Witness to a Coup: Khartoum, Sudan

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.
Nimeiry billboard

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.

1024px-Sudanese_Air_Force_Mil_Mi-24_Onyshchenko-1

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.

Happy Trails,
James

Sudan Desert-2 by Sharif Baasher

Photo Credits: 1. Sergey Pesterev 5. Eduard Onyshchenko 6. Sharif Baasher

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

40 thoughts

      1. wow, I was student when that event happened in Sudan, it wasn’t a coup it was upraising, and the army had to set the order when the people of The Sudan demanded that president Numairi to leave. and Mubark of Egypt stopped Numairi from traveling back to Sudan, after he arrived Egypt from USA, it was a big mess, I remember I lost my way to go home and I cried , it was a long walk to home.

      2. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. It’s interesting to hear someone else’s perspective on this scary time in Khartoum. As foreigners living there, we didn’t really know what was going on most of the time, and only knew what we heard on the BBC radio news. It certainly was an eye-opening event for us. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Laura, and for dropping by the blog. And yes, this certainly was an exciting time in our lives. The coup is also one of those events that looks better in retrospect. Living in Sudan, and everything that happened there, taught us so much, and was excellent preparation for a life of international living and travel.

    1. That choice is a tough one Alison. I suspect that a bear in the wilderness is probably about as unpredictable as a rioting mob. However, the entire experience taught us many lessons, most of which we needed to know.

      1. Yeah, the thing about the bears was kind of a joke really. I’m not sure I want to need to know those lessons you learned. It sounds pretty scary. Don somewhat keeps his eye on the political climate of countries we’re planning to visit so if we’re lucky we won’t run into anything like that, but of course you can never be sure.

    1. Thanks for the comment Joan, and you are right that it was pretty scary. Also, we did see the film “Argo” and enjoyed it very much. But it definitely brought up memories from our Khartoum days, for a lot of reasons.

  1. I read this last night and really liked how you described the situation in Sudan. Not nearly as harrowing as your experience, but I was a bit distressed last year in Costa Rica and Panama (where the indigenous tribe, Ngobe Bugle, was rioting against the government, that was trying to steal their mineral rights in the Comarca (reservation)). I was stopped and searched on a bus on the way to Costa Rica, then when I was in Costa Rica, I couldn’t get back to Boquete, Panama because Costa Rica closed the border. I had left money in a safe in a hotel room I was renting for a month in Boquete. More important, I had a flight to catch in Panama City to Quito Ecuador in less than 6-7 days, so I was concerned about missing it. Everything turned out all right in the end. The government made peace with the indians and Costa Rica allowed visitors and their people to once again cross the border into Panama.

    This falls into my philosophy of “happy people always having a Plan B.” Grin.

    1. You’re too right Steve, alternate plans are a necessity. Experiences like this are a reminder of how truly powerless you can be when traveling. You’re a guest in their country, and no amount of anger or discussion is going to change the fact that they’re in control. Interestingly, another important thing we learned in Sudan was that, as an American citizen, the last place to go for help is the American Embassy. This sounds strange, and I could write another entire post about it, but they were absolutely no help to us or my company. We didn’t hear from them until AFTER the coup was over, and they called to see if anyone was hurt or killed. No joke. Anyway, another story. I’m glad your deal worked out OK. In Central and South America, you never know.

      1. Yeah, usually when I get in a sticky situation or suspect that a process is going to be frustrating, e.g., all airports with TSA overseeing security, I say the Serenity Prayer over and over . . . sort of my mantra to ensure I don’t go balistic. 🙂

    1. You’re right about that Amy. Sudan taught us many things, and living there was a pivotal time in our lives. And in these days of total disgust with the politicians in Washington (and I agree), after Sudan I know that it can always be worse.

