Escape from Sudan!

From the start, this was no ordinary author visit. I arrived at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, expecting to spend a week and a half speaking at two international schools in Sudan. Unfortunately, that same Saturday, massive anti-government demonstrations began against despotic Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. 

And the protests continued, swelling by thousands every day. On Sunday I visited Khartoum International Community School, and only half of the students and staff had showed up — the rest being stuck at home by the closing of bridges over the Nile or having been warned to stay home by their embassies. Nevertheless, I had a delightful day with the kids who’d come. They were so enthusiastic and excited to have me there, and I had high hopes that things would return to normal as the days passed.

The view from my Khartoum hotel

Alas, it was not to be. On Day 2 of my visit, school was canceled. I was advised to stay in my hotel, so I did, wanting no piece of the protests. On Day 3, school was canceled again. The protests were worsening. Although the demonstrators remained peaceful, security forces didn’t. They shot and killed some protesters, and teargas and uncertainty drifted over the city like a pall. Acrid smoke rose from tires smoldering at intersections. Nobody knew what would happen. Rumors swirled.

That day, Jeanette Brooker, the KICS librarian, called me in and said, “I think we’ve got to get you out of here.” Easier said than done. Internet access was limited to email only, as the government had put a lid on social media and we couldn’t even open a web browser. I tried calling Qatar Airways to move up my departure, but they refused to make a change on a ticket that was supposed to be fully changeable. Kirk Leichner, the librarian from International School of Tanganyika (which I’d visited the previous week), investigated buying me a new ticket home. 

He reserved it, and then was told he couldn’t buy the ticket online. We could buy it online from Sudan — if only the Internet hadn’t been shut down. So Kirk had to drive to Ethiopian Air’s downtown office in Dar es Salaam to purchase the ticket in person, and even then, the soonest I could leave would be Wednesday late afternoon.

Come Wednesday, we heard reports that there might be counter-demonstrations by al-Bashir supporters. Nobody knew what that would bring. More violence? With bated breath, we drove past the roadblocks to the airport and I checked in. At boarding time, all of us nervous passengers trooped onto the plane… then waited for an hour and a half without A/C in 100-degree heat while Ethiopian tried to fix a navigational system problem. They sent us back to the departure gate to wait, then brought us out in another hour, saying the problem had been fixed. We waited for another half hour on the tarmac, with no explanation.

At this point, the passengers mutinied. People raged up the aisles, yelling and cursing out the pilot and crew in Arabic (which, it turns out, is an excellent language for cursing out). At this point, I had only a general notion of what was happening. Then, two first-class passengers demanded to be let off. That opened the floodgates, and over half of the passengers joined them in leaving, having lost confidence in the pilot and the airline. (It probably didn’t help that Ethiopian had had a terrible crash the month before, killing over 180 people.) Our flight was canceled.

We waited five hours at the gate for the 3:30 a.m. flight out. But we finally made it, after a nearly 10-hour delay. And a good thing, too. By 3 p.m. that same day (Thursday), the military had overthrown al-Bashir, closed the airport and sealed the borders.

Turns out, I escaped on one of the last flights. This was one for the record books — my first author visit to be canceled by a coup.

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