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Telling it like it is

There are no proper hotels because Sudan is under US and United Nations economic sanctions for being a state sponsor of terrorism and for human rights violations in Darfur and southern Sudan, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2008 01:33 IST

We were almost hijacked the moment we set foot in Khartoum. Whisked away from the airport terminal by two men we thought were from the Indian embassy, we were taken to the VIP terminal where the men took our passports and baggage tags to complete the formalities.

Waiting for their return, Nirmal Pathak, a journalist travelling with me, asked if I was sure these men were from the embassy. I said no and, worried they had disappeared with our passports, Nirmal went looking. When they returned, they told us they were from the Sudanese information department. They had booked us into a hotel and would take us there and, later in the morning, (it was around 4:30 in the morning of March 31) they would take us to Darfur.

All this while (about 45 minutes) the men denied any knowledge of the Indian Embassy. We argued that we were Indian nationals and the Embassy’s Head of Chancery, Ajay Kumar, was waiting for us elsewhere in the airport. Placing our suitcases into their car, they started driving us to the hotel. As our protests mounted, they said the other terminal was far away and we would go there later. We vocally refused, turned them towards the other terminal and there, looking harassed and worried, was Kumar, carrying our name placards.

After a further 30-minute argument session, this time in Arabic between Kumar and one of the men called Mohammed Helmy, our bags were transferred to the embassy’s Land Cruiser. We went to the Indian-owned Horizon Hotel, one of two passable guesthouses in the Sudanese capital. Helmy had booked us into the other one called the Takaa nearby.

There are no proper hotels because Sudan is under US and United Nations economic sanctions for being a state sponsor of terrorism and for human rights violations in Darfur and southern Sudan. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi has been building a hotel for years in the heart of Khartoum, but ‘Gaddafi’s Egg’ (so called because the shape resembles an egg) is yet to start functioning.

Once in the room, the experience gradually seeped in and, for the first time in ages, I felt a kind of panic wondering where I had landed.

Kumar promptly told India’s Ambassador Deepak Vohra, who protested to the Sudanese foreign ministry. It so turned out the foreign ministry had no idea. They found out that the information department, desperate to get some good press, had decided this was how they would ensure “positive coverage” of their role in Darfur. Vohra, who is well clued in and has tremendously good access within the Sudanese corridors of power, told them exactly where they got off!

Realising how disturbed I was by the incident, Vohra urged us to move into the Ambassador’s residence even though Khartoum is considered the safest capital in Africa. The next few days, we discovered very warm feelings for India and Indians.

What was disconcerting however, was how the reception committee knew of our flight connections. I did not know them myself when I left Delhi. It’s easy to laugh off the incident in retrospect, as a case of overzealous attention from a regime desperate to get good press.

The Sudanese government blames the media for the bad coverage they receive, particularly the western media. Over the next few days, as this incident was narrated, people like information minister Alzawahy Ibrahim Malak and minister of state for foreign affairs Elsamani Elwasila spoke of how the media misquotes them and only gives negative coverage. “You are welcome and free to go anywhere,” Malak said. “Only write about what is happening.”

‘Allah o Akbar’

From there everything went uphill, including the daytime temperature which touched mid-40s, making even an inveterate shopper like me completely immune to the lure of the few wooden souvenirs available by the roadside near the Nile.

There is an orange steel road bridge transported from India overlooking the sangam where the Blue Nile joins the White Nile in Khartoum. Dour policemen guarding the bridge refused to let us stand on the bridge and take photos of the confluence from where the Nile continues as one body into Egypt.

The kids at Khedarab village were anything but dour, smiling brightly and greeting our arrival with cries of “Allah o Akbar” (God is Great). The Indian government has electrified the village located 120 km from Khartoum, using solar power. The initiative came after the visit by former President APJ Abdul Kalam. We drove along 75 kms of metalled highway, after which we hit the dirt track through several completely empty-looking villages till we arrived at Khedarab where, like the rest of Sudan, Indians are warmly welcomed. The electricity provides light to classes so girls and boys with exams the next day were attending special evening classes. The computer was working, mobile phones could be charged, the medical clinic functioned and the streetlights came on in what seemed like a remote corner of the African desert.

The village sheikh had laid out a special meal for Kumar and us two journalists. Among other items on a huge metal platter were delicacies like raw camel liver, roasted fowl, a curry of lamb meat and spinach and baked bread made from sorghum. We politely broke some bread, while the local gentry and Omar, our driver, tucked into the goodies.

The kids who are taught English, spoke with much enthusiasm, urging us to stay longer. The way back was around 30 km longer because Omar lost his way among the dirt tracks. But we finally found our way back to the highway. On our return, Vohra asked how they greeted us. When he heard, ‘Allah o Akbar,’ he said all was fine.

Boom time

There are no golden arches (US fast food chain McDonald’s) visible in Khartoum, but a new Italian eatery selling good pizza, a hip Ozone café (where the young and trendy hang out), Egyptian and Lebanese and even Indian restaurants show the city is clearly booming with new oil money. Though many of the roads within the city are kutcha, huge cranes dominate the skyline and frenetic construction work is on. However, the Sudanese have not begun utilising the potential of the Nile, the bulk of which (4,000 km) runs through Sudan. Only one barge plies along that entire stretch. Even the city’s riverfront is a faded copy of Cairo’s bustling waterfront, where Nile cruises are a part of the ‘package’.