“You’re not faster than a bullet” – Bandits and roadblocks in Darfur

Travel in northeastern Darfur can be a perilous business at the best of times.

The bandits and militias who stalk this isolated corner of western Sudan pose a significant threat to anyone attempting to traverse its bumpy roads.

So when you come across an improvised roadblock, manned by hostile-looking Darfurians brandishing AK47s – you may be in very real trouble.

That was the situation Tangiers International field agent Hafiz and his driver faced as they travelled to meet a claimant in the region during the autumn of last year.

Hafiz continued the tale: “The driver started shouting ‘Robbers, robbers!’ in Arabic. He wanted to speed up and try to get across the roadblock.

“I told him ‘Do not speed up. You’re not faster than a bullet’ and, thankfully, I convinced him to stop. When we pulled over, the guys with guns came rushing over to us.”

While the driver remained in the vehicle, Hafiz got out and greeted the men with a friendly salam aleekom – or ‘peace be unto you’ – the traditional Islamic greeting used in Sudan.

Although the men were heavily armed and the improvised camp was littered with weapons and bullet casings, Hafiz ignored the threat they presented, announcing to the men “I’m here to see the sheikh.”

In Sudanese culture, a “sheikh” is a community elder, usually very well versed in Islamic scripture who is consulted for advice and guidance by other members of the community.

The armed men pointed in the direction of a nearby tree where an elderly man sat.

Hafiz continued: “I slowly walked over to this man and, again, greeted him respectfully. I told him I was lost and wanted to cross the area.

“He asked me ‘Where are you from?’ and I mentioned by grandfather who was well-known across Sudan.”

The sheikh had indeed heard of Hafiz’s grandfather – a respected Sufi imam who has an Islamic school in northern Khartoum – gaining Hafiz a valuable bridge of trust.

“I told him the father of one of our colleagues in Khartoum had passed away and we were travelling to his home to give our condolences,” Hafiz continued.

“He told me this was very good, saying, ‘You guys are followers of a good tradition, travelling all this way to pay your respects.’”

With the situation seemingly de-escalated, Hafiz and his driver were invited to drink tea with the armed men and the sheikh.

Before long, Hafiz and his driver were on their way to their previous appointment. When they finally arrived, they were warned by locals that bandits were rife in the area.

Hafiz attributed the peaceful resolution to this potentially-dangerous encounter to his knowledge of Sudanese culture.

He said: “Always show respect to the person you are speaking to, make sure you accept anything they offer you such as food or a drink, and, most importantly, always show respect to the elder of the group.”

Hafiz and his driver even stopped a second time to talk with the armed men on the return journey back to Khartoum, showing they had not only avoided robbery but also made some useful contacts in this part of Darfur.