Out of the Frying Pan

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Africa » South Sudan » Kadugli
May 8th 2014
Published: May 8th 2014
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The British Foreign Office had “gone ballistic”, Philip said, and refused to recognise any “kangaroo court” judgement. They had a jet on standby in London to fly some lawyers down to contest the Sudanese People Liberation Army ("SPLA" aka "the rebels") if they wanted to take this all the way and use this situation to gain some sort of political leverage. He further added that since the British were one of the biggest “supporters” of the rebels, they would be wise not to bite the hand that feeds them.

The immediate bad news, however, was that Philip had not actually returned to rescue us. The Foreign Office had told him to bluff the rebels out by putting pressure on them, and this meant that we would stay in their custody until they either let us go or put us in front of a court. This would hopefully put pressure on them to make the 'correct' decision.

After our little chat Philip left, promising to return later on the pretence of bringing us some food and water…hopefully by this time they would be willing to let us go.

Three-hours passed as we waited for Philip’s

return. When he returned we were summoned to another hut filled with SPLA. Now Philip was obliged to speak to us with an audience of five English-speaking higher-ups listening in, and it was here Philip really showed his diplomatic experience. He talked about the great hospitality of the people, and how unfortunate this whole situation was for everyone. He spoke about how pissed the British and the Americans were about the whole situation, and how it would be very unfortunate if something were to happen to us whilst we were in their custody.

During the conversation he surreptitiously dropped the phrase “Parlez-vous français?” We both shook our heads, and without pause he continued in English. Then, in the middle of another sentence he asked “sprechen Sie deutsch?” Again I was out, but ‘D’ replied in the affirmative. With this knowledge, he began littering his speech with covert German messages he was sure the rebels wouldn't catch, or indeed understand. In German he relayed that everything was okay and in his opinion the rebels would back down by morning. The official message was, however, that we were all going to court tomorrow at 10am.

The food Philip left behind, in relation to anything we’d eaten for the previous weeks, was fantastic: chicken, chips, sweets, cheese and cartons of juice. I actually felt guilty we didn’t have enough to share with our captors. Where he’d managed to procure such provisions out here I’ll never know. Back in our prison hut we gorged ourselves on this junk like they'd been starving us. I offered our guards to join us but they predictably refused our offer. We were sure to strategically leave a variety of this and that, knowing full-well it wouldn't be thrown out. And as I lay there on a string mattress, my stomach full, sugar pulsing through my veins, I was a happy prisoner.

The next morning our court appearance appointment came and went. Nobody came to talk with us. Then as midday came and went I became anxious. If we weren’t going to court today, what were the implications?

Just after 1pm a soldier came to our hut and told us to hurriedly gather up our stuff and head told down the hill. As we trekked down I spotted Phil standing next to a 4X4 surrounded by some top of the SPLA dudes smiling from ear to ear. Then as we got closer he stole a wink. It was then I knew everything was sorted. One of the SPLM (political wing) told us that he saw no reason to charge us - it hadn't been our fault and that he was actually glad we had 'succeeded' in infiltrating their base. Heads were going to roll because of this, he said, and security measures tightened.

They invited us to come back once the war was over. They promised to show us some of the places we'd missed, and just how they had 'defeated’ the government by use of guerrilla tactics and fortified cave defences to outwit bombing raids.

Then, to my surprise, it was group photo time. Phil took a couple, as did the rebels and astonishingly we were also allowed to take some smiley group pics!

We said our goodbyes and off we went in Phil's 4x4, as he excitedly relayed how impressed he was of our achievements. He reiterated that we were the first civilians inside there in 20 years and that Claire Short, and the Prime Minister of Norway had both tried and failed to gain access during the past year. He also spoke of how he tried to get his teenage son to come out and visit him once, when he had been based in the Balkans, but that he showed no interest in either his father’s work or the destination.


Our original plan had been to continue onto the town of Heiban. However this was located back in government-controlled territory on the northern edge of the Nuba Mountains. Both the SPLA and the Joint Military Commision (JMC), who were here to broker the cease fire, agreed that this was a bad idea as we would almost certainly be picked up by the government when we were spotted coming out of the SPLA-controlled area. This would inevitably result in us being accused of working with the SPLA, which would see us taken to Khartoum and interrogated. None of us wanted that.

A plan was hatched to fly us out of SPLA territory on a diplomatic helicopter back to where we had started out a few days earlier, in Kadugli. This made sense as it was the last place we'd been officially registered. From there we could attempt to travel out of Sudan without being picked up by government security forces.

