4 Mar 2009

The cartoon-watching, indicted war criminal

Omar al-BashirI first met Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan and – as of today – indicted war criminal, a few days after he seized power in 1989.

Three journalists including myself managed to get to Khartoum within a day of the coup which had overthrown the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Our first stop was the presidential palace where we managed to persuade some hapless functionary to let us interview the new leader, but by the time we had secured a date and time dozens of other journalists had turned up in the Sudanese capital.

As we arrived for our interview, about 50 reporters and camera crews were trying to muscle in. The new head of protocol, faced with a horde of badly behaved journalists, decided that the whole thing was off and tried to throw us all out.

We were about to lose our exclusive. Eventually, everyone agreed to back off apart from one particularly pushy and obnoxious reporter, on whom, I confess, I used physical force. I kicked him so hard he limped away. We were ushered into the presence of the new Big Man.

Lindsey Hilsum interviews Omar al-Bashir, October 2008

Except he wasn’t a Big Man. He was a small man. I don’t mean physically, but in terms of character. He had no presence, no charisma, no charm, no magnetism.

He spoke mainly in banalities, promising to bring peace and democracy. After about 20 minutes, he indicated the interview was over by standing up, walking across the room, sitting down in front of the TV, and turning on the cartoons.

That was it. The new president of Sudan was watching Tom and Jerry. (Or whatever it was). Our audience was over.

When I interviewed al-Bashir again last year, he seemed exactly the same – a dull, small man who sucked energy from the room. Not a monster, a figure of stature, a person to be reckoned with or to fear. In our interview he simply denied everything. It was like interviewing a blank wall.

Now he’s deemed to be personally responsible for murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape. The man who I never believed would last a year has remained in power for two decades, and will go down in history as one of Africa’s most notorious strongmen, the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court.

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