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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?

We looked into the office where the alleged authenticating was going on. The officials were dozing.

I phoned a few key people in the outside world and described the situation. Then my colleagues and I decided we'd try a kind of test. We gathered our gear and headed for the door.

"We're leaving!" we said. "We're not arrested, right? So we're leaving! Bye!"

They gently told us we were not leaving, but the move at least brought a change of scenery: we were escorted to a more official-looking building a few miles away. Walking in, we glanced into a room where perhaps two dozen young men in khakis -- the dreaded Sudanese security forces -- were asleep on the floor like so many kindergartners at nap time.

We were shown to a room with oversized, overstuffed cream-colored leather couches. Here came the Pepsi. And this time, a TV. It was playing the Sudanese equivalent of the Home Shopping Network. The air was hot, the couches comfortable. What was Usher doing? Did another hour pass? Two? I was sleepy. I looked over at my colleague: his hat was tipped over his eyes.

At some point in the drowsy afternoon haze, it became clear that the main threat was not prison, but passivity -- slipping into what we now realized was a beurocratic vortex of indecision, indifference and endless naps. We decided to summon a show of righteous outrage.

"It has been hours! We were properly credentialed! Arrest us or let us go free!" we demanded into the void of Sudanese officialdom. Usher seemed mildly annoyed. He agreed to take us to his boss.

We crossed the city to a third location -- my colleagues and me in our yellow taxi, a couple military trucks escorting us. At some point, the taxi driver pulled over and reprimanded Usher. "I told him to remember that we are human beings!" our driver said.

So in the sixth hour, we convoyed over to a cafeteria for chicken shwarma sandwiches. Then we rolled down the wide, palmy streets to the third building -- high windows, no sign -- and on to our final destination, a small, unmarked house.

It was in a residential neighborhood across from an eyeglass shop and around the corner from Ozone, an outdoor cafe for Sudanese yuppies and expats who sip cappuccinos under a fine mist spray.

We went in the house. The guard behind the desk offered us cherry soda, and went back to watching TV -- the nightly news, then Law and Order, and a commercial for the show Prison Break.

We went outside, and the sun was going down. Soon a guy we'd not seen before walked out and over to us. He apologized for the inconvenience, and in a dully mysterious, lackluster manner befitting the day, told us we could go.

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