      1. The politics and policies have created animosity in the world that religion is sensitive and complicated. It always be worse…

  2. Hi James and Terri! Terri, thank you so much for finding my blog and directing me to yours! Wow! I have truly been missing you! Your blog is fantastic! This post is amazing too. I can’t imagine going through this experience. Now I have a million unanswered questions about you two. Why were you there? What was your career that lead you to Sudan? ect… I hope I can find some of the answers in your blog. Terri, thanks so much for reaching out to me! I can hardly wait to read more of your blog! Nicole aka thirdeyemom

    1. Hi Nicole, I’m so glad we discovered each other, too! You and your blog are a joy, and your experiences and advocacy are amazing. We were in Khartoum because we wanted an adventure that would open our eyes to the world … and we got it. James (geophysicist) and I (special education teacher turned Training/Marketing exec) set out to find fascinating jobs that would take us overseas. James landed a job as Exploration Manager for a US oil company starting operations in Sudan. I worked as a Management Consultant to Sudanese schools and businesses. That launched us into international careers that took us across the globe. I’m really looking forward to getting to know you better. Can’t wait! ;~} Terri

  3. Thanks for the link, James. I enjoyed this post tremendously.

    The 2nd to the last link (“be ready to take action”) seems to be broken- it takes me to the https://gallivance.net/2011/10/06/my-first-trip-to-paris/ URL, but it’s page is an error message. Just fyi…

    The other comment I had was about your reply to Steve (Blade3Colorado) “as an American citizen, the last place to go for help is the American Embassy. This sounds strange, and I could write another entire post about it, but they were absolutely no help to us or my company.”

    That surprised me. My experience with the early coups (same, plural) in Baku, the earthquake, and 9/11-especially in the wake of 9/11!- was positive. In places like Khartoum where they could be really helpful it’s surprising that you got no assist at all when you needed it. Any others like that that you’ve run into?

    1. Jonelle, the embassy in Khartoum was conspicuously unhelpful to my company. They knew the coup was going to happen, and all they did for us, was get in contact afterwards to see if we had any damage or injuries. Luckily, in our personal travels, we haven’t had occasions to need the embassy. And I guess that the reality is that as an American, if I had an emergency overseas, I’d have no choice. But given our experience in Sudan, I wouldn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling about the option. Based on our experience, the US Embassy exists to protect the interests of the US Government, which doesn’t necessarily mean US citizens. Also, thanks for the headsup on the deal link. ~James

      1. Wow… It’s interesting how different our experiences have turned out. All 4 of the Ambassadors I worked with had the same message to the American community: “we exist to protect you while you’re in this country. Register when you arrive, let us know how to contact you if the need arises,and let us know when you’re leaving- our telephone tree will be updated.”

        I’m glad you managed on your own but the pride I felt being part of such a concerned group is something I wish every American expat experienced.

        I was a contact warden (odd name I suppose) and each quarter we went through our assigned Americans in country and updated our list. When 9/11 happened, we got on the phones and went door to door to make sure everyone was safe and accounted for. Same thing when the big earthquake happened. The embassy sent a cable back to the DOS saying how many casualties and families were alerted.

        This makes me wonder, which experience is more the norm?

        Glass half full me hopes for warm fuzzies.

      2. Hey Jonelle. It sounds like you guys had a great operation there, and were doing embassy business the way it should be done. But, here’s another Khartoum Embassy tale that you might find funny and interesting. I’ve never met an adventurous expat who didn’t like a good war story. And you’re one of the few people that I know who can appreciate it.

        First, a bit of background. I am a geophysicist, and I was the Manager of Exploration for Sudan for Sun Oil. I reported to the GM there, and he had to be out of country, so he left me in charge. I had been in Sudan for 2 years and was due to rotate back stateside in about a week. There were rumors of problems coming up, so Terri (and all other non-essentials) had been evacuated to Europe.

        I get a call from the Embassy head of security that he has something we need to discuss, and can I come by for a meeting. I show up, and tell the Marines I’m here for a meeting. A few minutes later, the guy comes to the lobby, introductions are made, and I’m ready to go inside. He says, let’s talk outside. (What’s up with this? Aren’t meetings normally held in an office?)

