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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Spotlight catches Sudan's red tape

By Barnaby Phillips
BBC correspondent in Sudan

More than one million black Africans have been driven from their homes and up to 50,000 killed since the violence began in Sudan's Darfur region in 2003. As international attention continues to focus on the humanitarian crisis, Sudan's bureaucratic and secretive culture is having to make allowances for an impatient world.

Barnaby Phillips and BBC Bureau Chief in Johannesburg Milton Nkosi
The pyramids of Nubia lie 200km north-east of Khartoum

A trip to the Pyramids? It was too good to miss.

And not the common, or Egyptian, pyramids now practically engulfed by Cairo's creeping slums, but the mysterious Sudanese pyramids of Ancient Nubia on the banks of the Nile in the desert north of Khartoum.

We had arrived back from Darfur the previous evening. Now we had a whole day in Khartoum before catching our flight home.

The choice was to mooch around the hotel or go and see the pyramids.

No contest really, but we had not allowed for Sudanese bureaucracy.

"You want to go to pyramids?" the receptionist asked at the hotel front desk.

"Good, but do you have... permit?" he asked.

We did not, and I did not have time to arrange one - the necessary government office was already closed for the day.

I tried a travel agents. A large lady was slumped at her desk. On the wall behind her was a poster of the pyramids.

"You want to go where?" she asked, surprised.

"The pyramids? I do not know where they are," she said, suddenly looking and sounding very tired.

"But I do know you need permission."

This story has a point. It is not just that Sudan's tourist industry has some way to go.

It is also an example of how Sudan is a very bureaucratic and very controlled country.

And it gives an insight into why the Sudanese government is now struggling to cope with the wave of international interest that surrounds the crisis in Darfur.


Pity those hard-pressed officials at the Khartoum Ministry of Information.

More than 1m displaced
Up to 50,000 killed
More at risk from disease and starvation
Arab militias accused of ethnic cleansing
Sudan blames rebels for starting conflict

Not so long ago they were processing - and often turning down - a couple of visa applications from foreign journalists each month.

Today, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of foreign journalists in Khartoum.

And as soon as they arrive, they make a bee-line for the information ministry, to ask for the travel permits which any foreigner needs to leave the capital.

Sudanese officials could be forgiven for asking themselves what all the fuss is about.

Why all the hostile questions and interest in their country now?

After all, for years the Sudanese government has fought a brutal civil war in the south of the country.

And yes, that war included the bombing of villages and the forcible movements of large civilian populations.

Interest and condemnation from the rest of the world was sporadic, and half-hearted.

Suddenly, with Darfur, everything has changed.

Today Sudan is a big international news story; one of those very occasional African conflicts that has really gripped the listening, and watching, public on the other side of the world.

It is not always easy to pin down why this happens - certainly in the case of Darfur, the scale of the catastrophe and the powerful television pictures, have had an impact - anyway, now it is up to the Sudanese government - so heavily implicated in this disaster - to resolve it.

Old habits

The government says it has nothing to hide - and, in fairness, more aid workers and journalists are getting visas, and travel permits.

But old habits die hard, and it certainly takes time for the new spirit of co-operation - if that is what it is - to filter down to the small towns in Darfur where the security forces are used to having things all their own way.

We were standing on the runway at El-Fasher airport, in north Darfur, waiting to film the arrival of the first soldiers from the Rwandan protection force.

Mummified kings and queens were buried in tombs within the Nubian pyramids

We had been invited by officials from the African Union; but when the plane landed and the Rwandan soldiers disembarked, the line of cameramen and photographers found their way blocked by Sudanese security men dressed in the proverbial ill-fitting suits and dark glasses and still, apparently, conditioned to stop anybody taking a picture of anything anywhere near an airport.

It might have had something to do with the row of sinister attack helicopters, which I saw at every major airport in Darfur - the presence of which, I suppose, the Sudanese government is not too keen to publicise.

Anyway, I watched as a colleague from Kenya swore at one security man, shoved him out of the way and carried on filming.

The security man was too astonished to try to stop him a second time. Obviously nobody had ever treated him like that before.

It is going to take years to sort out Darfur.

Even if the fighting stops, the refugees in the camps are terrified and are not going home any time soon.

But if anything good has come out of all this, it might just be that the old Sudanese government ways of secrecy and stifling bureaucracy have relaxed a little under the pressure of an impatient, watching world.

Which brings me back to those pyramids. In the end, we decided to go, without a permit.

We drove through several road blocks but nobody stopped us, and nobody asked us for our papers.

And once you get there the pyramids are wonderful. So if you are ever in Khartoum and you want to go to see the pyramids, but you have not had time to sort out all the paperwork, my advice is just go.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 2 September, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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