Diplomacy and pizza: a winning combination

Conflict de-escalation is a vital tool for Tangiers International’s agents in the field.

Acute awareness of cultural sensitivities, the ability to speak local dialects and a willingness to compromise are all skills which can prevent a tense moment spiralling out of control.

And sometimes pizza helps too.

This was certainly the experience of Hafiz, a Sudanese agent working amidst the volatile political landscape of Darfur, when he inadvertently raised local suspicions.

Hafiz provides Tangiers International with crucial on-the-ground support in Darfur and the disputed Abyei region of Sudan, handling motor vehicle claims for the United Nations-African Union joint mission (UNAMID) in the country.

In June of this year, he was in the Darfur region when he witnessed an incident involving an UNAMID employee minibus and a Sudanese fire truck.

The fire truck was attempting to force the bus off the road following an earlier altercation. Hafiz, aware of the importance of documenting motor vehicle claims, began to record the incident on his phone camera.

The decision immediately attracted attention.

The truck pulled over and several fire fighters disembarked, instantly demanding to know who Hafiz was and why he was taking such a keen interest in the unfolding events.

Hafiz, who has a background in community outreach programmes, said: “I was swarmed by several firefighters and forced into their fire truck for being a ‘spy’ and an enemy agent.

“Throughout the ride I tried to explain the situation but to no avail.”

In Darfur, a region wracked by ethnic tensions and tribal rivalries, supposed-outsiders can immediately attract suspicions. Hafiz was aware that he had to remain calm and begin to build a rapport with these men to prevent the situation worsening.

Arriving at the rural fire station, Hafiz began to ingratiate himself with the fire crew, using local knowledge and humour to forge an immediate bond with the men.

He said: “It was lunch time and they had a problem with the guy who was supposed to make the food. He had burnt it all and we were laughing about it. As the atmosphere became friendlier, they agreed to give me my phone back.”

With lunch ruined, Hafiz offered to buy the fire crew pizza from a local hotel – a dish which is considered quite “high class” in this impoverished region. From a position of initial mistrust, the crew was soon won over.

As they ate, Hafiz took the opportunity to offer advice on the earlier incident – how it could be handled with much less stress by going through official channels.

“I lived an experience of being accused of espionage and then treated as a patriot within a few hours from the very same people,” Hafiz explained. “I work in this area regularly so I would not want to make enemies there.”

Agents like Hafiz are regularly thrown into tense situations where a lack of cultural awareness could inadvertently cause disrespect or inflame suspicions. In somewhere like Darfur, these concerns are all the more pronounced.

Despite the difficulties of this particular experience, Hafiz admits that it wasn’t entirely negative.

“I will admit that it gave me the chance to fulfill a childhood dream to be in a fire truck,” he added.