The trouble with being arrested in Sudan

This picture of some 'returnee' girls waiting in a Kosti camp for their journey

This picture of some 'returnee' girls waiting in a Kosti camp for their journey to South Sudan was supposedly the reason why we were arrested. It was claimed to be 'pornographic'.

“You are very bad man! You make por-nog-raph-ee. You have a big problem. You go to jail for seven years,” scowls the soldier.

His English is kindergarten level, but his message is penetrating me. I’m perilously balancing on the back of a Toyota Hilux utility, grasping onto a rudimentary machine gun tripod that has been welded onto the tray to convert the truck for military use.

Where we are speeding back to he doesn’t tell me, but I guess we’re going to see his boss.

The young soldier’s ill-fitting army fatigues make him look like a comic extra in a third-rate Bollywood war epic, but I’m not laughing – in fact, I’m absolutely bricking it.

He keeps asking me for my passport, even though I’ve shown it to him already. It’s clear he can’t read the English words on the document; it could be my bank book for all he knows. He angrily repeats questions and then shooshes me when I try to reply.

Two policemen dressed in blue camouflaged paramilitary uniforms – and armed with modern machine guns and menacing snarls that suggest they’ve seen and possibly perpetrated some nasty acts in their lives – are co-stars in my intimidation.

A fourth man, dressed in plain clothes that do nothing to hide his substantial bulk, sits on the rear tail gate of the truck, occasionally talking to them, inciting their menacing anger. He doesn’t look at me.

I guess that he is Sharia police or part of the mysterious ‘security services’, which are distinct from the police and armed forces – all part of Sudan’s onion-skin-like internal defense network.

They continually fire glances up to the truck’s cabin, where Chrisanthi is flanked by two more policeman. She looks relatively calm up front, substantially more than the way I feel, as I try to reconcile our predicament in my perplexed head.

“Why did your wife take the photos of the girls under the bed?” the soldier screams. “She is a bad woman. You two have a problem now.”

Their hateful expressions redouble when they look at Chrisanthi – how dare a woman question their authority.

Instinctively I begin yelling something incongruent at my interrogator, a tension release perhaps, and to make myself heard above the engine and wind. He places his index finger over his lips to shut me up again. He then starts the same line of questioning.

I should shut up, but I can’t.

“You have the camera, delete the fucking photos if you want!” I cry. I’m swearing uncontrollably because I’m backed into a corner. This doesn’t change his mood.

A fellow traveller’s words are replaying in my head: “You’re all alone in Sudan, don’t get in trouble!”

He is right, of course. Australia has no embassy in Sudan – in fact, the Australian Embassy in Cairo bluntly warned us against travelling here. Speeding along on the desert-flanked tarmac, we are all alone.

Half an hour earlier, Chrisanthi and I were recounting one of the most interesting days so far on our Africa trip. We’d gone looking for the take-off point for the Sudan to South Sudan passenger barges to see if we could get on one for the trip to Juba. We also wanted to meet some of the South Sudanese ‘returnees’ and learn about their stories.

We expected to find a few of them, but we stumbled onto to a camp of around 22,000 people.

We walked into the camp, past a police station about a kilometre away, with no trouble. The officers saw us get out of the bus and head towards the camp. There were no signs restricting access.

In the New Port camp we spoke to the temporary locals and aid workers, feeling at ease enough to take some photos of the squalor. We were even offered lifts in cars throughout the camp a couple of times. We must have stuck out like snowmen in the dust and mire, but there were no security forces in the camp, so we moved about freely.

As it turns out, the camp had eyes.

Apparently the tail-gate instigator had been following us, deciding that we would be detained after Chrisanthi (innocently) photographed some young girls who were shading themselves under a bed (see above).While she interviewed them a large crowd gathered. No trouble – yet.

As we left the camp we boarded a shared mini-bus heading back to town, not far from the police station we had openly strolled passed only a few hours earlier.

About ten police and army officers then surrounded the bus, first pulling out the driver, then commanding that we get out of the car. They knew what they wanted, demanding the camera which at first they thought was on Chrisanthi’s phone. 

