Chapter 9 - A Proto-spy Experience - Walking the Gangplank in Port Sudan
I have to tell you about two events in my life in Khartoum that were, well, both bizarre and extraordinary. I'm not superstitious, but you might say these were somehow 'fated' as some kind of training for my later 'career'.
The first involved a trip to Port Sudan with the school judo team. I can't remember exactly, but it would have been around 1969, when I was14 or 15, and we had a judo competition with a school in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea.
There were about 25 of us in the group, along with three or four teachers, and we went by train to this wonderful little town, which is more Mediterranean than tropical. I remember it was full of palm trees.
After our competition, about a dozen of us went for a wander around town, and almost inevitably we drifted down to the port. And what did we find in the harbour but some visiting Egyptian gunboats.
Of course, boys especially are interested in warships, so we went to the pier, and were looking up at the guns and weaponry, when some of the sailors called down and invited us on board. Naturally, we scrambled up the gangplank, all very excited, and with marines and sailors we chatted and looked around for a while. After maybe 20 minutes, the novelty had worn off, so we said our goodbyes and started to leave the ship. It was then that I noticed there were two Sudanese policemen standing at the foot of the gangplank, watching us boys disembark, which felt a bit odd. Not that they were doing anything, until, that is, I reached them, when they suddenly grabbed my arms and, to the astonishment of the others, promptly frog-marched me off to the police station, which was on the other side of the square, facing the port.
Inside, they brought me in front of an officer. “What were you doing on board that Egyptian warship?" he yelled. Before I could answer he shouted: "You look like an Israeli! You are under arrest for suspected spying.” You know, at first I thought they had to be joking. It was true that even at 14 I was tall, but honestly, I was also skinny, like a stick of spaghetti, and I think a normal human being could have seen that I was just a kid. But somehow these policemen seemed blind to that. “We were invited by the Egyptian sailors. I was there with my school friends, a whole group of us, they saw them,” I said, gesturing to the two police who'd picked me up. “I'm Hungarian, not Israeli, and I'm a schoolboy, not a spy!” and I tried to hand over my school ID card. The officer wasn't interested. “That's just a fake, don't even show it to us! You are an Israeli spy!” he insisted. By now, realising they were serious, I was getting distressed. There I was, miles from home, separated from my school group, in a police station where they were accusing me of being an Israeli spy and refusing to listen to anything I said in my defence. It was then I remembered that opposite our home in Khartoum there was a house where three friendly Sudanese police officers lived. So I told them I could prove who I was by phoning them. They let me call, and I got one who was working in the Sudanese Ministry of the Interior. I explained my plight. “They don't want to let me go,” I stammered. Well, they guys holding me knew who they were talking to, and when "my policeman" said he knew me and I was indeed a school kid living opposite him, the whole affair kind of fizzled out. The cops called the school in Port Sudan, and got hold of two of my teachers, two Italian priests, who came to pick me up. The cops blagged something about needing a permit to travel within Sudan – this wasn't true, I think it was just an excuse to justify the arrest – and I was set free.
That was the first time I was accused of being a spy, aged 14! The whole affair was, of course absurd, and is kind of funny now. I remember the police had guns looking as if they came from the time of Gordon of Khartoum! But at the time, it was pretty scary. A kind of premonition? If it was, I failed to learn from it. The next time a policeman accused me of being a spy, it got a lot more serious.