When the helicopter had been described as “diplomatic,” I wasn’t expecting to see a Chinook loom large from the heavens descending in the pawl of dust. Out of the helicopter jumped the very same British guy who we’d spoken to before departing Kadugli, who’d asked us to report back about the adventure upon our return. We made our (re) acquaintances with knowing smiles and handshakes. Phil introduced us to the Ukrainian pilots, telling us their previous mission had been in the Balkans. Then we said our farewells.

The noise as the giant chopper took to the air made it virtually impossible to conduct a conversation, so we all stared poignantly through the windows as we flew over ground we’d covered over the last few days, lost in our own thoughts. We’d witnessed firsthand that people still lived on in the Nuba Mountains, clinging to semblance of a regular life, despite decades of genocidal atrocities perpetuated against them by the central government in Khartoum.

Back at the JMC’s base in Kadugli, we were met by some soldiers and led into a room to talk with some of the big cheeses: a Norwegian Brigadier General, an Italian Colonel, some Americans and Brits, all dressed for the occasion in their respective military uniforms. We chatted and joked. They were concerned at how we had been treated by the SPLA. I relayed that our treatment couldn’t have been better, all things considered. They warned against our plan to cross the border area into Ethiopia because of recent reports of fighting and bandits. They thought me a bit of a head case and joked that they didn’t come across people like me in the military anymore. I joked there was little chance of me signing up to their apparent recruitment drive.

Then I was shown into a private room and given the phone in order to speak with the British Embassy in Khartoum, to confirm my release. This conversation began with them asking me how it felt to be a free man, again. I couldn’t help thinking this all seemed rather dramatic. I was hardly Terry Waite. They inquired as to whether I intended to contact the British media. I told them I had no interest in the quest for fame. They also mirrored the JMC’s concern about us travelling from here to Ethiopia overland, and suggested it may be prudent to travel back to Khartoum and fly to Addis or home to London. I told them this was non-negotiable as my plan was to travel overland from India to South Africa.

They conceded they had no power to tell me what to do or where to go, but requested I inform the embassy in Addis Ababa when I arrived. The conversation was concluded with their opinion that they believed MI6 would now be “tracking me”. The British security services had been criticised, they said. When investigations had been made to figure out who this British guy was being held in South Sudan, they’d had no files, or ideas of who I was - which in my situation was pretty rare, they said, considering all the “strange countries” I'd visited.

Out of the frying pan

Now our mission was to get out of Sudan fast without being picked up by the Sudanese government. This was going to be tricky due the extensive security service they employ, which one JMC soldier described as "like the Gestapo". This was made particularly tricky by the fact that every time you stayed at a hotel you needed to register with security in that town beforehand, otherwise the hotel manager simply could not admit you. Fortunately we had already stayed at the hotel in Kadugli previously, were on good terms with the owners, and so weren’t asked for permission when we arrived back in town.

That first night back in Kadugli we were having coffee down a little side street when two very tall, well-dressed, clean-shaven Arab men with dark glasses approached us as we sat on little stools in the dust. They stood for a few awkward seconds towering over us without saying anything. The silence only broken when one of them said, “Hello... Security." They then both stood smiling for a few more seconds, before leaving.

If this was a message to say, ‘We're watching you’, it was received loud and clear. That they knew we were in town was without question. But exactly what did they know? Now it seemed like everyone in town was watching us, from the old man selling bananas, to the little girl skipping down the street! Of course they all were, they always had been…it’s just that now I began to imagine ulterior motives in their gaze.

We woke early the next day in an attempt to make as much distance in a single day, yet knowing that as soon as we hit another big town and attempted to stay in a hotel the government would know exactly where we were.

On the bus to Kosti we met a local guy who continually referred to us as “brother” and “sister” -- a term of address we had experienced in the south predominantly used amongst Christians. It soon became apparent he assumed we were missionaries (a category he was doubtless more familiar with than ‘tourist’). I wasn’t about to either confirm or refute this assumption as we were still in keep-your-heads-down-and-get-out mode. Then as we entered the outskirts of town, and the planned end to our days travel, he insisted we come and stay at the local Catholic Church.

I pondered the implications of this option. I was certain we wouldn’t need security clearance to stay at a church and so this could provide an option to avoid registration and government officials.

It was already nightfall when we arrived at the Church, after having gleefully accepted our new friends offer. The elderly priest we were introduced to was Italian, and didn’t speak a lick of English, so our conversation amounted to several smiles and handshakes - which I was glad for - before we were shown to our room.

Early the next morning, it being a Sunday, we were awoken by singing. We quickly dressed and joined the congregation which consisted exclusively of South Sudanese men and women, many of whom still sported their tribal facial scarring. They sang exuberant songs, merrily danced and played the bongos; quite a surreal experience after so many months travelling through Islamic countries. I've not much experience with Catholic Mass. In fact, my only prior experience had been on Christmas Eve, in 1999, just before midnight, in a small church located in a field in Bethlehem. Yet still quickly concluded it wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it?