Chrisanthi showed them her ancient Nokia but they weren’t fooled and now demanded the camera which she was reluctant to reach into her bag and find – pushing one police officer’s patience to screaming point.

She held the camera up and motioned that she would delete the photos, but a policeman went to snatch the camera. Instinctively (a bit of the Sydney inner-West girl coming out in her) she held onto the camera, pulling her arms away, but our portly friend ripped harder, snapping the cord as he snatched the camera.

I grabbed her to calm her down as I noticed another policeman had raised his gun butt ready to strike. For whatever reason, he stood his ground.

Seconds later, we were on our way to Kosti’s security headquarters, where the arresting officers faced us in a silent room for about half an hour. They scowled and re-enforced the trouble we were facing, as we waited for the big man in town.

They were eventually dismissed, no pleasantries exchanged,and we were lead into the room of Kosti’s chief of security (who, strangely, never did tell us his name). The chief and three other men then interrogated us in a surprisingly calm manner, flicking through the strapless camera’s photos one by one – including the last drunken photos of London leaving do’s.

In a stunning tandem act, Chrisanthi and I laid it on thick, pleading innocence and ignorance, complaining about our rough treatment, playing good-prisoner-bad prisoner, and trying to read the room to play our audience, searching for any advantage we thought would aid our cause.

The chief offered us some coffee and, after about an hour in the Sudanese kangaroo court, in which the chief never raised his voice once, we were found not guilty and set free. One lowly ranking soldier was forced to give us a lift back to our hotel.

The camera was returned in one piece, less every photo taken that day (we have managed to retrieve some low-resolution images from the memory card via the internet - see above).

Deleting all the photos proved their “pornography” angle was simply a ruse. We were detained because the authorities wanted to cover up what was happening at the ‘returnee’ camp in Kosti.

This smokescreen was the most serious in a series of incidents with Sudan’s security forces that gave me an uneasy glimpse of what it would be like to live in a police state.

In Khartoum, I was stopped by the Sharia police for wearing three-quarter length pants (with boots). A fashion crime maybe, but immodest by comparison it was not.

The man only stopped me when I was out of sight of other people, having followed me on a motorbike for a short distance. This was not about the 3cm of skin showing, this was about intimidation and a little man playing a power game – nothing whatsoever to do with peaceful practicing of religion.

“In Sudan it is Islam,” he had angrily denounced. I pretended I did not understand and promptly walked towards a crowded shop, where of course he did not have the gumption to follow. I had seen upper-class Sudanese, and a lot of southerners besides, wearing less on the streets with impunity.

On another occasion, after checking into a hotel, we were confronted by a man – inside our hotel room ­– who made no attempt to identify himself (and wore no uniform), demanding that I prove that we were married (it is illegal in Sudan for unrelated single men and woman to sleep in the same hotel room).

Rings weren’t enough for this minion of the thought-police. After about 20 minutes of a screaming argument, and showing him an old passport of mine that really didn’t prove that we were married, he left satisfied. The hotel staff were only too happy (or too afraid) to witnessthe outburst without stepping in.

The intrusions were relentless: One person stopped us in the street demanding to see passports; another tried to drag us off us a bus; a few people told us we couldn’t take photos in public places; and a seemingly intelligent doctor told me a lot of foreign tourists in Sudan are actually spies for the West.

It’s impossible to reconcile the link between the friendly and generous Sudanese people and their paranoid and odious government.

The average person on the street here is genuinely hospitable to a fault. One minute a kind local would pay for our tea, the next we were invited into someone’s home for dinner – without even the hint of a reciprocal action of kindness or money.

But then you have to deal with fruitcakes such as those above. Okay the security situation in Sudan is tense at the moment – but it always is; modern Sudan is a smorgasbord of perpetual conflict! Why?

Perhaps because it’s more convenient for this government to keep it this way. It’s not about religion or security, it’s about perpetuating power. Create enough enemies (real and imagined), reinforce the stereotypes, and the people become more afraid of outsiders than they are of their conflict-happy government – which undoubtedly is the problem.

I hope the kind individuals of Sudan, who are in the majority, find a way to rise above this hateful paranoia someday soon. They deserve some peace.

Steve Madgwick