The Road to Khartoum
A year after the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar Bashir, I crossed the border into his country. He has ruled for the past 21 years since a coup in 1989, and my arrival coincided with the immediate run-up to the first multi-party elections in Sudan since 1986. Popular opinion was that he would walk away with the elections, having a firm grip on the country, and that such a win would “legitimise” his rule and counteract the indictment by the ICC.
I was unsure what to expect in Sudan. Most reactions regarding passage through the country were one of surprise, closely followed by questions of sanity. The coverage that the country receives in the international media is virtually wholly negative, between the situation in Darfur and the civil war between the north and south. The UK foreign office website is pretty damning in its advice on travel in the country.
There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.
On the other hand, the rare stories of people who have traveled in (northern) Sudan are glowing. People have said that Khartoum is one of the “safest places on Earth”, and the generosity and friendliness that the Sudanese people extend is astounding. I found this easy to believe, having previously visited countries with similarly “dangerous” reputations; my travels in Syria and Iran have been heavily marked by the welcome I received there.
I arrived by boat in Wadi Halfa, the border town 40km south of the Egyptian frontier that cuts across Lake Nasser. South of here, the whole of Sudan stretches out. The FCO websites charts the country by its dangers, ranging from the conflict in Darfur to the West, to the risks of banditry linked to smuggling in the Red Sea state (bordering Eritrea) to the East. The south is the land of the 22-year long north-south civil war that was ended five years ago by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but where travel is to be strongly avoided. Khartoum is the stage for political rallies and anti-government demonstrations, “some have turned violent”. To complete the negative image that surrounds Sudan, in the early 1990s it was the base for Osama Bin Laden, “from where he directed some of his first terrorist attacks”.
These are the cons. But my attitude is rather that I refuse to believe that whole populations of such countries can live in such hate and violence, and that whilst certain precautions should to be taken, much of this can be avoided. Tales of the friendliness of people throughout the country, of little explored villages, the archeological legacy of the northern pyramids, the lush banks of the Nile, and the fascinating political landscape meant that the merits of spending some time here outweighed these issues.
I was eager to see where this road would take me.