We stayed two nights incognito at the church in Kosti, and since it was situated just a day's (long) journey from Ethiopia, we were able to leave early the third day and make a dash for the border without the need to stop overnight in another town.

We arrived safe and sound at the Ethiopian border just as the sun was going down, managing to avoid any run-ins with the government, or encounter any bandits either.

It was with a sense of relief we stepped over the border into Gederaf, Ethiopia. However, what the foreign office and the JMC had failed to mention was the wall-to-wall brothels, beggars and bars…but that’s another story!


Once the flow of oil out of this region was guaranteed the JMC upped and left. It would be comforting to think that the brave men and women I met during my time in the Nuba Mountains continue to thrive in the harsh conditions and their fight against the Sudanese government has come to a peaceful end. But this is not the case.

South Sudan gained its independence as a nation on July 9th, 2011. Unfortunately for the people of the Nuba Mountains, their region was ceded to the north, and as a result, the fighting there has actually intensified and continues to be a war zone to this day.

The Sudanese government has the stated aim of imposing the Arabic language and Islam on the Nuba, many of whom are currently animist or Christian. They are under constant bombardment by Antonov bombing raids coordinated from the government garrison at Kadugli. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has publicly stated that in Sudan there will be no diversity of culture or ethnicity, and that he will create a famine by forcing the people into the Nuba Mountains, in an attempt to starve and terrorise them into submission. His plan is working.

Khartoum has banned entry to all aid workers and journalists lest they find out and report what is happening in here, to the world. If you have an interest in this ongoing tragedy, Academy award-winning actor George Clooney snuck into the embattled Nuba Mountains a couple of years back to try to raise awareness of the inhabitants’ ongoing plight at the hands of the central government's genocidal activities. Here is his short video intro on the topic:

George Clooney warns of War Crimes

George Clooney Witnesses War Crimes in Sudan's Nuba Mountains


8th May 2014

Sounds like
You need to go back to Darfur Jason...your fat cat life needs a bit of scalding.
8th May 2014

Sounds like
We're on the same page with that idea...reckon I've still got a few lives left.
8th May 2014

another 24yrs
i would wait another 24yrs and take stevie gbh in case there are any slip ups
8th May 2014

Good reminder
I actually didn't know this was still going on. Shows how little one hears of it through the common news channels. Or maybe it is just me. I am probably getting as jaded as the rest of the world. You hear so much misery in so many places it tends to become one big blur after a while. You might even wonder if the people in the Nuba mountains would have been much better of in S. Sudan, seeing what is going on there. Everybody seems to be killing everybody else around those parts at the moment, either for religion or because they belong to the wrong tribe, or for whatever other reasons. Its a good reminder how fortunate those of us are who are living in a peaceful, wealthy and democratic part of the world. Luck of the draw...
8th May 2014

Good reminder
Sudan's military bombed the only functioning hospital in the Nuba Mountains just the other day. Though you are right, it does seem the people of the Nuba Mountains are caught between a rock and a hard place. War still rages in the south, along religious and ethnic lines, but the driving force behind it is predominantly oil.
9th May 2014

Great adventure, but so tragic in the Sudan
Quite an adventure and a rousing tale! And no, somehow, I can't imagine you in the military. So sad about the gentle Nuba people, and so horrifying that a country can feel so threatened that it can't allow diversity. We've such a long way to go as a species.
10th May 2014

Sudan has been at war with 'itself' since the British decided to combine hundreds of ethnic groups and languages in creating the largest country in Africa in the 1950's. A history of grievances and atrocities (supported as always by foreign powers and their own interests) lived out by generations of people who've known nothing but war. Massive oil deposits in the south have fueled (and doubtless will continue to fuel) war rather than development.
11th May 2014

The Nuba people
Our world can be harsh and unforgiving in some locations. I can't imagine living day to day in that kind of situation. My delay in responding to this one is because my mind has been jumbled with thoughts since I read it and still don't know what to say. Power and greed can ruin potentially good people. Choices. I'm glad there are people who are trying to help them. Bless them.
12th May 2014

I don't expect many people to respond to this type of subject matter. People click on expecting fantasy, adventure and escapism and instead they get a face-full of reality. Perhaps this is why these conflicts drag on for generations without much notice by the outside world. Though I agree with you, I have gratitude and admiration for those who are actively trying to help these people. Especially those on the ground risking their own lives, driven primarily by their compassion for mankind.

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