During my posting to Egypt, I also visited the Sudan on a regular basis every quarter of the calendar year more or less. In those days we did not have an Embassy in Khartoum and we were accredited to the Sudan but not residing there. If we went to Khartoum we could, in case of emergency, go to the UK Embassy. Now the British had been in the Sudan for a very long time and they had a long colonial history, where as Canada had none whatsoever.
To me Khartoum was a place I had seen in an old movie, the scene where Gordon and the British are waiting for relief from Cairo and are besieged in their compound. In a desperate attempt to frighten the natives who are on a religious war path led by the Mahdi, Gordon dresses up in his parade uniform with all his medals and steps out at the top of the stairs armed with his sabre and a pistol. The sight of him did in fact stop the battle according to accounts, the natives were startled to say the least, however one warrior chucked a spear at him and killed him, all was lost.
Here is a little historical background to that bit of history. Since the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, the British military presence had ensured that Egypt remained a de facto British protectorate. Egypt also controlled the Sudan, and the administration of the Sudan was considered a domestic Egyptian matter by the British government. It was left to the Khedive’s government to administer. As a result, the suppression of the Mahdist revolt was left to the Egyptian army, which suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of the Mahdist rebels at El Obeid, in November 1883. The Mahdi’s forces captured huge amounts of equipment and overran large parts of the Sudan, including Darfur and Kordofan.
The Mahdist forces backed their self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. He claimed to be the redeemer of the Islamic nation and enjoyed the support of many in Sudan who desired independence from their Egyptian rulers.
The rebellion brought the Sudan to the attention of the British government and public. Prime Minister William Gladstone and War Secretary Lord Hartington did not wish to become involved in the Sudan and persuaded the Egyptian government to evacuate all their garrisons in the Sudan. General Charles George Gordon, a popular figure in Great Britain and former Governor-General of Sudan in 1876-79, was appointed to accomplish this task. If you visit London UK go to St-Paul’s Cathedral and there you will see the Memorial to General Gordon next to that of Frederick Lord Leighton.
Going to the Sudan from Cairo is a two-hour flight straight down the Nile to Khartoum. Air Sudan had a terrible safety record, most of their flights were either delayed for days or cancelled, was not an option. So I could take Egypt Air, which is a reliable airline or Lufthansa or British Airways. But there was a rule, I needed to obtain from the Egyptian Authorities permission to board the flight at Cairo for the last leg towards Khartoum. Egypt Air wanted to protect their traffic monopoly and Cairo was just a pit stop for flights from Europe or returning to Europe from the Sudan. I preferred to opt for Lufthansa for various practical reasons and comfort and would board at Cairo. I would also carry with my luggage all my files for a week’s worth of work, remember these are the days before computers, we were still using IBM Selectric typewriters, and would also often have several bags of diplomatic mail, which attracted a lot of attention upon arrival in Khartoum, though such mail is inviolate, meaning cannot be inspected by Customs authorities, the Sudanese government was still curious, though they knew they could not tamper with the bags.
In 1989 a new government was in place in the Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir became President in a coup d’état. He is currently accused of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in Darfur and in the War in South Sudan. Darfur was an issue then and the bloody war in South Sudan was raging on, also Ethiopians and Eritreans were streaming by the tens of thousands out of Ethiopia, the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was about to collapse and famine was yet again threatening the country.
It was estimated that over 1 million Ethiopians lived in the Sudan at that period. They were not welcomed and not well treated by the Sudanese, may horrors were visited upon this population by the Sudanese army. You had several reasons for this conflict, the Sudanese in the North saw themselves ethnically as Arabs, Muslims. Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians and belong to a very old people of a different ethnicity. The Sudanese in the South were Africans either Christians or Animists. The Government of the Sudan wanted to dominate and control them, slavery was an acceptable form of control on those population seen as inferiors. The Government in Khartoum also had very poor relations with Egypt because the Egyptians were the former masters historically speaking, a very complex situation which had nothing to do with logic and all to do with twisted Politics. In other words a lot of human misery could be seen everywhere. Also at that time the Sudan decided to ally itself with Saddam Hussein’s Regime in Iraq against the West.
Khartoum as a city then was dusty and had few remarkable buildings, except for the Cathedral now closed, the Palace of the British Governor now the President’s Palace and the Hilton hotel where the Blue and the White Nile met, that hotel is today called the Coral. Each time I visited Khartoum there would some kind of epidemic, typhoid, plague, etc… I also needed to take my Malaria pills and have by yellow health booklet of numerous inoculations. The Hilton however was another planet, a modern building with its own power supply, water purification plant and armed guards once inside the compound it really was another world.
All the food of the hotel was brought from Europe on a daily basis and all meals were lavish buffets, of seafood, beef, chicken, mountains of desserts and fresh fruits. The bar had been closed for political reasons and so was the pool for pseudo-religious reasons. It was all surreal and typical of such regimes in most third world countries. There was nowhere else to stay in Khartoum, that was clean, safe and secure. The Sudanese government could also in a crude fashion monitor our presence.
At night there were few lights in the City and a curfew after 9pm. Tanks would appear and heavily armed soldiers manned several intersections of the city. Late at night you would also often hear machine gun fire. If you wanted to circulate after 9pm, you had to have with you 2 items, one a special curfew pass obtained only through special permission usually payable in bottles of Johnnie Walker Scotch to a so-called religious official and lots of Marlboro cartons of cigarettes to be given to the soldiers on the streets at check-points, they could not read the Official Curfew pass, only spoke Arabic and they were usually in a very dark mood. It did happen that you would get to a check-point and the soldiers were asleep, what to do, do you wake them up and get shot or beaten severely, you could not simply drive through, because that would create other problems, so often you would stop, somewhere on a very dark street and make noise so the soldiers would wake-up and offer them cigarettes. Marlboro always did the trick and you would get a smile out of them and a quick signal to move along. During my stay in Khartoum I would meet a lot of people and travel in the Sudan to Port Sudan and to Kassala. I would see the increasing presence of the Communist Chinese and their early investments, another way of cultivating allies in geo-political conflicts. I would also have a most memorable encounter in 1991 at the Hilton, but that will be for a later post.