The Manchester Review
Alan Drew
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    “That’s where they keep the rice,” Brady’s driver said as they passed a chain-linked warehouse on the edge of Khartoum.
    From the front seat of the dusty pick-up truck Brady snapped a picture.
    “Can we stop?” he said.
    “Bad idea.” The driver pointed to a couple of soldiers standing near the fence-line, machine guns held across their chests. Both men wore reflective sunglasses that shone silver in the afternoon light.
    They were headed south to North Bahr al Ghazel where the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army still held control. Brady was on assignment for Reuters, having been called up in London while resting from a stint in Kosovo. It wasn’t enough rest, but he needed the money. The assignment: pictures for a story about the civil war’s impact on starvation. In on Tuesday, out on Saturday. The writer set him up with contacts, arranged for Johnny—a driver for Chevron that liked a little money on the side— told him where to shoot, and that was that. It was an unusual assignment for Brady; he was used to war footage, diving into the dirt with the soldiers, ducking bullets--the action. He liked the action in the same way he liked the buzz from speed, that rush, that brilliant light of adrenaline that made him feel invincible. He had a scar from a bullet hole in his right shoulder he would show people when he was drunk enough. There was still a fleck of dried blood he couldn’t clean out of the focusing grooves of his 200 millimeter.
    This assignment was quieter--a war raged further west of North Bahr el Ghazal, but he wouldn’t be going there. Environmental folly, really. Famine, oil, and politics--a bad combination for sure. Johnny explained it this way:
    “The Jellaba businessmen in Khartoum want the oil in the south, the SPLA want independence. Bullets and bombs are expensive, so they keep the aid from going down. Starve them out.” Johnny lit a cigarette and the smoke streamed out the open window. He spoke English with the halting clip of a second language. His arms were wet with sweat, and his dark skin was darker for the contrast of pale land through the window. “Of course, many villagers starve, too.”
    “Drain the water to catch the fish,” Brady said.
    “Yes, it’s like that.”
    The road paralleled the White Nile. Shanties, leaning and rusty, broke for a sight of the muddy banks--covered Muslim women washed clothes in the river, children in underwear stood in the shallows--then closed the view again with cinder, rebar, and tin. Before leaving town they stopped at a grocery. Johnny left the car running and waited while Brady ran into the store.
    “Get plenty of water, Mister,” Johnny said. “Even the devil gets thirsty down there.”

* * *

They drove all night, hugging the river into the plateau of central Sudan before turning towards the bogs in the west. It didn’t take long for the city to give way to dry; Khartoum escaped most of the drought but only by a hair. The land didn’t look worth fighting over; it was as bleached as cattle bone, as if millions of skeletons had been ground to sand and strewn towards the horizon. In the mid-afternoon light the sand was so bright Brady had to squint behind his sunglasses, but by evening the ground settled into a soft sulfur yellow and the distant glow of oil derrick lights shone like little diamonds.