Anyone who has visited this derelict city in recent times finds its exotic reputation inexplicable. The two Niles--the muddy Blue and White, each covered with a green slime--snake along its waterfront to their confluence at the northern end of the city, under a bridge carrying traffic to the sister city of Omdurman.
Mounds of refuse and piles of unused bricks encroach on the streets. The railway yard that divides the two major sections of town is a graveyard of twisted steel, with scarcely a tank car or locomotive standing upright. Everything around gives the impression of a society that has long since given up the effort.
A monstrous north wind carrying sand and dust so thick it turned the sky a dull, weighty crimson blew through Khartoum on my first day there. No effort at sealing doors and windows keeps the fine debris from the haboub, as the wind is called, out of one's house, and the storm leaves one with an unpleasant metallic taste in the mouth. When the haboub passes there is a crippling heat.
I had arrived in Sudan in mid-March with two colleagues representing the Chicago Tribune and the Independent, a British daily. It was two years since my last visit, and in that time the country, which already seemed to be at the bottom of the heap, had gotten worse. Sudan was still a democracy, if a wretched one, in early 1989, so blind to the needs of its people, political and economic, that it fell entirely unlamented to a coup that June.
Incredibly, the new regime was even worse. Dominated by radical Islamic fundamentalists, the junta threw scores of professors, lawyers and doctors in jail as potential dissidents. On a country made up roughly equally of Muslims and Christians this regime imposed Islamic civil law, or sharia. In its Sudanese version, sharia calls for such penalties as amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. Theft of the equivalent of $40 was punishable by the loss of a hand, although the public was assured that the figure would be periodically adjusted for inflation (running this year at 200%).
On top of that came famine.
That was the story we had come to report. Word from the countryside suggested that three years of drought had placed as many as 7 million Sudanese on the verge of starvation. Foreign donors, including the United States, had so far pledged less than 40% of what was needed to avert disaster.
Over the next 10 days, we would see considerable evidence of misery in the famine district, and something much more: hard evidence of the government's hostility toward the foreigners attempting to stem the toll, and its indifference to its own people's misery.
Getting to the famine zone, we knew, would not be easy. The Sudanese government had been so sensitive about the disaster growing in the country that it had never admitted that a famine existed. It was a "food gap," the authorities said, a "scarcity."
Our first stop was the Ministry of Information, to pick up press cards and obtain a letter endorsing our request to travel outside of Khartoum. At the end of a dank hallway we found the office of Mahboub Saba, a young man in charge of "external affairs"--foreign correspondents. Saba was sitting at one end of a long table, scribbling busily.
Its six other chairs were occupied by hangers-on in poses that suggested a catatonic state. Most were hunched over so far their chins rested on the table. This was a reminder that it was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. The Sudanese bureaucracy is torpid in the best of times; the daylong fast would only make things worse.
Saba agreed to write the letter and to arrange a couple of government interviews. We were instructed to come back in three days.
After filing our travel applications with the police, the next morning we drove out to Suk Libya, a displaced-persons camp hard by a vast open-air latrine on the outskirts of Omdurman (near enough to Khartoum that special permits were unnecessary).
Its focal point, like that of any other refugee camp in Africa, was a clinic and feeding center for children and nursing mothers, operated by a small European relief agency that spent much of its energy fending off a government attempt to seize the clinic and convert it to an infirmary for the legitimate residents of Omdurman.
Here malnourished children under 5 and their mothers are given three to five meals a day of a special protein-enriched compound. Joyce Eluzai, a nurse acting as our interpreter, explained that children too ill to be helped at the center were sent on to Omdurman Hospital.
By that point, however, they were probably too starved to survive, and the staff assumed that most of them subsequently died. "Three to four die per month here in the feeding center," Eluzai added.
We asked to see a recent arrival from Kordofan, the heart of the famine zone. Eluzai introduced us to a middle-aged woman cradling a child in her shawl.
The child looked to be about 6 months old. His name was Ekhlas, and his hair had the characteristic grayish-orange tint of marasmus, the wasting disease that is the first stage of death for Africa's tiniest starvation victims.
