Detained in Khartoum

A journalist is 'welcomed' to Sudan with an AK-47 and six hours of tense questioning


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.

Finally we arrived at what turned out to be another apartment, this one surrounded by high concrete walls. It wasn't hard to imagine that this was where Sudanese opponents of the regime might be tortured. We waited in a room with a broken air-conditioner, peeling paint, falling-down curtain rods. I was given a glass of water in a mug from Starbucks.

More waiting, Now I was getting fed up. I'd done nothing wrong. It was late. I wanted to go. More men came in. I wondered, are there no women in the security service? One man carried an electrical cord. The room filled with men wearing grey and beige short-sleeved suits and hostile expressions. My heart was beating faster than I would have liked.

We were taken across an enclosed courtyard, complete with Sudanese flag painted on the far wall, and up some creaky wooden stairs. The gentler man handed us off to someone whose eyes were vacant enough to worry me. More questions, but he was not listening to the answers. I figured the worst they would do was deport me. But what about my Sudanese driver and his son?

He asked the title of my book, the number of times I had been to Sudan, whether I wrote anything about the U.S. envoy when I accompanied him to Darfur last year. I wondered what on earth this had to do with Sudanese security. Do I have any friends in Sudan, he asked. This prompted lie number two. I didn't want my friends to be detained as well.

Finally, the wrap-up began. "We are very happy to welcome you to Sudan. We help journalists all the time. Sometimes we pay for their airfares and hotel bills. We are here to help you." Yeah, I thought, sure seems that way. "You are tired, you look angry." Tired? I'm jet-lagged, and you are asking me questions I don't care to answer. Angry? You've kept me for six hours. You have not arrested me but you have not let me go either. I said none of this out loud.

He began writing a "contract" for me to sign. I couldn't read the Arabic. He then instructed me to promise not to take a photo or speak to any southerner unless a security agent was with me. Like hell, I thought. I asked him, Does my press accreditation card not already say I can speak to anyone and photograph anywhere besides military installations and the Presidential palace? "Yes," he said, "but that is the general permission -- this is different."

My driver spoke up aggressively. I did not understand most of the Arabic but caught the magic phrase - I am a "friend of Dr. Ghazi Salahuddin." That isn't true; Dr. Ghazi simply helped me get to Darfur the last time I was here. My driver understands this but evidently believed that invoking a personal relationship with a presidential advisor would help. I was dubious; what if they call Dr. Ghazi and ask? Yet I cannot fault him for clutching what straws we had. And it seemed to work. The agent ripped up the so-called contract. "He says 'okay,'" my driver told me. And with that we were free to go.

"Welcome back to Khartoum," said my driver, as we headed out into the stifling night air.

This article was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center. Image: Sudanese security forces patrol Khartoum in advance of the April 2010 elections. By Ebhrahim Hamid/AFP/Getty.