Sudan revisited

Daybreak over Kassala. Wonderful place. Shame about the police.

This is the second time I’m travelling around Sudan and I have to say that it is rather fun to visit all the old places that I last saw three years ago. There is a timeless familiarity to them. Things may be a little pricier. There may be a few more beggars. But, by and large, they seem to have remained the same.

What has not remained the same, though, is my level of patience. When you travel in Sudan, you come to expect a certain level of police harassment. Unlike in other countries, there is nothing for the foreigner to fear from the police – unless you really are doing something wrong – and I’ve never heard of them soliciting bribes. Rather, it’s the blasted inconvenience of the whole thing.

In Atbara, I made the mistake of asking a snappily-dressed fellow, wearing tinted glasses, for directions to the main bus station. If you’re going to ask directions, never do so of someone standing on the street looking overly smart, particularly if he is the tinted glasses-wearing type. He turned out to be a member of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), dreaded by some Sudanese but mostly an annoyance for the khwadja. He demanded to see my passport so I showed him. It goes without saying that he refused to produce any ID – they never do, however much you ask, something that I think the government should really put an end to because it makes it easier for conmen to imitate the NISS. I was questioned for almost an hour about my business in Atbara and, at the end of this thoroughly tedious ordeal, was allowed on my way.

In Port Sudan, I was unable to leave the town until I had paid the immigration services 31 SDG. For what, I am still not sure exactly, since I already had a travel permit. But they insisted that I needed a further travel permit between Port Sudan and Kassala. I was feeling very ill at the time, so I lost the will to argue.

In Kassala, I was unknowingly walking past the local offices of the NISS, camera in hand (but not yet poised to take a photo). A hand on my shoulder and the softly-whispered words “police”. I was tired and reluctant to go through another irritating and pointless questioning exercise, so I demanded to see the man’s ID. He spoke good English, but of course would show me no ID, so I had no option but to go with him. He was pleasant enough, telling me “not to worry” and that “it would be alright.” I wasn’t in the least bit worried. I was just simmering with annoyance.

As it turned out, things did take a bit of explaining. On my camera, there was just one picture, that of a cockroach from my hotel. I had taken the picture in order to show to the owners that my room had cockroaches in and so I should be entitled to a discount, though this didn’t work. The problem was that this possibly contravened what it said on my photography permit – that I was not to take pictures of “slum areas, beggars and other defaming subject[s].” I deleted the photo. The other problem was my notepad. I had been drawing a map of Kassala, for inclusion in our new guidebook, which immediately looked suspicious. But, in the end, I was allowed to go on my merry way.

In Khartoum, I needed police approval to leave to Wad Medani. In Wad Medani, I needed police approval to leave to Kosti. In a couple of days, I am on my way to El-Obeid, not far from where trouble has been brewing in Kadugli, and so I am pretty sure I am going to face another grilling (maybe more) by the security services.

Every time I am stopped, I have to sit through a totally pointless interview about my business in Sudan, in a muddle of my poor Arabic and their poor English. And it is an utter waste of time. There is no point to it. If I was driving a car – so did indeed have money – I would be harassed far less, perhaps not at all.

But there is something I still do cherish about travelling in Sudan, and that is its safety. The harassment may be a little annoying, but everywhere I go I feel safe and there is always someone to help out if I get into trouble. I think no other country in Africa can rival Sudan in this respect.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend was driving us back from a party at two o’clock in the morning. We took a turning down an unlit street, under a bridge, and suddenly saw a cone blocking our path. Our friend stopped and honked his horn to rouse the shabbily-clothed men under the bridge, but my heart was in my mouth.

I wasn’t the only one. Violetta comes from Naples, and when the road is blocked there, that usually mean someone is about to jump your car. Luke had just spent several months travelling from South Africa up to Sudan and knew very well that, in Africa, a blocked road equalled a lost car. Guns would be drawn, bags would be handed over.

But all the men here did was get up and move the cone. One man had not got up. He stayed sprawled on the side of his road, with his leg thrust out into the street. Our friend told him to move his leg, unless he wanted us to run it over.

And that was that.

It may be frustrating as hell to deal with pointless questioning by the police all the time, but at least travel is safe.

Quid pro quo.

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