All of a sudden there was chaos. I found myself running over Khartoum’s famous Africa road with a hint of panic. ‘Where were the others?’ More people were running and pushing, which forced me to go through some of the small bushes on the sides. I felt the branches scratching my legs. And suddenly, out of nowhere, there was a burning sensation in my eyes, nose and mouth. My eyes started tearing. ‘Tear gas!’ someone shouted to us.
So, how did I end up in a tear gas attack in Khartoum?
Well, it seemed a good plan. I was backpacking through Sudan and stayed in Khartoum for New Years eve. Me and my hostel mates would go to the fireworks at the Green Yard park next to Africa road.
Upon arrival, I saw hundreds (thousands?) of people standing in the dark outside the gates of the park, mostly young men and only a handful of women. We were the only ‘foreigners’.
Slowly, we made our way through the mass towards the entrance of the Green Yard park, also passing by groups of military and policemen. Some had raised bats in their hands to keep the crowds at distance. We felt the atmosphere was tense. As we continued walking, we noticed groups of men running around shouting, some with bandana’s covering their face. There was broken glass everywhere.
We finally reached the park’s entrance, but unfortunately it was already full. I peeked through the gates: it looked fun and well-organized, but even after asking again, we were not allowed to enter.
We decided to head back the same way.
This time, a large group of around fifty men came running towards us. Soldiers gestured that we really had to leave now. Unsure where to go and what to do, and with a slight hint of panic, we started running as well and amidst of the chaos, I lost the others.
Suddenly, I felt my eyes burning and tearing and my breathing felt different. What is happening?
Shit, tear gas. The army had used tear gas. That’s why some of the guys wore bandana’s!
Everyone now moved to the left to avoid running towards the gas. Slowly, people spread out and the chaos resolved.
Fortunately, we quickly found each other again and the symptoms only lasted a few minutes.
Five minutes later, it would be 12 o’clock and we decided to stay and watch the -Sorry Sudan- incredibly minimal fireworks from a reasonably safe distance of the crowds. Just a handful of rockets went up in the air. Pfieeew, pfieeew, pfieeew… That was it.
We were now ready to head home and found a tuktuk willing to take all five of us. Three sat in the back and two sat/stand next to the driver. Here, we got a second scare as we landed in another ‘attack’. This time, it were well-aimed water balloons and we were all soaking wet.
To conclude the turbulent evening, we had a chai at one of our favorite Syrian café’s. We agreed it was a potentially risky situation. These things can quickly get out of hand.
As a foreigner, who only visited Sudan for a short time, I can’t really say what exactly was going on around the Green Yard park. It might have been political (a few days later there would be protests throughout the country against increasing bread prices), it might have been young boys from the suburbs looking to rebel or something else.
Could we have avoided this risky situation? After all, one of the golden rules of travel safety is to avoid crowds. Well, I’m not sure. We expected to go to an organized event in the Green Yard and we obviously had no idea there would be so many people outside the gates. But, maybe we should have left sooner.
Tear gas is still commonly used in Sudan and many other countries. It is an aerosol containing chlorbenzadene malonitrile, which causes irritation to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. In severe cases, people can also suffer from vomiting and diarrhoea. Apparently pouring milk over your face is a way to reduce symptoms.
I hope this story does not scare anyone. Sudan is actually quite safe for travelers (read more about this here)!
It was a new years eve to remember and definitely a crazy start of 2018!
Sudan travel information: