It’s been four years since I stepped on the sands of The Sudan, so coming back felt both familiar and a bit strange. Arrivals at Khartoum airport seemed much the same, though arriving at 2.30 a.m. on a Turkish Airlines flight meant that more than half of the only 30 or so passengers on board were actually transiting to Nairobi and Addis, so immigration was surprisingly fast and efficient. Remembering a bit of Arabic eased the way as well.
It was clear in the vivid daylight of a Khartoum morning though that the city has changed a lot since my last visit there. Oil money and Chinese investment has transformed swathes of the city into either endless vistas of new apartment blocks replacing the rather more elegant older villas and low rise suburbs, or in the Mogran area on the junction of the two Niles, a sparkling new city development called Al Sunut (the Sunut is the ubiquitous dryland tree, acacia nilotica) is transforming this part of Khartoum into Dubai on the Nile. High rise superstructures, cranes and building sites are everywhere, overshadowing the comparatively low rise Hilton Hotel, which used to be the dominant building in this part of town. Another obvious development was the burgeoning of new mosque buildings; with elaborately garish fluorescent green and white minarets thrusting into the dusty sky all around the city, the Gulf and Saudi influence clear here. Their volume controls also seem to be set to maximum as well judging by the inability to get any sleep after 5.15 a.m. anywhere in Khartoum.
I spent much of this visit bound to Khartoum but was fortunate to get out to El Geneina, only 20km from the Chad border, in West Darfur for a few days. You may remember my previous series on Darfur from 2005 following some extended time in that region. What’s the phrase? “Plus ça change”, or “same old, same old”. Despite political posturing that ‘The War in Darfur is over’ it didn’t feel much like it actually on the ground in Darfur and daily reports of skirmishes still gave the feeling of a region in active conflict. A ceasefire was signed between the Government and one of the main rebel groups, JEM (the Justice and Equality Movement who audaciously attacked Omdurman across the river from Khartoum in May 2008) on the day I flew out of El Geneina. However reported clashes continued after the ceasefire and there were credible reports of a major fire fight in the mountains of Jebel Mara with the other big rebel group, the SLA or Sudan Liberation Army in late February. It still seemed much like a war zone to me. When I mentioned to people that I was actually evacuated out of Darfur back in 1990, there was incredulity, but as I said, same old, same old.
What has changed since the last time I visited is the overt threat to the international humanitarian community. About a year ago the President of Sudan, Omer el Bashir, was indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The backlash against the international community was immediate with most of the biggest humanitarian agencies operating in Sudan facing immediate expulsion (on the grounds that they had helped provide evidence to the ICC, a claim that has no base in reality). Another effect was that foreign aid workers became legitimate targets especially for kidnap. This was unheard of when I was in Darfur in 2004 and 2005 but now kidnap training has become mandatory for all humanitarian agency staff. The threat is real and, as is intended, is hampering humanitarian operations as most roads are no-go and the only safe way around much of Darfur is inside a noisy UN Mil Mi8 helicopter.
There were a lot of UN and AU Hybrid Force (UNAMID) Blue Helmets on the ground in Darfur; but as their UN Chapter Seven mandate does not allow them to use much more than strong language against aggressive opposition it left me wondering what was the point. They have taken a lot of hits in recent times but are unable to take forceful action to protect civilians. Highly visible UNAMID APCs dotted around Geneina, and truckloads of swathed armed Blue Helmets scurrying busily around town were testament to the international peacekeeping presence, but there are still large areas of Darfur where insecurity and active conflict precludes humanitarian access and where the people still suffer mass displacement and the loss of home, livelihoods and indeed lives. At least the main IDP camps I visited have grown no larger but they haven’t gotten any smaller either and I met people who had lived there for 6 years now and still saw no prospect of a safe return home. I didn’t see any sign of oil money or Chinese investment in West Darfur, though!
I did find rather disturbing the tangle of wrecked aircraft remains on the ground at Geneina airport. It is an unsurfaced strip, hence a dusty landing and takeoff, but clearly it had been too much for the odd wrecked Antonov or Beechcraft tipped over crazily and by now largely stripped of anything of value. I’ve got used to this type of flying in and out of bush strips in Africa but never fail to find it unsettling and get that sweaty palmed feeling until we are up safe and away. The UN Humanitarian Air Service for Darfur provides largely Kenyan crews, flying Kenyan registered aircraft, which at least all seem to be in good shape (plane and crew!)
One thing that Sudan is not though is a Taliban state. In fact social mores in Sudan seem to be more relaxed than most countries which have adopted Sharia as their legal code. Women are very visible and not at all hidden away, they drive, work and study without apparent restriction. The colourful lightweight taub wrap-around, which still functions as the condescension to social modesty for many Sudanese women, is being replaced in the city by a headscarf and a pleasingly body-hugging long-sleeved top and skirt, which the longer you stay, the more attractive it becomes. A tiny minority has adopted the burka, but they stand out in the crowd. Alcohol is of course illegal but not unavailable, but I was also surprised how much the taste of alcohol free beer compensated for the lack of punch in it, and realised I actually enjoy the taste as much as the kick and can take one without the other.
I got a rare chance (in my line of work) to be a tourist for a day and visited the 2000 year old pyramids at ancient Meroë, 220 km and a three hour drive north of Khartoum near the Nile. Sudan actually has more pyramids than Egypt, although significantly smaller and badly damaged largely by 19th Century European treasure hunters and tomb raiders. It is still a stunning sight and largely free of mass tourism so you feel you mostly have the place to yourself. The Sudanese though are latching on to some of the opportunities of tourism and now offer camel rides around the pyramids for a modest 5-10 Sudanese Pounds (about £1.50 to £3 sterling) and have opened trinket stalls for the few who venture that far. The fact that it is still largely untouched by tourism though is what adds to the appeal.
Sudan is shortly having its first democratic multi-party elections in 24 years this April. Khartoum is full of election publicity supporting the incumbent President Bashir, with the rather dubious supporting slogan ‘For unity and peace’. The opposition candidates (11 of them) barely feature in the public eye, and with the incumbent largely in control of media and election publicity there is not much hope that they will get any comparable public exposure to state their case and make a reasonable showing. At least though it is a rare opportunity to challenge the status quo and show that there is a basis for political dialogue in what for the last 21 years has been pretty much a one party, one man state.