More than 300 Americans were spirited out of this desert capital on night flights recently. Their sudden, stealthy evacuation followed the execution-style shooting of a U.S. Embassy employe here. It also followed a large, noisy anti-American demonstration in which Sudanese officials competed in fist-banging denunciations of the U.S. bombing of Libya.
As a result, Sudan's image last week flared in the world press as a violent and unfriendly land. In the one-dimensional pictographs by which many people know foreign countries, Sudan undoubtedly became one of those Arab states where wild-eyed fanatics in white gowns are itching to kill Americans.
For foreigners who come to know this country, however, that image could not be further off. Although it may sound corny, the Sudanese are among the most hospitable, nonviolent and just plain nice people in the world. Nice things happen routinely in Khartoum that don't seem to happen in other African capitals -- or hardly anywhere, for that matter. For example, when a car stalls at a busy intersection, traffic cops help push it or fix it. When someone moves into the city, whether Sudanese or foreign, neighbors bring them lunch and help them unpack. If you run out of gas here, you can stand in the middle of the highway with an empty gas can held high. Within minutes, someone will stop and siphon off a quart or two of rationed fuel for you.
Sudan traditionally has welcomed refugees from across Africa. The country's doors stayed open during the past two years even as famine killed hundreds of thousands of Sudanese and wrecked the economy. Refugees are rarely robbed, beaten or abused, as they are in many other countries. There are still 1.1 million refugees in the country, more than anywhere else in Africa.
"The concept of foreigner or alien is not known at all in our tradition," said Hassan Turabi, a leading politician here. "The Sudanese are bound to extend hospitality. You have to be nice to a stranger, and help him settle and share life with you.
ALEXANDER HORAN, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, ordered all nonessential U.S. Embassy employes and their families out of the country after an embassy communications officer, William J. Calkins, was shot in the head the night after the U.S. bombing of Libya.
Western intelligence sources say about 200 Libyan government employes work in Sudan, several of them trained in terrorism. Libyans in Khartoum are believed by these sources to be hunting Americans.
But Horan, who has served three years in Sudan and nearly 18 years in the Arab world, said in an interview this week that this brand of violence is both distasteful and embarrassing to the Sudanese. He said the Sudanese government is trying its best to stop it.
"The Sudanese are not volatile as a people. They don't see individuals of other racial and ethnic groups as abstractions, they see them only as people," said Horan.
Sudan is an extraordinarily big place (the size of the United States east of the Mississippi) wedged between the Arab and African worlds. It is part Arab, part African, part Moslem, part Christian. This geographic, ethnic and religious duality has bred decades of civil war between the Moslem north and the Christian south. Yet many students of this country say the admixture of Arab and African cultures explains the hospitality of Sudan's people.
"You have Arab generosity and an African willingness to view people not just as Christian or Arab, but as fellow members of the human race," said Horan.
IN THE FALLOUT from the American bombing of Libya, official relations between the United States and Sudan have deteriorated sharply. Sudan's government, which depends on the United States for famine assistance and economic and military aid, vowed last week to turn over its resources and people to Libya to fight U.S. "aggression."
Libya, a feared neighbor until a year ago, has become a friend of the Khartoum government, primarily on the strength of the weapons it has given to help the government in its growing war with southern rebels.
Yet both Sudanese and U.S. officials say privately that Sudanese solidarity with Qaddafi is more rhetorical than real. Sadiq Mahdi, the likely leader of a new civilian government here, is suspicious of Qaddafi and wants friendly relations with the United States, according to his advisers. U.S. officials said last week the evacuation of Americans from Sudan will be temporary.
"I have not met one expatriate who works here who believes for one second that he is in danger from the Sudanese," said the director of an American private relief agency in Khartoum. The director, who lives in Khartoum, refused to allow his name to be printed for fear of Libyan attack.