        The rest I remember with crystal clarity, because it was so weird. We go out onto the front porch, and he steps up really, really, uncomfortably close to me. And in a low voice, very close to my face he says: “We have some intelligence that the Libyans are going to hit your company in the next few days.”

        No shit! I say. No shit, he says. Do we know where or how? I say. No, he says. How good is your intelligence? I say. Good, he says. What the hell are we supposed to do? I say. Not sure, but I thought that you might like to know, he says. At this point, I walk away in shock, because the meeting is over.

        I returned to the office, and huddled up with the few expats left, and we decided to send all local staff home, shut everything down for a few days, and double up our guards. As it happens, someone did try to break into the compound, but didn’t get in. And luckily, nothing happened. But I was one nervous cowboy for the next few days, what with car bombs, etc. All I could think was: “You’ve been here for two years, through all sorts of BS, and you’re going to be blown up a few days before going back to the US.”

        Needless to say, I made it through OK. But, I was on a BA flight to London, in the air and drinking heavily, exactly when Reagan and the US Air Force bombed Libya.

        Weird huh. To this day, I can’t imagine why the embassy guy acted the way he did, and what the real deal was. Surely this can’t be normal. And who knows, this was in 1986, and hopefully things have changed – hopefully a lot. Anyway, I thought you might like this tale. ~James

  4. James – I can’t reply to your reply (I guess it only allows a thread so deep, which given your comment is apropros…) So this goes with March 16, 2014 at 4:48 PM.

    Weird yes, and you’re right- not everyone can relate, but I certainly can! And thankful your Embassy guys came through for you when it was most needed! We had some great security details in Baku, and during the early coups, all were extremely helpful. I can only imagine the flashbacks ARGO must have caused you.

    I was with Exxon in Baku- our office was on the corner of the main seaside boulevard and the street that led to the state oil company offices. Prime real estate, as you can imagine. We had an Inmarsat phone with its little dish antenna out on the balcony that faced the sea. Worked fine until bullets hit it and caused it to be out of connection alignment. We lay on the floor inside the office, drawing straws for who was going to open the balcony doors to re-adjust it… just in case the tanks got closer we thought we might want to be able to call the cavalry.

    I think the best stories are expat war stories, by far. And to have actually lived them is the best treat of all! Great share from Khartoum!

  5. How long did you work in Sudan for? I was in Khartoum for a few months in 2001, just before the 9-11. It was a tough country, I had my share of problems, but I loved it. Still have some friends I am in contact with. Maybe we have friends in common 🙂

    I see you worked in oil –did you by any chance work in Algeria too? Does Sun Oil still exist and where does the company come from?

    You have done some very interesting countries –I miss the expat life!!

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Miia. Terri and I lived in Sudan for 2 years in the mid 80s. As you say, it’s a tough country, but it was the best job I ever had. We were there in the bad ol’ days, and went through a couple of coups, which were not fun for sure. Sun Oil still exists, but no longer works outside the US. I worked all over, but never in Algeria. My last few weeks there were pretty scary as the US was having problems with Libya at the time, and there were specific threats against my company. Terri had been evacuated to Europe, and after my 2 years, I was due to rotate back stateside. I was literally on a BA flight in the air, on my way to London when the US bombed Libya. Phew. Interesting times. ~James

      1. Hi James, I can believe it was “special” in the ’80s. Did you personally feel safe? (well, I know, sometimes difficult to define) Did you live in a hotel or a house?
        And what a timing your BA flight!!

        May I ask, what kind of threats there were toward your company? (had a fair share of that too)

        I felt safe on a personal level, sort of. I mean I could drive a car alone, go to restaurants, walk a little bit around, but then there were issues related to work. My colleague (who left in the middle of the project) had been selling alcohol (illegally of course), sleeping with the southerners, etc. –enough to create suspicion among the authorities! He personally upset some high-up personalities and they stopped him at the airport upon his departure so he missed half of his sister’s wedding in Europe… Also they confiscated interview tapes and photos….
        So, I stayed and took over his mess, and boy there was a lot to clean up! We were accused of spying (of course), working for the CIA (of course) and the secret service came to my hotel room regularly when I was away to look around…

        Well, these were the worst memories but they were many great ones. I loved the music and there was a tight expat community. I went diving to the Red Sea. I actually wrote a story about that too and can send it to you if you like? It is about an Italian who lived there but he is now dead.

