Detained in Khartoum

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It was my first day back in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where I am reporting this year on the upcoming 2011 referendum in which southern Sudanese will vote on whether they want to become an independent nation. They are widely expected to support the measure, but many worry that the north, which has long dominated Sudan's government, will resist southern independence because they do not want to lose access to the vast oil reserves in the south. With my press accreditation in hand, I headed to the impoverished areas on the outskirts of the capital to interview southerners who had fled here during decades of civil war in the south. One of the displaced men introduced himself to me and began an earnest rendition of the many challenges facing southerners living in the north when some twenty armed policemen descended on the area.

The police began herding women (and their toddlers) into the back of a truck to haul them off to prison on suspicion of brewing marissa - a beer-like drink that is common in the south but illegal under the sharia implemented by the ruling party of President Omar al-Bashir here in Khartoum. Only belatedly did the police see me - and they were none-too-happy that a foreigner had witnessed the round-up.

As a gathering duststorm headed towards us, one of the displaced southerners suggested I call my President in Washington to tell him I had been arrested. I didn't think I had been arrested. But when my driver motioned me towards our car, a man wielding an AK-47 told us to stay. So I wasn't quite free either. I sent a text to my husband, telling him that I was "somewhat detained", but fine and not to worry.

I was told that I, along my driver and his adult son, were being taken to a police station to fill out some paperwork. Not true. Our destination, we discovered, was one of the apartments used by Sudan's dreaded internal security agency. These buildings are known as "ghost houses" because their locations are not listed and there is no indication from outside that they are government buildings. An accountability-free zone.

The walls were freshly painted in a pale, egg yolk color. The two men questioning us didn't offer their names; I didn't ask. One had a hard face, the other seemed gentler. Neither wore uniforms. They wanted to know what I had seen and what the southerner I had spoken to had told me. Did I know his name? No, I lied. It was a reflexive reaction against giving these men the names of anyone I spoke to. Security forces have been known to detain or beat Sudanese for speaking to foreigners, as has been documented in several human rights reports.

It occurred to me that this might not be the tedious-but-benign formality I had hoped. I sent my husband another text, telling him I never made it to a police station and seemed to be in the custody of the security services. I said not to panic, but to alert my employer in Washington if he didn't hear from me again in another hour. The hard-faced man told me I was not allowed to use my phone. But, in what I assumed was a concession to my foreign status, he didn't actually confiscate it. I set it to silent and spent the next five hours going at regular intervals to the bathroom, where I would be escorted but could lock myself in, to text that I was still fine. I could send more when prayers were called. I was the only woman around, so with all the men's backs to me, I could text unnoticed. "Still here. Still fine."

The egg yolk building was not our last stop. After several hours of questioning, off we went again. The man with the gentle face drove us. It was dark and we drove for too long. I asked where we were. Near Amarat, I was told. I have been to Amarat in daylight, but it seemed unrecognizable now. Perhaps, I thought, he was lying. Belatedly it hit: I have no way of telling anyone where I am.

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