Its position on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert ensures that Khartoum, Sudan is hellishly hot, ridiculously dry, and exceedingly sandy. When we moved there in the summer of 1984, like most novice expatriates, Terri and I were incredibly excited and determined to immerse ourselves in Sudanese culture.
And over the next two years, in what turned out to be one of the most exciting times of our lives, every day served up a plateful of new experiences … most were wonderful, and others well, not so much.
At that time, Sudan was ruled by President Jaafar Nimeiry, who had come to power after a military takeover years before. The country’s problems were myriad, and naturally, the people blamed the government and its leader. Absolutely everything, except heat and sandstorms were in short supply, and daily life was difficult for everyone. Finally, after years of dictatorial rule and hardships, the political pot started to bubble. What this meant in Khartoum was protests, which inevitably lead to riots.
In what would become a routine event, each Friday in midtown, crowds would gather, and one thrown brick was the only catalyst needed. My office was near the central bus station, which was the usual flash point for the weekly riot. But on one particular Friday, the mob drifted too close for comfort. A couple of my coworkers and I decided the best course was to decamp … quickly. Our two-car convoy drove slowly out through the rioters, broken shop windows, and debris-strewn streets – a memory I will never forget, and luckily, haven’t had to relive.
A few weeks later in early 1985, while President Nimeiry was in the US trying to obtain badly needed loans, the Sudanese Army staged a coup d’état. In a matter of hours, the president of 18 years was ousted, and the government toppled.
It became obvious that something was afoot when small trucks blaring military music began to cruise the streets of the city. The army moved swiftly to take iron-fisted control of the city. All borders were closed, tanks were parked on the airport runway to prevent departures or arrivals, curfews were put into place, the phone system was shut down, and roadblocks were set up throughout the city.
It was at one of these roadblocks that I experienced my first, and hopefully last, machine gun barrel thrust into my open car window, followed by a few very stern questions about what I was up to. Before the coup, the office joke was whether the soldiers were actually issued bullets, but it didn’t seem like a joke that day. I was never so happy to get home to a very worried Terri.
There were other coups while we lived in Sudan, but none were as serious as the first. And don’t get me wrong, we loved living in Sudan. In fact, it was the best job I ever had. But looking back, we realize that nothing we had experienced in our lives, and no amount of research could have prepared us for the incredible, scary turmoil a sudden, radical change in government can cause.
However, it did add a good “war story” to our resume, and we learned one very important international travel lesson. If you’re unlucky enough to be visiting a country with active political problems, keep away from the affected areas, and always try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Leave your American passport in your pocket, stay informed, and be ready to take action.
You might imagine that the chances of this sort of thing happening in your travels is remote, but the world is becoming more volatile every day. Don’t let political risk dissuade you from traveling, but do your research and stay aware.
1. Sharif Baasher via Wikimedia Commons
5. Eduard Onyshchenko via Wikimedia Commons