Walking the Beat in Sudan

Constable William Chan, a 10-year veteran with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), decided one day that he would like to apply for an international assignment. He really didn't expect to be selected on the first try. When William spoke with us from Abyei, southern Sudan, he was three months into a nine-month assignment.

How long have you been with the RCMP?

I've been there for 10 years. I got in when I was about 26, and I did my training in Regina, Saskatchewan, and then I got transferred to British Columbia. I’ve worked in different areas of British Columbia over the last 10 years.

Did you volunteer to go to Sudan?

Yes I did. They have these postings on our RCMP Web site, and if you qualify you can apply for them.

Why did you volunteer?

It was something I always wanted to do. I always wanted to live and work in a foreign country. Also, peacekeeping missions are usually in very poor countries. So I always wanted to give back to society and try to help the needy and the impoverished.

Is this your first assignment in a foreign country?

Yes it i.e. was very lucky. A lot of people apply for these types of missions and usually it takes three or four years to get accepted to one. I was really surprised when I got mine in the first year; I was very excited that I was selected. There are only three of us RCMP here in Sudan; two of them are in Khartoum and I’m here in Abyei.

How did your family and friends react when you told them that you were going to work in Sudan?

I didn’t tell anyone I wanted to do this. It could have been such a long process and it might never have even happened. Obviously my family was very surprised!

Once you found out you were going to Sudan, how did you prepare?

I did a lot of research on the Internet and I got a lot of information that way; the history, the timeline of the civil war, the changes in government, that kind of stuff. I had about three months' warning, so I had time to prepare. I bought few books on Africa, a health guide and a Lonely Planet.

Did your reading and researching help you at all?

Yes it did; it’s helpful to have some background knowledge before going somewhere. Also, I participated in a pre-departure course with the Centre, and that was helpful as well. They gave us a general breakdown of the various cultures in Sudan, the Arabic and African influences, and an overview of the major religions. I learned a lot from that course.

Tell me about Abyei.

It's a very small town, I'm not even sure if it's on most maps, but it's on the border that divides north and south Sudan. It's in an area where there's been fighting because they found oil in this area. There's an oil well about 30 minutes north of Abyei. It's predominantly the Dinka people living here. It's a mix of Christian and Muslim here and there is a mosque and a Catholic church in the village. The closest city is Kaduqli.

What is your mission while in Sudan? What are you supposed to be doing?

I'm part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). We are here in an advisory and monitoring capacity and we're trying to train and mentor the local police. So on one hand we're doing training, and on the other we are observing and reporting on legal proceedings, court cases and potential abuses or violations of individuals' rights. After each shift, we fill out a report on our observations and how we have assisted the local police. That report gets sent back to headquarters in Khartoum.

Are Sudanese police counterparts part of a national or regional force?

They are national police, but they have very little. They have little furniture, no cellphones, no telephones, no radios. They don't even have any real uniforms; most wear what they have. The area is very, very poor. There is no infrastructure here; no running water, no sewer, no electricity. We do have a generator for electricity.

Given all these challenges, are you still able to train your colleagues?

Yes, we still manage. Every month we try to schedule a course to teach them community policing, or a fun course on investigation techniques. We try to bring them up to speed on current policing and investigative techniques, but it is difficult sometimes. I hadn't realized when I arrived here how little they had. For example, they have no police cars for transportation. Not even a bicycle! So any work done is on foot. All patrolling is done by walking through markets or residential areas. This means the policing is very reactive. Most reports or cases come to them; people come to the police to report a crime.

On a typical day, would you accompany them on a patrol?

Right now our movements are really restricted so we're just patrolling Abyei village. There are a lot of surrounding villages but we haven't had the opportunity To go there because of government restrictions. Currently, we've got two patrols that go to police offices, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So we get to interview and discuss with prisoners. We ask them about why they have been arrested, their sentences, their treatment while detained; whether they have access to water, food, stuff like that. We sometimes go on joint patrols with the Sudanese police; we'll go to the market and see what's happening there.

How have the local police reacted to your presence here?

Actually, they’ve been really cooperative with us. This is a bit surprising because we are so restricted in our movements that we end up going to visit them two or three times a day. But they've been really receptive. They seem to be happy to see us, they greet us, we have tea together. The only difficulty is when we make presentations, it's obviously in English. It would be better if we could do our presentations in Arabic.

Beyond the language issues, have you noticed any other cultural challenges that may have come up?

In terms of policing, they have very traditional laws and practices here which differ quite a bit from Canadian laws and practices.

Can you give me an example?

For example, adultery is a very big no-no here. It is a criminal offense for a woman to stray away from her husband. They will arrest her and jail her. But polygamy for men is allowed; they can have up to four wives. But you have to be fairly wealthy to have multiple wives.

Is that a challenge for you to come to terms with?

Yes it is. Just today, I came across another interesting custom or tradition: a local woman is in custody, she's the second wife of a man, but the younger of the two wives. She's been married for three years. She hasn't had any children yet, and according to her, it's because her husband is too old to have relations with her. But according to local customs, if she can't have sex with her husband, she’s supposed to have sex with his son from the first wife. She refused to do this, so that's why she was jailed.

So how do you reconcile this type of case with our Canadian laws and value system?

You can’t really reconcile it; but it is a local culture and tradition. So we just let the court system deal with it according to their laws and customs. The woman, if found guilty, would probably only spend about seven days in jail. She will also be allowed to find a new husband if she wants, but he will have to pay a dowry to her ex-husband. This is usually paid in livestock — cows mostly.

Are there other members of the UN policing team?

Yes, they come from all over the world. We have Jordanian, Kenyan, Ugandan, Pakistani, and Chinese police officers.

How do you find that experience?

It's kind of neat; it's really a mini-UN here. I've learned a lot about African cultures; they taught me about different traditions and customs that they have. The same for the other members; we feed off each other. Sometimes we're in a computer room, and I would show them pictures of Vancouver and show them what we normally eat in Canada, and other kind of things. And they would do the same; it is very informative.

How is the rhythm of work and life?

It's a much slower pace to things here. I'm a "gotta get things done" kind of person, but nothing is done in a hurry here. There are also no outlets for extra-curricular activities; no TV, no movies, no bowling alleys, nothing. So you have to create your own entertainment. I read books, write, maybe watch a movie on DVD.

Have you been invited to someone's home?

I have been invited a couple of times to people's homes, but I kind of feel bad accepting because food is a real challenge here — even for UN staff. We have to get all our own food in the local market and it's very hard. The selection is limited and the quality is poor. So I feel bad if I go to someone's house for dinner because I’m eating their food and I know they have very little.

Have you thought about how it might offend them if you don't go?

I’ve thought of that as well, so I do my best. I try to make sure to attend all the openings of schools or other festivals and ceremonies, drink tea at the teahouses. We're pretty good at participating. 

How do you think this experience will change you?

As a person, I will be more appreciative of what we have in Canada, that's for sure. As Canadians, I think most of us take running water, electricity, and paved roads for granted. The fact that we have peace and security, compared to a war-torn country like Sudan, is also something we take for granted. I think I will be more open or understanding of differences when I get back home.

What do you miss the most about home?

Some of the food; here I don't eat like I did in Canada. That's another thing I took for granted. I lived just a block away from a grocery store; I hardly had anything in my fridge because I just walked the block to the grocery store and bought everything fresh. If I needed milk, I just walked down there and got milk. You can’t do that here. Of course I also miss my family and my girlfriend.

Thank you for this interview, William Chan.

You're welcome.