"Why did she come here?"
Eluzai translated the question, and the woman muttered something in Arabic.
"She came for life. They depend on farming and they could not farm this year."
The woman continued. Her people depend on dura wheat as a staple, but after more than two years of drought the price of a 200-pound bag, which would feed a family of five for one month, was up to 2,400 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of about $40. They could not afford that.
"If they had money, they would have stayed at home," Eluzai translated. "But there was no rain, so they came, four months ago."
Ekhlas was improving under the feeding center regimen, although he still had some diarrhea, a cough and a fever. "He was skinny before, but he's better now."
We asked Ekhlas' age. His infant feet peeked out from the shawl, and he could scarcely hold his head upright, much less stand on his own. The woman held up some fingers. "He is 3 years old," she said.
We heard similar stories from others in the dark tent. There was no food back in Kordofan, no rain for three years. The last of the sheep had died from hunger, and people were even eating the seed grain that should have been set aside for the next year's planting. A woman named Rosha Abdel told us that half of her village was already in Khartoum. "We came from hunger and for medicine."
But they had come to the wrong place. The last thing the Sudanese government wants is for refugees to start gathering around the capital; the relief organization operating the clinic had been mercilessly harassed, their workers figured, because it was engaged in helping people the government views as outcasts. In the previous few weeks, the regime had begun burning down camps like this one and trucking the residents to a new spot about 25 miles out of town. It was a district of pure desolation, void of trees or reeds with which to build shelter, completely waterless and far from food or the prospect of work. Its name was Dar el Salaam, or "haven of peace."
Later we saw Dr. Ibrahim Abuoaf, the commissioner of relief and rehabilitation, to get the government's position on the complaints we had heard that the regime was bent on obstructing the relief effort. While 60 foreign aid agencies are trying to function in Khartoum, the government has been restricting their travel, seizing their equipment and periodically ejecting them from Sudan.
Abuoaf is a middling Islamic ideologue with some family connection in the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. He is in a position without clout, pressured by the donors on one side and government hard-liners on the other. His one great accomplishment was to establish fortnightly meetings with the non-government relief groups, but in easing their conflicts with the government, his record was indifferent.
His position seems to be that bureaucratic obstruction comes with the territory.
"People undertaking relief efforts should try to live with difficulties in the Third World," he said. Of course, that was one thing when the difficulties were the standard logistic problems of developing countries and quite another when they amounted to deliberate harassment by the authorities.
The next day we checked back on our travel permits. Because the government would never explain why it rejected an application, we were following a special strategy: Instead of listing several destinations, which could risk a total rejection if just one was ruled off-limits, we cited only one: El Obeid, the capital of Kordofan is the "epicenter" of the famine, we had been told, but its governor was especially cooperative. If we could get that far, we thought, the governor himself could clear our onward journey to badly stricken districts in his state, like Bara and Sodiri.
So far, so good: Our permits were approved in less than 24 hours, record time. The next morning we disembarked from our hired Cessna single-engine plane in El Obeid.
The provincial capital's streets were of loose sand, deep enough to cover one's shoes. A vehicle from CARE, the international aid agency, which operates extensively in the region, met us at the airport and took us to the organization's local headquarters. The first thing we learned was that the security police were alert to our arrival. We would have to present ourselves to the officers.
Guarding the entrance to the police station was a sinister-looking man with a dark goatee, a loose open shirt and bare feet--the security man's uniform. He motioned us wordlessly to take some empty seats. We waited for a few minutes before being shown to the chief of security's office.
"We would like to visit Bara."
Suspiciously, he rustled our travel permit in his hand. "But this says only El Obeid. If you want to go to Bara, it should say Bara."
"We thought perhaps that now we are here, the governor and yourself could issue permits for Bara."
He considered this a while, then moved to get rid of us. "No problem. Come back tomorrow morning, at seven."
An experienced Africa traveler never accepts "no problem" as an indication of assent. We knew we were still far from gaining approval. The next stop was the governor's office.
Here our plan collapsed. The governor might have heroically pressed for famine relief for his state despite the national government's indifference, but he was politically savvy enough not to entertain a troupe of foreign journalists. He was unavailable, we were flatly told. Gone to Khartoum. (This, we learned a day later, was untrue.)
