Its position on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert ensures that Sudan is hellishly hot and ridiculously dry, but as first-time expatriates, the mystery and romance of moving to Khartoum far outweighed any concerns we had for living in the desert.
It was the summer of 1984, and we were over-the-moon 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, but one in particular … not so much.
At that time, Sudan was ruled by the iron-fisted President Jaafar Nimeiry, who had come to power after a military takeover years earlier. Life there has never been easy, but under Nimeiry, the country’s problems were myriad, and naturally, the people blamed him and his government. Finally, after years of dictatorial rule and extreme hardships, the political pot started to bubble. What this meant in Khartoum was protests, which inevitably lead to violent riots and looting.
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 shouts and noise of breaking glass let us know the mob was drifting too close for comfort. The decision to hunker down or risk driving to safety was the classic “out of the frying pan and into the fire” choice, but in the end, we chose to leave.
To this day, I remember the surreal and eerie feel as our two-car convoy slowly wove its way through the rioters, broken shop windows, and debris-strewn streets – a memory I will never forget.
A few weeks later in early 1985, while President Nimeiry was out of the country, the Sudanese Army staged a coup d’état. In a matter of hours, the president of 18 years was ousted, and the government toppled.
For out-of-the-loop folks like us, the only signal we had that anything had changed was trucks roaming the streets blaring military music. But the army quickly took absolute control of the city, which meant all borders were closed, tanks cordoned off the airport runway to prevent departures or arrivals, curfews were put into place, the phone system was shut down, and roadblocks were set up around town.
It was at one of these roadblocks that I experienced my first, and hopefully last, machine gun barrel thrust into my car window, followed by a few very stern questions about what I was up to. Before the coup the office joke was whether the normally lackadaisical soldiers were actually issued bullets, but it didn’t seem funny that day.
Looking back, we realize that nothing we had experienced, and no amount of research could have prepared us for the scary turmoil that a sudden, radical change in government can cause. And don’t get me wrong, we loved living in Sudan. It was a pivotal experience for both of us, and it put us on the path we still walk today.
But, even though the experience added a good “war story” to our resume, 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 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.