KHARTOUM, Sudan — Anyone who has visited this derelict city in recent times finds its exotic reputation inexplicable. The two Niles--the muddy Blue and White, each covered with a green slime--snake along its waterfront to their confluence at the northern end of the city, under a bridge carrying traffic to the sister city of Omdurman.
Mounds of refuse and piles of unused bricks encroach on the streets. The railway yard that divides the two major sections of town is a graveyard of twisted steel, with scarcely a tank car or locomotive standing upright. Everything around gives the impression of a society that has long since given up the effort.
A monstrous north wind carrying sand and dust so thick it turned the sky a dull, weighty crimson blew through Khartoum on my first day there. No effort at sealing doors and windows keeps the fine debris from the haboub, as the wind is called, out of one's house, and the storm leaves one with an unpleasant metallic taste in the mouth. When the haboub passes there is a crippling heat.
I had arrived in Sudan in mid-March with two colleagues representing the Chicago Tribune and the Independent, a British daily. It was two years since my last visit, and in that time the country, which already seemed to be at the bottom of the heap, had gotten worse. Sudan was still a democracy, if a wretched one, in early 1989, so blind to the needs of its people, political and economic, that it fell entirely unlamented to a coup that June.
Incredibly, the new regime was even worse. Dominated by radical Islamic fundamentalists, the junta threw scores of professors, lawyers and doctors in jail as potential dissidents. On a country made up roughly equally of Muslims and Christians this regime imposed Islamic civil law, or sharia. In its Sudanese version, sharia calls for such penalties as amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. Theft of the equivalent of $40 was punishable by the loss of a hand, although the public was assured that the figure would be periodically adjusted for inflation (running this year at 200%).
On top of that came famine.
That was the story we had come to report. Word from the countryside suggested that three years of drought had placed as many as 7 million Sudanese on the verge of starvation. Foreign donors, including the United States, had so far pledged less than 40% of what was needed to avert disaster.
Over the next 10 days, we would see considerable evidence of misery in the famine district, and something much more: hard evidence of the government's hostility toward the foreigners attempting to stem the toll, and its indifference to its own people's misery.
Getting to the famine zone, we knew, would not be easy. The Sudanese government had been so sensitive about the disaster growing in the country that it had never admitted that a famine existed. It was a "food gap," the authorities said, a "scarcity."
Our first stop was the Ministry of Information, to pick up press cards and obtain a letter endorsing our request to travel outside of Khartoum. At the end of a dank hallway we found the office of Mahboub Saba, a young man in charge of "external affairs"--foreign correspondents. Saba was sitting at one end of a long table, scribbling busily.
Its six other chairs were occupied by hangers-on in poses that suggested a catatonic state. Most were hunched over so far their chins rested on the table. This was a reminder that it was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. The Sudanese bureaucracy is torpid in the best of times; the daylong fast would only make things worse.
Saba agreed to write the letter and to arrange a couple of government interviews. We were instructed to come back in three days.
After filing our travel applications with the police, the next morning we drove out to Suk Libya, a displaced-persons camp hard by a vast open-air latrine on the outskirts of Omdurman (near enough to Khartoum that special permits were unnecessary).
Its focal point, like that of any other refugee camp in Africa, was a clinic and feeding center for children and nursing mothers, operated by a small European relief agency that spent much of its energy fending off a government attempt to seize the clinic and convert it to an infirmary for the legitimate residents of Omdurman.
Here malnourished children under 5 and their mothers are given three to five meals a day of a special protein-enriched compound. Joyce Eluzai, a nurse acting as our interpreter, explained that children too ill to be helped at the center were sent on to Omdurman Hospital.
By that point, however, they were probably too starved to survive, and the staff assumed that most of them subsequently died. "Three to four die per month here in the feeding center," Eluzai added.
We asked to see a recent arrival from Kordofan, the heart of the famine zone. Eluzai introduced us to a middle-aged woman cradling a child in her shawl.