We walked out of the governor's compound to witness a curious drama taking place on a grassy square out front. Hundreds of people from a bordering displaced-persons camp had gathered, evidently as supplicants to the governor. One uneasy soldier was all that stood between them and the compound.
The moment we appeared, three white men stepping into a brand-new vehicle, the crowd stirred. Several women got to their feet and moved toward the street, beckoning toward us. They put their fingers to their mouths and then opened their empty palms. They rubbed their empty stomachs. They grumbled in an increasingly angry murmur. The soldier nervously stroked his carbine.
An official came outside and took aside our guide, a local representative of the United Nations. He held an urgent conversation with her as the crowd began to move en masse toward the building. Clearly they were demonstrating for our benefit.
The U.N. guide came back and smiled at us apologetically. "You have been asked to leave," she said.
The next day found us back in the waiting room of the police. The same security man with his sinister goatee was at the desk. A crowd of truck drivers and other travelers filled the space in front of him, each with a travel permit or other scrap of paper necessary to function in this harshly regimented society. The goatee studiously ignored the mob, inscrutably summing up a column of numbers on a sheet of paper, before officiously turning his attention to them.
Finally the chief reappeared.
"I can approve your trip to Bara," he said. He held our attention long enough to reveal the catch. "All you have to do is get these papers approved at the Interior Ministry and by the governor. Then bring them back here and I will stamp them."
He was proposing a course that would take days, even assuming the other authorities were willing to cooperate. Wearily, we concluded the task was impossible. We had only one day before our chartered plane had to return to Khartoum. We retreated to Plan B: view the refugee camp that has sprung up on the edge of El Obeid, mostly of people from Sodiri and Bara, the districts we had been effectively denied permission to see.
The security officer in El Obeid warned us that no photographs would be permitted.
("But we have photo permits from Khartoum," we said.
("They are not good here," he said.)
When we arrived at the displaced-persons camp, the only person who spoke English was a nurse named Sister Nefissa, a kindly woman with a maternal appearance, except for the three fearsome tribal scars running vertically down each cheek. With her assistance we spoke with several refugee women, hearing more stories of children perished, husbands vanished in the search for work, flocks of sheep and goats and herds of cattle destroyed by thirst and hunger, their carcasses left to desiccate in the moistureless wind until their skin was like parchment.
A terrible haboub was blowing, bleaching the landscape to an almost arctic hue. The outlying tukuls, or huts, of the camp were invisible in the pink haze. Sister Nefissa told us a little about the life of the camp. Mostly, it revolved around funerals. So many children died every week that virtually the only place in the camp with steady activity was its graveyard.
We asked Sister Nefissa if she could show us this place, and her smile evaporated. At that moment a young man strode up.
"This is the camp security officer," Sister Nefissa said. Our spirits sank further. She spoke to him in Arabic, evidently repeating our request. He gestured with his arms like a baseball umpire signaling "out!" and the emphatic shake of his head did not need to be translated.
No pictures, no travel, but more horrific stories of hopeless misery. This part of Kordofan was better served than most other famine zones by commitment of relief food--it was likely to get 75% of what was needed.
A few days later, I was on a plane bound for my home in Nairobi. That morning Sudan was ejecting two Ethiopian diplomats, over an old political disagreement. Our Ethiopian Airlines plane was held up for two hours while the Sudanese searched through the diplomats' baggage--twice.
One diplomat, perspiring with nervousness and frustration, finally took a seat next to me. Like every other Khartoum diplomat I had met he was bitter and exasperated with the unfeeling government. He had served in Europe and several places in Africa, he said. "And I've never been so fearful for my safety as I was here."
He kept his 6-year-old son in a firm grip, as if afraid the Sudanese would yet come on the plane and seize him. Nine months in Khartoum had soured him on the foreign service. He now faced the prospect of returning to the world's poorest country, a homeland beset by rebel forces poised to overthrow his government, which might bring bloody anarchy.
Even so, he said, "I think it's better to stay home."