No journalist expects to be dispatched to a country accused of genocide to report on the name of a teddy bear. There are huge issues at stake in Sudan. Issues of war and peace. How they are resolved will determine the fate of hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in the world.
And yet the highest profile news story in Sudan for many years was over the decision by an entirely well-meaning teacher from Merseyside to name a teddy bear Muhammad. The tabloids were splashing on the story. ITV News and the BBC were sending correspondents and camera crews to Khartoum. I was one of those reporters. Strangely enough I was reminded of a six-day war between Honduras and El Salvador, fought over a football match. The teddy bear dispute ranked right up there with the ‘soccer war’as one of the world’s most ridiculous international incidents.
Visas for journalists to visit the Sudan are not available at short notice from the embassy in London. So both the BBC and ITV had to gain access through Nairobi. I sat at the Sudanese embassy in Kenya, along with colleagues from The Sun, politely begging for a visa before everything closed for the weekend. I was lucky. I knew the Sudanese ambassador, Majok Guandong, from his days in London, when he had been a spokesman for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. I never expected to find him running Khartoum’s embassy in Kenya. Like many southern Sudanese, he has great affection for British journalism and he made sure we had our visas just in time.
At no stage did I feel entirely comfortable with the story. Yes, it was a huge talking point back in the UK. Britain gives a great deal of humanitarian assistance to Sudan. And yes, it appeared outrageous that the country’s judges could turn around and convict a teacher who was guilty of nothing but a cultural misunderstanding.
The real cause of my unease was to the south and west of Sudan. At the same time as the teddy bear row was at its peak, the peace accord between the north and south of Sudan was in crisis, threatening to reignite one of longest-running civil wars in the world. And a few hundred miles to the west, in blighted Darfur, UN peacekeepers are struggling to deploy troops to defend helpful refugees.
In fact, several reporters hot-footed it back from Darfur to report on the Gillian Gibbons story. No wonder we all felt awkward. There are two epic stories playing out in Sudan. The tale of Gillian Gibbons was not one of them.
It was still a compelling story. The prospect of a British teacher being lashed and imprisoned for months was outrageous. It was being portrayed as the ultimate clash of values between the West and the Islamic world.
It was actually a more local story. It was apparent that Gibbons was extremely unlucky. She was the victim of some embittered parents at the school who were nursing a grievance. She was also caught up in purely domestic politics, with hardline clerics seeking confrontation with the west and wanting to whip up emotions among their own followers.
We were summoned to the presidential palace in the heart of Khartoum. Two British Muslim peers, Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi, were meeting President al-Bashir to negotiate Mrs Gibbons’ release.
It was great timing for the breakfast shows back home. I updated GMTV every 30 minutes from a balcony a few metres from where Gordon of Khartoum had been hacked to death in 1885. Now that was a story every foreign correspondent would like to have covered. Fourteen days in jail is uncomfortable, but here in Khartoum the ghost of General Gordon makes it seem a little inconsequential by Sudan’s standards.
The news broke almost immediately: President al-Bashir had pardoned Gillian Gibbons. The news was flashed across the world as if we were dealing with a major global event. Some observers were quick to point out she only had another five days to serve.
The great game was to predict what flight Gibbons would fly home on and to join her on the journey. There was a direct flight to London early tomorrow morning. It seemed the obvious choice. But the British embassy and Emirates Airlines fooled us and amid great secrecy she was flown out overnight. Only one journalist guessed right – Rob Crilly, who was stringing for The Times and the Daily Mail.
Something was troubling me. In fact, in television terms, it was very obvious. We had never actually seen the main player in the story. Gillian Gibbons had never been filmed during her ordeal or in the hours after her release.
Somehow the Sudanese and the British had smuggled the teacher out of the country without us capturing a single image of her. Her story would have to wait until she arrived in Heathrow.
On reflection, the mission of the British negotiators was successful because Sudan was looking ridiculous, even in the Muslim world. Perhaps President Omar al-Bashir – not known for understanding western journalism – had come to the same conclusion we had reached days ago: that in this vast and troubled country there are more substantial issues to worry about than the name of a teddy bear.