Trying (Not) To Leave Sudan
The overhead fan blew a slight breeze over my skin as mosquitos buzzed around in the hot, stuffy air. Forty-five minutes after I finally lay down my head on a pillow, sweat dripping into the mattress, my alarm sounded. But it did not rouse me. Waking up an hour later, the sunrise beginning to stream light into the room, profanities burst through the shadows. I grabbed my bag, locked the house and ran out onto the dusty street, hoping to find an amjad to take me to the airport. The elderly, fumbling driver weaved around pot-holes in the uneven dirt streets as my heart is pounding and I am checking my watch. This is going to be tight.
For the last ten months, I have traveled from Turkey to Sudan without the inconvenience of air travel, each time acutely aware of the precise moment when I crossed an international boundary. I had hoped to carry on this run to Kenya, via Ethiopia and a brief sojourn in Somaliland, but events conspired against me. My passport was soon to expire, meaning that I was denied an Ethiopian visa. The Amharic swirls in the visa I had obtained back in April—when Sudan was just a country of passage—lay unstamped, expired in my passport. And due to my recent work for UNICEF, I hadn’t the time left to travel through Southern Sudan directly to the Kenyan border. And besides, the security situation makes the journey unfeasible.
I didn’t want to leave the country at this point. I had friends, contacts and more work lined up; more importantly, an interest in the country and the months that would follow. But I had reached the maximum number of visa extensions (and then one more on top of that) and was now persona non grata. But now, I risked missing my window to leave.
Arriving at the international departures terminal with a little over an hour before my flight, I was already drenched with sweat, the adrenaline pumping at this early-morning roller-coaster. The guards there operate a strict door policy, and when I said I was taking the Marsland flight to Juba, they pointed me in the direction of the domestic terminal, a kilometre or two down the road. “Since when is Nairobi domestic?” I asked, but they were adamant that Marsland, black-listed by the UN for their safety standards, did not fly from here. Another taxi-ride and I was hauling my backpack into the domestic terminal, hoping he was right. The clock was ticking.
Arriving at the security desk, peculiarly the step before check-in, the problems really began. In my haste of writing articles, saying goodbye to people, and settling my affairs in Sudan, I had misread my exit visa. Fi mushkila said the official on the desk, pointing out I had a problem. My visa had expired the previous day, the day I had bought my ticket. Mushkila kabir — a big problem.
Three years ago when going to Barcelona, I had made a similar mistake. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle ready to fly to the Catalan capital for a weekend, and realised I was a week early. I had a date in my head and didn’t check the ticket. The boy doesn’t learn. But this time, the problem was a lot more serious. I would have to go to the immigration department, back at the other terminal, which at this time of the morning was not open. I imagined the fine I would get slapped with, as well as the lost air-ticket fare. The thought of turning up on the doorstep of a friend I had just six hours before bid farewell filled me with shame.
As I speak to the duty manager for Marsland, he insists that it is not “a problem of the [regime of the] north, it is the paperwork for Juba”. North-South one-upmanship. He extends the check-in deadline for me, and tries to resolve the issue, but with little success.
The clock is still ticking.
Twenty minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave, I make a last ditch effort. “Is there some sort of fine I can pay here, now?” I ask the official. I have never so blatantly proposed a bribe, but I am desperate. He takes me into a back-office where a man is seated behind a desk scattered with documents bearing Chinese letterheads. Boxes are strewn around the floor. He tells me a figure for my “fine” and I balk. Luckily I had stashed my US dollars in a different pocket minutes before, and so I open up my wallet and show them the remaining Sudanese pounds laying in it. “This is all I have.” The man behind the desk sweeps his arms and says something in Arabic I don’t catch, implying that his proposed figure is what was paid for each box.
I walk back out with the official who brought me in, and am led to an office bearing the sign “Customs Inspection”. I fear a search will reveal my stash of dollars. But he repeats the price, and I show him how much I have. With downcast eyes, he accepts, against higher orders.
I run over to the check-in desk just as they are selling my ticket—the only unclaimed space on the plane—to a man in a suit. Upon seeing me, they apologise to the man. This man has a ticket. My bag is checked, and I am rushed through security, a whisper in the ear of the man with the stamp. Khalas, it is over.
Walking into the departures lounge I am immediately shown to the plane. A final text-message is sent to a friend in Khartoum. “I did it, I’m through.” There are just the officials in Juba to contend with now, but I am assured that I will not have a problem by the Marsland fixer.
Sat in the plane, an announcement is broadcast saying that the departure has been delayed due to a “VIP” flying in. UN HAS & WFP aircraft line the runway. This is Sudan.
As the city disappears below, the swollen Nile covering a much wider area than when I had arrived four months previously, I think of the people I had met here and were now leaving behind. I plan on coming back, but many will have gone by then, as is the transient nature of the country. With certain refugee friends, our parting words had a strange ring; “I hope you’ll be gone by the time I get back”. They were desperate to leave; I was desperate to come back.