown another celebrity to at least two of the camps along the border two years earlier. But there would be issues getting the celebrity into the country, and he would be traveling with his father.
A conference call with George Clooney and his father was scheduled. The senior management team from headquarters would be on the call with me. I also expected that a number of other staff would be listening in. The call was arranged during the morning hours in the US. In my time zone, it was six in the evening.
As curfew approached I checked my e-mail, clicking on a message from my brother. He wanted me to know that my mother was in the intensive care unit at the hospital. She had had an issue with her heart that had deteriorated the day before, and her doctor had called the family into the hospital to say their good-byes.
My mother had never had trouble with her heart before. I thought of the few times in my childhood that she had fallen ill as a result of overwork. More than once, pneumonia had forced her to stop and rest when nothing else had been able to slow her down. I closed my laptop and looked out of the window of my small office. In less than an hour, I was slated to be on the phone with George Clooney and his father.
I called my brother.
“Mom’s doing better,” he said.
The family was at her side. She had regained her strength during the night. As my brother continued with his update, Neil arrived to take me home.
“Thanks for letting me know, Teddy,” I said. “I’m sorry, but it’s almost curfew, and I really need to go.”
When Neil and I pulled up to his compound, the guard opened the gate. But before we entered, the guard put his arm up, signaling us to wait. The metal gate closed. When the gate reopened the guard was leaning over, holding onto the thin horns of the springbok that had been adopted by the pilots who lived in the house. Once inside the compound, I asked Neil to update me on any issues related to air travel. I had confirmed the chartered plane earlier that day, outlining alternative routes with the pilot. I also had met with the senior staff to draft a security briefing in preparation for the call. I gathered my notes, went outside with the satellite phone, and opened the door to Neil’s truck. Leaning against the side of the front seat, I pointed the antennae of the satellite phone toward the sky, rotating it at various angles until I had five bars of reception. As I dialed into the conference call, the numbers on the keypad were illuminated in a soft, yellow-gold light. I punched in the conference code for the call and was greeted by a roomful of home office staff. Nick Clooney was added to the call, and I introduced myself.
“How are you?” I asked him.
His voice was warm, but gruff. “My arm hurts,” he said.
I laughed. “What happened?” I asked.
“I got all these damn shots today,” he replied.
We needed to wait; George Clooney’s assistant was still arranging for him to take the call. We were told that he was on his way to his office from one of the lots in Hollywood where he was attending a meeting. I looked up at the stars. The Southern Cross, my favorite constellation, hung low along the horizon, threatening to slip away.
“Don’t worry, you’ll feel better soon,” I said to Nick Clooney. “The pain from the yellow fever shot is sharp at first, but it’ll go away by the end of the day.”
“A shot of Maker’s Mark should do the trick,” he said.
“He’s ready, he’s here, let’s go,” an unknown voice barked into the phone.
There was a pause.
I recognized the voice.
“Hi, everyone, sorry I’m late.”
A senior staff member from the home office welcomed George Clooney to the call. I was asked to give a briefing.
“Hi, everyone,” I said. “I’m going to give you an update on what’s happening here on the ground and then we can talk about some options.”
When I had finished with the briefing, George Clooney commented on the situation in the region. He was well versed on the issues on both sides of the border. In my work, I only focused on the area of operation that I was managing.
“I know that you’re not going to want to hear this, but there’ve been some troop movements that may not allow you to come into the country as planned,” I said. “There’s talk of a coup in the capital, but we should know within a few days if it’ll be safe for you to come out or not.”
I provided context on the living arrangements in the remote site that George and his father would be visiting.
“There’s one thing that I think that you both should know,” I said. “The site where you’ll be staying is very remote, and it’s not very comfortable.”
We had built a rudimentary compound with twenty small rooms, each with a cot. The staff shared two latrines and two outdoor showers, located at the far end of the compound. Each day, the temperatures hovered around one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit. In the evenings during the dry season, the temperature only dropped to ninety degrees. In the rainy season, it became cold at night.
“No problem,” said George Clooney. “I spent a few days with a couple of buddies in the desert once.”
I had seen the movie he had filmed in the desert, and I imagined the fully stocked trailer with air conditioning that he had no doubt returned to after shooting each scene. There would be no trailers where he was going.
“Okay,” I said. “But I have to say, from the bottom of my heart, we all appreciate what you’ll be doing out here.”
“When I won my Oscar,” he said, “my father told me that I needed to use my celebrity for the greater good.”
“Well, then we’re lucky,” I said. “The refugees need someone with your stature to give voice to their issues. Thank you so much.”
He needed to go.
“Good-bye, everyone,” he said. “Good-bye, Pop.”
His father was asked to stay on the line to finalize logistics for the trip.
“Well, somebody’s going to hear it from me if we’re not able to go out there because of a coup,” Nick Clooney said. It was the first time that he had spoken since his son had joined the call. “I already got these damn shots!” he added.
For the second time that day, I laughed.
“It’s nothing that a bottle of Maker’s Mark won’t take care of,” I said.
The next day, I called my mother. She told me that she was feeling better; her blood pressure had stabilized. We laughed together as I recounted the conversation that I had had with Nick and George Clooney.
“Do you know how proud of you that I am?” she asked.
“Mom, come on,” I said.
“I understand how his father feels. It’s important to support your children even if they go somewhere you don’t want them to go,” she said. “I think it’s admirable that his father is going out to Chad with him.”
“Me too, Mom,” I said.
Over the following days, my mother’s condition improved. I was in touch with her every day as I continued to monitor the security situation in preparation for the Clooney visit.
“I spoke to my mother,” I said during my daily management call with the home office. “She’s doing much better.”
The senior team was concerned, however, that I would not be able to manage the visit adequately if my mother’s condition took a turn for the worse. I reiterated that she was fine. Even so, an emergency staff member was appointed to take over for me, and I was free to go home.
I was sitting in my mother’s bedroom, talking with her as she rested. In the background, Oprah came on to promote her daytime talk show.
“Today, we will be speaking with a celebrity who has just returned from a place that is so secret he can’t even tell you where he’s been.” The promo rang on, “Next! On Oprah.”
I looked over at my mother.
“I know where he was,” I said.
When George Clooney came on, he discussed his findings and showed footage and photographs of the remote site where he and his father had met with the refugees. The dust swirled over his head as he stood in the open pickup truck, filming. He had fallen ill while he was away. I wondered about his father.
“I should’ve been there, Mom,” I said. “I bet he drank the water at the site. I don’t even do that.”
A few weeks later, a colleague from the home office who had traveled with George and Nick Clooney sent me a file of the photos she had taken during the visit. Later that day, I received a separate message with a single photo. I clicked on the attachment. In the photograph, two men stood squinting into the sun. One was wearing a flap jacket, the other a smile. I leaned in closer to read the handwritten message on the piece of paper that they were holding up between them: Julie, wish you were here.