‘There is an Arab saying which claims that ‘When Allah created Sudan, he laughed’. Of course, it is impossible, Allah cannot laugh, because nobody saw his face!’, exclaims J. W. Bertens, when he remembers his assignment in Sudan. This is the second part of Checks&Balances’ interview with Jan-Willem Bertens, who was not only a diplomat in Uruguay, Costa Rica and Sudan, but also the party leader of D-66 in the European Parliament. During his time in Sudan, Bertens did not only concern himself with his regular diplomatic activities, he also build a bridge across the river Nile.
‘Do you know how big Sudan is?’, Bertens asks us. ‘Its size can be equated to the area in between Oslo and Madrid, London and Warsaw. Three quarters of the country is covered with sand and there are only two rivers: the Blue Nile and the White Nile. When the British conquered Sudan in 1882, they were asking themselves what they were doing in that Godforsaken country? The oil was too deep to be exploited, there were hardly any railways and even the current of the rivers was too slow due to the heat. At that time, there were no more than 20 million inhabitants belonging to completely different populations in the North and South. As you might know, Nubians live in northern Sudan while in South Sudan there are more than 20 tribes, of which the most important are Dinka and Nuer. These tribes live under the same conditions under which their ancestors lived thousands of years before. And they are Christians! I guess, you follow the newspapers and know what happened a few years ago.’
We then ask Bertens to explain how he ended up in Sudan. ‘When my tasks in Uruguay were completed, I was sent back to the Netherlands. For a year I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the Traffic Advisor. Later on, my daughter was born and just two weeks after her birth, I was assigned to Sudan. There was no ambassador in that country, therefore, I had to be the head of the mission – chargé d’affaires – due to the fact that I was too young to be an ambassador. I spent almost five years in that country having only a bookkeeper, a Dutch secretary and a local translator beside me.’
I arrived in Sudan in 1971. I lived on the bank of the Blue Nile in the hottest capital in the world – Khartoum – where the average temperature the whole year round is 32°C. There was no wind but I liked it. When the sun went down in the evening, the weather was perfect. And the dessert… It’s unbelievable! Unfortunately, my wife did not like Sudan as much as I did.’ Bertens suddenly stood up and picked up some photos to show us. ‘After one year, in 1972, the north-south civil war, which started after the British left the country in 1955-1956, was finally over. 1.2 million people were dead and more than 3 million inhabitants became refugees in Central Africa. All the goods which were supposed to feed the refugees were on the other – the west – side of the Nile. And there was no bridge! Of course, you could try to swim, but then you would have to be faster than the crocodiles. Thousands of people were starving! Thus without warning the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I offered to build a bridge.
Of course you could swim: but you had to be faster than the crocodiles!
I remember Dutch journalists writing such headlines as ‘Young diplomat offers a bridge to suffering refugees!’ Because my proposal was already in the news, the Ministry could not say no and within two weeks engineers from Geneva and The Hague arrived in Sudan. I could not tell how deep the river was, or how fast the current was flowing, therefore, at first they thought the task was impossible. However, with the help of the Dutch company Groot International within two months five drilling islands were constructed and a bailey bridge was finally built. The company had to travel through the African continent, constructing and repairing bridges along the way, due to the lack of existing infrastructure. The engineers expected it would cost 300.000 guilders, but the actual price turned out to be 7 million guilders. And even today, standing in the most southern part of Sudan, the bridge still exists. I am very proud of this.’
Bertens’ experiences in Sudan were not over yet, stay updated and read next week’s interview about how Bertens survived an assassination in Sudan