During my regular visits to the Sudan I had the opportunity to travel to other cities. At that time the Sudan was the largest African country. In the South which will eventually become independent from the North after a vicious Civil War a great armed conflict was taking place and we could not travel there. Darfur to the West of Khartoum was also in turmoil though it was not yet in the news, you would have to wait another 10 years before the World noticed the problem. In the East on the Red Sea was Port Sudan, at Kassala on the border with Ethiopia masses of Ethiopian refugees were crossing into the Sudan at very great risk to their lives.
I was offered by the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s Office to travel with another UN Officer to Port Sudan, Suakin and to Kassala. It was relatively safe and we had official documents to travel within the country. We made contact with UN Outposts and organized our trip.
In 1989 the Government of the People’s Republic of China was already present in the Sudan. This was the beginning of the great investments China would make in the World on various continents. First in Africa and later in Latin America and later still in Europe. The Chinese were after 2 things which mattered to them, first an ally for any International question that might arise at the UN or in other forum where they needed a friendly vote or support. The Chinese were quite dispose to vote buying. Secondly they were after raw resources to fuel their development. They were willing to invest massively into companies or natural resources in order to exploit them to fuel their own development at home. In return the Chinese would provide the Government of that Country with political support and financial gifts of all kinds including bursaries to study in China for the children of the political elite. The Chinese did not invent influence peddling with infusion of large cash gifts, many countries have done so in the past. They were simply new at the game and they had significantly more money than anyone in the game including the Russian and the Americans. It was also important to understand that China had a relationship with Africa NOT with Africans, this remains true to this day.
They already had building crews in the Sudan, building hotels, restaurants and roads. Their buildings looked Chinese in architecture and it was quite funny to see in an African country. Their crews all live in compounds and ate Chinese foods and did not venture out except to work, they were always segregated from the local population. Later the Libyan Government of Colonel Ghadaffi would finance important building projects in the Sudan and in Khartoum the Capital. Iraq under Saddam Hussein also came calling in the late 1980’s but it did not produce the monetary investments the Sudanese regime was looking for.
To go to Port Sudan from Khartoum you had to fly to your destination, the Red Sea Hills a great rocky dessert had to be crossed and flying was the easiest way. A service was provided by a private Canadian company with two Canadian bush pilots. The plane was a 6 seater. The trip was uneventful and for me an expedition, once in Port Sudan we had a UN Jeep 4X4, in those days Port Sudan was primitive, there were hotels of sort but is was spartan to say the least. The hotel we were staying at was a concrete block white washed and all the wood trims and desks were a light blue colour.
The rooms if you can call them that were windowless concrete rectangles, where the window should have been a air conditioning unit was jammed in and made a dull roar to keep the room cold and humid like a meat locker. There was electrical lights, you had to bring with you a flashlight otherwise you had to use matches or get used to the pitch black darkness of your cell like room. I immediately asked to be move to something less spartan and dark. I did not want the AC unit to cool things down, the manager at the Front desk was amazed that as a foreigner I did not want that convenience. It is very hot in the day time, a dry heat around 45 C and at night it falls to a cool 30 C. I asked to sleep on the roof under the stars. They did have cots made of wood and the mattress was thick ropes, your travel bag could be your pillow. We would have an early start in the morning anyways. The call to prayers from the Minarets is at dawn, you really cannot sleep through that, not that I am religious, it is just that it is so loud you cannot miss it.
I had learned after one year living in Egypt that the five prayer calls during the day are all different. Some Muezzin have beautiful voices while others had that unpleasant Arabic nasal pronunciation. I also had learned the call to prayer by heart, pretty easy to do when you hear it five times each day of the week all year round. It always starts with God is Great, Mohamed is the Messenger of God then you would hear the sentence for that specific prayer inviting you to come to pray. The last prayer is in the evening when no day light is left in the sky. Muslims can pray anywhere since God is everywhere. The Sun sets quickly since we are near the Equator. I do recall that for dinner we had some roasted meat with rice in a local market. It was not a bad meal, the bread was freshly made a flat round type of bread still hot from the oven. I slept well and then came morning, bread and sugared tea, there was some fruit you could peel and off we went to visit local Officials and the UN Offices. We then travelled by Jeep to Suakin about 45 Km South of Port Sudan and to the UN Out Post on our way to Kassala.
The UN Out post was in the middle of nowhere in a very flat area inland. All the buildings and furniture was from IKEA, it was very modern and very well organized. There was a razor wire fence all around and it was guarded by men in white tunics with great big white turbans in Sudanese fashion, they were armed with broad swords as sharp as razors. They were quite beautiful and the sheath was made of engraved leather.
I visited the local market in Suakin and asked for the finest sword they had. I was shown several models, the fellow showed me how fine a blade it was, the steel sings when you handle the sword in a certain way, it is a unique object and I bought one as a souvenir. Despite the broad blade it is a light sword.
The UN Out post was staffed by an international crew of UN employees who were engineers and relief workers, accountants and economists and international aid staff, medical staff, nurses and staff who worked with refugees from Ethiopia. The music playing at the camp at night reflected this reality, Madonna’s Material Girl was a big hit then. In the Sudan with so much famine, disease, poverty, genocide and war it was very odd indeed, like my world of Diplomacy a very strange world, a twilight zone of sorts.