How to Operate in Sudan

Soldiers wait for President Bashir to arrive in El Fasher last month

Two contrasting views of operating in Sudan. Jennie Matthew of AFP describes her frustration at trying and failing to travel to the Merowe Dam where last week 200 families said they were deliberately flooded out of their homes.

As always, the man from external information couldn’t have been nicer.
– Official: “Merowe dam? Ok. We’ll write a letter to the dam authorities asking if they can take you up there.”
– Me: “Really? You don’t need anything from me? No passport? No photographs?”
– Official: “No, no. Don’t worry.”
An hour later he apologised but now was not a time for journalists to visit.

Meanwhile Blake Evans-Pritchard reckons that journalists have only themselves to blame:

We were talking particularly about journalists that have got into trouble in Sudan in the past, to which I voiced a hypothesis that this was more because they were loud, arrogant and failed to understand the Sudanese psychology. It is not difficult to avoid getting thrown out of the country if you know how, and maintain at least a couple of friends in high places.

Sudan is probably my favourite of the countries in my patch. It is a fascinating story and a very different part of Africa to the places where I spend most of my time. But there’s no doubting it’s not the easiest of places to operate. The government is starting to learn the value of the international media but things are changing very slowly. Of course the best solution is to visit frequently, build up personal relationships and work out who can help you and when.
But often that’s not possible. So here are my golden rules for getting around:

  • Always allow about double the time you would normally for pretty much anything
  • Always use a trusted fixer and pay them ridiculous sums if it means they will dump their current client for you
  • Never assume you will come away with the stories that you originally planned to write. They will mostly fall through, but you will probably get something better anyway
  • Don’t expect anyone to answer a coldcall. A text message first goes a long way
  • Don’t bear an uncanny resemblance to the previous BBC stringer who got kicked out
  • Never attempt sarcasm with the good people from the Humanitarian Aid Commission. Particularly when denying you work for the BBC. Particularly at airports in Darfur. You will find yourself frogmarched off the plane while startled passengers look on (according to a good friend)
  • Never, never – not under any circumstances, ever – point out to a government official that Allah probably has better things to do with his time than oversee the scheduling of interviews or production of travel permits (as my friend once did when told for the umpteenth time his travel permit would be ready tomorrow, insh’Allah – God willing). That is poor behaviour on many levels