A general view of the the Roseires Dam during the inaguration celebration in Damazin on January 1, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Ebrahim Hamid

By Ian Timberlake

There was something decidedly odd about the press kit my AFP colleague brought to the office recently: It contained an airline boarding pass.

Carte d'embarquement pour l'Etat du Nil Bleu (photo: AFP / Ian Timberlake)

In a country where travelling anywhere as a journalist requires permission from the state security service, that's not what you expect -- least of all a boarding pass to Blue Nile state where insurgents are fighting the Sudanese government. But there it was, tucked in with a very official-looking badge to get me in to the event, the grand opening of the expanded Roseires Dam.

Little did I know that it would also come with a movable and never-ending feast that was, if well-meaning, a bit awkward in a country where the UN Food Program struggles, in its own words, “to reduce alarming malnutrition rates amongst Sudanese refugees.”

This bounty all came courtesy of the government's Dams Implementation Unit, an agency with a very technocratic name which, in its approach, seemed much more slick, organized and sophisticated than what we are used to from government departments in Sudan. Unlike other official invitations issued through last-minute phone calls, someone from the DIU called me one week ahead of time to confirm whether I was going.

I jumped at the chance to get a glimpse of a state which has been devastated by years of war and is normally sealed off from foreigners.

Conflict in Blue Nile is concentrated dozens of kilometers south of the dam. The same insurgent movement is active in nearby South Kordofan state, while other rebels are still fighting a decade after their uprising began in the Darfur region. Tensions persist between Sudan and neighboring South Sudan, the economy is in crisis, and the government recently claimed it had thwarted a coup attempt.

In short, there isn't much good news and the dam provided a rare chance to show off.

DIU made the most of it, apparently sparing no expense. The guests included foreign diplomats, a few journalists, two bearded Coptic priests, members of the security forces in dress uniforms, and others in suits or traditional white jalabiya robes.

A promotional brochure for the expanded Roseires Dam in the Blue Nile state in Sudan.

Each got a DIU baseball cap and a magazine from the Sudanese Company for Electricity Distribution Ltd when they arrived for their chartered flights from Khartoum. Long rows of tables offered stuffed bread rolls, sandwich triangles and cans of juice to sustain us for the few minutes before we boarded our Boeing 737.

The 50-minute flight followed the winding Blue Nile river southeast towards Ethiopia, offering barely enough time for the crew to serve a full meal that included three trays of food: one with fruit and a slice of cake, another of buns and cheese, and the main dish with potatoes, a hot dog and chicken.

A blinding sun reflected off the Roseires dam reservoir -- as big as a lake -- when we landed at the tiny airport in the state capital Ed Damazin. Soldiers had set up tents or parked their trucks in dry grassland beside the airfield, where two attack helicopters were stationed.

The delegation transferred to tour buses emblazoned with pictures of President Omar al-Bashir. Waiting on our seats were centimeter-thick information kits, each with eight glossy brochures and magazines, and even a children's comic book, about the $460-million dam project. Anyone who somehow missed the written message could get details from a video monitor.

A children's cartoon explaining the expansion of the Roseires Dam in the Blue Nile state in Sudan.

Policemen with rifles were stationed every few meters along the short route to the hydroelectric project, which is protected by an artillery base.

We passed huts of thatch and mud-brick where local residents live. Thousands of them left these homes and walked towards the dam site from two directions, as if the Blue and White Nile rivers were converging at the ceremony. In a specially-built grandstand, hundreds of dignitaries ate dates, buns, nuts and cakes from green lunchboxes decorated with pictures of the dam.

After contractors, donors and government officials said a few words it was time, as a journalist colleague said, for "the show": Bashir. He arrived on a tour bus and wore an olive suit without a tie as he danced at the podium and waved a traditional walking stick. It was one of the customary performances that accompany his speeches.

President Omar al-Bashir arrives at the inaguration ceremony of Roseires dam in Damazin on January 1, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Ebrahim Hamid

That done, we were ready to return to Khartoum, but not before our buses stopped for a meal in a banquet tent. There was more meat, more fruit, more buns.

Then, on the plane, came miniature doughnuts and tuna-cheese sandwiches -- the fifth meal of the day.

As I was nibbling on a doughnut, I could not help but reflect on the sad fact that some families displaced by the fighting in Blue Nile told Human Rights Watch that they had only one meal every five days late last year.

A refugee from Blue Nile cooks for her family in Yusuf Batil, Upper Nile State, South Sudan on June 20, 2012.
AFP PHOTO / Giulio Petrocco

AFP correspondent Ian Timberlake has been based in Khartoum since 2011.