Field Notes

In Khartoum, a Surreally Mundane Experience

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 3, 2008; 8:35 PM

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Sometimes, the things reporters do here in Africa can seem harrowing from afar. But up close, the experiences tend to be more Seinfeld than 24, more surreally mundane than high adventure. My recent eight-hour non-detention detention by Sudanese intelligence agents in Khartoum was a long, sleepy day of waiting and more waiting with no definitive beginning or end.

We were in town to follow up on the recent attack on the capital by a Darfur rebel group and heard one morning that security forces were rounding up alleged rebel sympathizers at a market on the city's edge.

We headed over there, across the hot and sandy low-rise city in an air-conditionless 1972 Corolla taxi.

As we got close to the sprawling market, we were stopped at a checkpoint. We explained we were journalists, that we had proper accreditation, and asked if the police might escort us into the market area to have a first-hand look.

Under normal circumstances, Sudanese authorities are to be avoided. But the government had recently staged an outdoor exhibition of rebel trucks and weapons seized during the failed attack, so we thought they might be in the mood to show off.

A plainclothes officer agreed to take us in. But first we'd have to stop by his office to change vehicles.

The "office" was an unmarked house in a residential neighborhood. Milling about were a few men dressed in fatigues and carrying AK-47s, and the friendly officer told us to have a seat. He would check his plan with the boss, a less friendly man who might have been intimidating had he not looked exactly like Usher, the pop singer, and had he not been wearing furry, leopard-print loafers that looked like oversized bedroom slippers.

And so the waiting began in the mostly empty, concrete-floored room. There was a bare bulb and a fan hanging loosely from the ceiling; two tables, with a thermos of tea sitting on one of them. There was a laptop playing a video by some Sudanese pop singer, and soon an hour had passed, and an officer came out with some news.

Our credentials were being "authenticated," he told us.

We asked if we had done anything wrong. No, the man said. We asked if we could leave. No, he said.

But we could wait, and here, have more soda. Our valiant taxi driver -- who had told us, "Either I take you to very successful job of journalism, or I take you to prison!" -- fell asleep. Another drowsy hour passed as we speculated about the machinations going on behind closed doors.

Did they think we were spies? Were they simply bored? Were we to become pawns in some political drama greater than ourselves?

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