2 Nov 2017 Portrait

From "camel dealer" to peace negotiator: Gunnar Sørbø and Sudan

‘I had never been outside Scandinavia. I remember the plane first landed in Vienna, then in Istanbul, then in Cairo. It was quite a winding route back then. When I finally landed at the airport in Khartoum, I was picked up by a guy on a scooter and taken to a grim hostel. I was the only European there. All the others were young men who had fled from the war in Eritrea. The rooms were completely stripped. There were no furniture, no decorations, only iron beds and a fridge placed next to my bed. Everyone kept going back and forth to that fridge, and it was impossible to get any sleep. In an act of desperation I decided to take the bed outside. The rain was pouring down, the bed broke, and I kept asking myself what on earth I was doing there’

When Gunnar M. Sørbø first went to Sudan, he was 22 years old. It was a temperature shock, a language shock, and a cultural shock. It was also a shock for his stomach. Doing field work among the pastoralist Shukriya, he was served litres of milk fresh from the livestock every evening. At some point, after days of pain and diarrhea, he made up a story about being allergic. Saying ‘No, thank you’ and thereby dishonouring their hospitality was not an option.

For this young man, to gaze into the starry sky one night after eight months of fieldwork in village no. 12 in New Halfa in Eastern Sudan, ask himself the question ‘Could I live here?’ and reply ‘Yes’ was quite a journey; a journey that speaks volumes about the man himself and about the country that he now considers to be his second home country.


Gunnar Sørbø in Sudan as a young researcher. (All photos: private)


Barth and Håland’s guinea pig
Sørbø was encouraged to go to Sudan by Fredrik Barth and Gunnar Håland, the University of Bergen’s social anthropologist pioneers, as the first Norwegian participant in a brand new exchange programme between the University of Bergen and the University of Khartoum. Calling it an exchange programme might be a bit of an exaggeration, though.

‘They called it a minimum agreement, and it really was. They had scribbled down two sentences about intentions for exchange of students on a piece of paper’, says Sørbø and laughs.

However minimal it was, this minimum agreement laid the foundations for a long, strong and still vibrant partnership between researchers in Norway and Sudan. The partnership has resulted in several big and influential research projects, institutional cooperation, learning and understanding, unique contextual knowledge, and personal friendships.

When the research programme ARUSS (Assisting regional universities in Sudan and South Sudan) organised its closing conference in Omdurman in early October, the Norwegian Ambassador to Sudan, Bård Hopland, said that:

‘In many ways, the cooperation between universities in Sudan and Bergen has influenced the way Norway today thinks about cooperation between academic institutions, the content of such cooperation and how it is organized.’

What started as a minimum agreement has shaped bilateral relations between Norway and Sudan, and it has had an impact larger than the mere Norway-Sudan axis. Gunnar Sørbø has contributed much to shape these bilateral relations.

Negotiating peace
His solid contextual knowledge about Sudan sent him all over the world to talk about his second native country, it spurred his interest in the geopolitics of the entire Middle-Eastern and North-African region, and it made him a central actor in bringing about peace negotiations.

In 1990, he met with Terje Rød-Larsen and Johan Jørgen Holst. They discussed the possibilities of facilitating a dialogue between the regime in Khartoum and the rebel fighters in the then Southern part of Sudan, SPLA/SPLM, and were able to set up a meeting between the parties. Their first efforts ended with a belly flop.

-The South Sudanese had heard that Johan Jørgen Holst was a former Minister of Defense. All they wanted out of the negotiations was guns and cannons, chuckles Sørbø.


Gunnar Sørbø (from the left), Jimmy Carter, Terje Rød-Larsen and Johan Jørgen Holst.


Three years later, Johan Jørgen Holst was appointed Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and had had success with the Oslo-agreement. He contacted Sørbø and asked him to help facilitate a new effort of creating peace in Sudan. Renewed efforts took Sørbø to the Carter Center in the US, former US president Jimmy Carter’s center for peace work. It also took representatives from the opposing parties to Norway for two secret meetings. However, information about the meetings was divulged and Gunnar Sørbø, newly appointed director at CMI, was sent outside to explain to the crowd of journalists who had gathered that ‘This is simply a seminar about Sudan. No one is negotiating’.

Bringing rebel leaders to Bergen
His engagement in the conflict between the SPLM/SPLA rebel leader John Garang and Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum also brought the world to Bergen, more specifically to a terrace overlooking the picturesque Lake Nordås. Garang came to Gunnar Sørbø’s home for a meal.

‘It was quite a spectacle for my kids. I remember my son being very cautious about the security guards, and commenting on their choice of food. All they wanted was pizza’, he chuckles.

When Garang was not at the terrace overlooking Lake Nordås, he was at his hotel room in Hotel Norge with his entire entourage. It was quite a spectacle in a city not traditionally known for hosting world leaders. All of a sudden, the small city on the Western coast of Norway was a hot spot. At one point, everyone involved in any kind of peace process in Sudan wanted to go to Bergen.