        Well, well. All my Sudan photos are paper prints but I should scan some of them 🙂

        May I ask where do you live now?
        Have a great upcoming weekend!

  6. We recently went through a mini baby coup when we were in Bangkok Thailand and the army opted to remove the politically elected leader. We instinctively stayed away from the center of the action and “kept our heads to the ground.” But from reading your post, it seems you had an entirely more volatile situation to contend with. Fascinating reading and looking forward to reading more about your pre coup life in Sudan.

    Peta & Ben

    1. Peta, this is a call from the deep past. Sorry that your comment fell through the cracks. Not sure how we missed it for almost 4 years, but there you go. As you know well from your expat life, being a foreign resident teaches one many things, and even though Sudan was a really tough place to live, it was the right place at the right time for both of us. We had security problems which made our daily life “interesting” to say the least, and it was a time (exactly like now) when Americans weren’t very popular. But the Sudanese people that we encountered and worked with were absolutely delightful, and many of them are in our memories still. ~James

    1. Henry, I’m sure that you have lots of these memories as well. For us, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. Everyone should live and work abroad at some point, if for no other reason than to see life from someone else’s perspective. It was a game changer for us. ~James

  7. Your reminder to all of us that anything can happen during travel makes me want to do double checks of what we take and what we need to leave behind. The photo at the top reminds me of being in Morocco in a camel caravan across the Sahara, but the coup you mentioned in this post reminds me of when we were in Lesotho building a Habitat for Humanity house, and we were encouraged to leave the country immediately since there was a coup against the president, and we were easily identified as outsiders. It did give me pause! Thanks for another good post — interesting and informative as well. Rusha & Bert

    1. Rusha, I hear this phrase all the time, but in the case of our time in Sudan: “I could write a book.” As I’m sure you and Bert learn from each of your Habitat experiences, everything one experiences abroad is not fun, but our time in Sudan, and every other place we’ve traveled, taught us that it’s always educational. This is particularly true in developing countries. Sadly, we Americans are particularly insulated, and to a large extent, take for granted how good we have it. A little time in places like Lesotho and Sudan will sort that out. ~James

      1. We truly are fortunate, but even in very poor countries, we’ve marveled at the friendships we’ve made and the happiness the people have shared with us. Just another reason we love to travel!

  8. My hands are sweating just reading this let alone living through it. Your advice is very wise James. Civil unrest can happen anywhere and is one is traveling you have to be prepared. Ending up in the riots of Barcelona this past fall came as a big surprise to us. We were thankful to have some years of experience in our travel tool belt.
    Sue

    1. Sue, this unrest had been going on for a few weeks, and honestly, we had gotten a bit complacent about it. But when the coup happened, we were caught by surprise and were unprepared. Being effectively “locked up” in a country, without being able to leave or communicate with the outside was scary and not something I want to experience again.

      The saddest thing about it all is that the Sudanese people are friendly, helpful, and were delightful to us as expats. They lead one of the hardest lives in all the world, and are simply trying to get by. And unfortunately, it never gets easier for them. ~James

  9. Wow James, what an incredible experience…scary, but certainly a great story to tell. I have never experienced civil unrest but will be following your advice and be “ready to take action” if I ever find myself in the same situation. Riots, demonstrations and political unrest is something that can happen anywhere.

    1. Gilda, while this was scary, the experience and our time in Sudan, taught us so much. We came back changed people, and there are many things that we will never take for granted again. One interesting aspect that it shared with the recent Pandemic measures, was that when civic emergencies are going on, individual rights are essentially sacrificed. We did what we were told, when we were told, and just tried to keep our heads down. Yep, this was a life-changing eye opener. ~James

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