Daoud Hari: A Guide Through the Valley of Death

Explorers, journalists and adventurers going to Africa have long relied on local guides for advice and protection. Richard Burton, the intrepid Victorian-era explorer, employed a man he dubbed "the End of Time" when he made his way across the wastes of Somaliland in 1854. The End of Time was prone to reciting foreboding verse. "Man is but a handful of dust," he told Burton when they came across the fresh tracks of hostile clansmen. "And life is a violent storm." Such guides are among the most interesting people on the planet. The best of them straddle cultures, attempting to mediate between the local and the foreigner, the believer and the infidel. Never, perhaps, has the need been greater for their services.

Daoud Hari, author of an upcoming book called "The Translator," worked as such a guide in Darfur, the region of western Sudan that has been the scene of atrocities the U.S. government regards as genocide. He knows places where the sands are littered with human bones, some "still wearing their clothes and leathery skin." He knows that mirages can make birds on distant dunes look like camels, and that some of the trails leading to safety will be erased with any new wind. "You are modern and think your compass and your GPS will keep you from trouble," he writes, as if advising a friend who's planning a trip. "But the batteries will give out in your GPS, or the sand will ruin it."

Getting lost is the least of Hari's worries. On one trek, he and journalist Paul Salopek fall into the hands of a rebel group. The gunmen are from Hari's own tribe, but they've changed sides and joined forces with the government Army. They separate their captives, beat them and threaten to kill them. At one point, Hari and a driver named Ali are given to a man known as "the crazy commander." "I want to torture you two now and you will tell me everything you have in your minds," the commander says. Daoud and Ali are hung upside down from trees and then taken to a valley "strewn with human bones and clumps of hair and the horrible stench of death."

Like any good guide, Hari keeps his head about him. "To not get killed is a very good thing," he says after a scary encounter. "It makes you smile again and again, foolishly, helplessly for several hours." Many other people are killed, including one of Hari's brothers. Yet despite the horrors, Hari's tone is often gentle and sweet. He retains his survivor's instinct to move on and better himself. With the help of American activists, Hari recently gained refugee status in the United States. He says he's glad to be here, though he still seems somewhat lost in this strange new country. He yearns for the day when it will be safe to return home to Darfur, the ravaged place he knows best.