‘The catch phrase in Sudan was that Bergen was the knowledge hub for Sudan. Any trip to Norway would have to go via Bergen’

Much later, without Sørbø's participation, the process eventually led to the comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, and to new research programmes in the CMI-UofB-Khartoum cooperation.

Caught in the crossfire
Sudan has a troubled past and present, scarred with violent conflict and human rights violations. Through his lifelong engagement in Sudan, Sørbø has deep knowledge about the hardships of the Sudanese people. Sometimes he has been closer than what felt safe. In 1971, he was in Khartoum when a group of communists staged a coup against then president Nimeiri. He was out in the streets with a friend, bullets crossing their path and tanks approaching. They got in a car and drove straight home where they remained for days, getting updates from a colleague at the University of Khartoum who had a tv and could get information from BBC Arabic.  

‘The attempt to overthrow president Nimeiri only lasted for a few days. He regained power and ordered mass executions. This incidence marked the end of the Soviet era and the entry of US as a donor. Food imports from Eastern Europe ended. You could no longer get Bulgarian jam. So did the steady flow of agricultural equipment. Sudanese farmers could no longer get spare parts for their tractors.’

He has followed the city through the era of Soviet-influence, where food was imported from Eastern Europe and the agricultural ideology and its machines were imported from the Soviet Union, to the entry of Western donors and aid organisations after the coup.  

He has followed Khartoum’s development from a sleepy, quiet town of about 200 000 inhabitants, to an international city harbouring 6-7 million people; Sudanese from all over the country, Ethiopians and Eritreans caught in limbo on their way to Europe, Syrians fleeing a horrendous civil war, and Westerners working for the UN and international NGOs.

And through his extensive field work in Eastern Sudan, he has followed the development, the ups and downs, sadly mostly downs, of a region and an entire country.

The camel dealer from Saudi-Arabia
That Gunnar Sørbø ended up in New Halfa in Eastern Sudan was more or less a coincidence. He had no clear plan for where his field work was going to take place when he boarded that flight to Khartoum. At the University of Khartoum, he met and befriended the Nubian student Omar Mohamed Ahmed Baba. He invited Sørbø home to Halfa during his first Christmas in Sudan. The Nubians had been forcibly removed from their areas when the Egyptian government decided to build a giant dam in the Aswan on the Nile. Forced to move further south, they lost their livelihood, their properties and their sense of belonging. Many of them struggled, alongside the Shukriya and the Basalwa who were also forcibly moved to a new and (for the Basalwa and Nubians) unknown region. For Sørbø, it was impossible to witness their hardships and not be engaged. His experiences among the Nubians, the Shukriya and the Basalwa shaped him as a researcher.

‘The living conditions of the Nubians spurred my interest in practical research. Witnessing what they went through, how they struggled to adapt, made me realise that I had no choice. For me, it had to be engaged anthropology’, he says. 

Sørbø spent eight months in village no. 12 close to New Halfa, the city the Sudanese government built as a substitute for the once so beautiful Wadi Halfa Town located near the Halfa gorge.


In village no. 12.


His first experiences with field work also clearly taught him how hard it can be. Most days he spent alone in his rented house in village no. 12. During the daytime, the men were off to work, commuting to nearby towns. Living in an Islamic culture, he was not allowed to go talk to the women who were at home.

‘I have never read as many books as I did during those months in village no. 12’, he says.

For weeks, he felt that he did not discover anything new, certainly nothing worth writing about. Instead, he found that outsiders like himself sometimes gave others something to talk about.

‘There is always someone who is suspicious. A white person in this area could easily be suspected of being a spy’, he says.

Suspicions about espionage never targeted him. But he did pick up on rumours that he was a camel dealer from Saudi-Arabia, looking to buy all the fastest camels to bring back home and use for racing in the Arabian peninsula, something which brings tears of laughter to his eyes to this day.

Because field work is also about the good things, about the unexpected, about the hospitality and warmth, about the friendship, about joining the men for their commute to work, about sitting out there talking to the others in the village through the dark evenings.

These are the things that made this young Norwegian look up at the starry sky that night, eight months later and say ‘Yes, I could live here’


Memories from fieldwork in Eastern Sudan.


‘Welcome, Mr. Gunnar’
Sørbø has been an eager recipient of visas from the Sudanese Embassy in Oslo ever since that first trip in 1970. He even got married in the garden of the Norwegian Embassy in Khartoum. His wife Brit has joined him to Sudan on several occasions. Five years ago, he and Brit went back to village no. 12 where he did his fieldwork in 1971. They were welcomed by children singing ‘Welcome Mr. Gunnar’, and they were taken from house to house in the village to visit the people he knew from back then. He got to hear everything about who died, who got married, who left and who stayed. And he was approached by young adults telling him how they were just children when he was doing his field work in village no. 12, but how they remembered him and how they had heard their parents tell stories about the Norwegian who came to stay in their village.

Before he left he asked himself again.

 ‘Could I live here?’

And the answer was no. Gunnar Sørbø retires in November. He has dedicated a life as a researcher to Sudan and its people, to the country he likes to consider his second native country. And he will definitely go back. But not as a researcher.

By Åse Johanne Roti Dahl