Postcard From…Khartoum

The signs of new construction are visible everywhere in Khartoum. Libya recently erected a giant, almost-oval hotel not far from the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, bestowing downtown Khartoum with an oddly distinctive landmark that the locals call “Gaddafi’s egg.” The priciest rooms run at $4,000 per night. Just across the street is the massive and appropriately named Friendship Hall, built by China.

Despite the substantial commercial links between Sudan and China, Beijing keeps a very low profile in Khartoum — presumably hoping to avoid any visibility that would provide a focal point for local resentment. The entire Sudan Hotel was taken over by the China National Petroleum Corporation for use by its staff. Yet few Chinese — or Europeans for that matter — are in evidence walking the streets. Indeed, the city is strikingly bare of foreign tourists, business people, or, for the most part, aid workers. Despite this, the presence of white people provokes only sly, subdued curiosity.

The frenzied construction has left one plot of real estate untouched — the remnants of one of the more brazen acts of state terrorism in recent memory. In North Khartoum, the ruins of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory remain, occupying a space the size of a city block, over 10 years after President Clinton leveled the facility with a cruise missile strike. The half-standing structures and heaps of debris were left uncleared as a reminder of Washington’s regime change policies of the late 1990s.

The destroyed factory sits in the middle of an industrial zone, a short walk from a BMW property and a Coca-Cola bottling plant. A woman lives inside the compound near the front entrance, in a trailer with her small children, apparently unmolested by a guard sitting unobtrusively in a corner of the grounds. A former administrative employee at the plant now hangs out nearby, offering the occasional visitor a tour of the rubble for a tip.

The hills of broken bricks and cement are strewn with evidence of the plant’s operations. Whole sacks of bottles, some still possessed of their curative contents, lie strewn throughout. Labels of various medicines, the instructional sheets often intact, litter the ground: Shifalex (antibiotic), Oxynil (veterinary antibiotic), Erythronil (antibiotic), Shifaquine (chloroquine, an antimalarial), and so on. The crumbling walls of the half-standing entrance structure are lined with graffiti. “Down USA,” reads one of the few legible English messages.

The geopolitical differences between Washington and Khartoum did not, however, appear to trouble personal relationships. We encountered virtually no hostility. While trying out the local custom of confronting the noontime heat with piping hot, super-sweet tea, an affable cab driver engaged us in conversation and paid for our drinks. Indeed, it can be a challenge to give compensation for small purchases. “You are visitors,” explained a man traversing the Blue Nile on a public ferry with us, paying for our tickets before we managed to retrieve the correct sum from our pockets.

Even in the midst of the global downturn, Khartoum’s economic future is bright. Whether the millions of displaced southerners and Darfurians residing in the capital will share in the prosperity is another question.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributors Steven Fake and Kevin Funk are the co-authors of the book, “The Scramble for Africa: Darfur-Intervention and the USA.” They maintain a website with their commentary at www.scrambleforafrica.org.