Some call it the ``Paris of Sudan.'' That, I think, is somewhat of an exaggeration, even for a country that must submerge itself in the relative. But Kassala does have its charm. It has its caf'es. And it has, without doubt, the world's tastiest grapefruit.
Kassala, in fact, is an oasis, the chief market center for Sudan's semi-arid eastern region.
A town of nearly 200,000 inhabitants -- nobody knows for sure -- it boasts a lively souk (market) where products ranging from locally grown vegetables to imported videotapes are sold. Stall vendors serve cold glasses of freshly blended grapefruit or guava juice. Here a colorful hodgepodge of cultures -- Indian cloth merchants to Eritrean refugees to pastoralists -- merge.
Kassala is also a rich island of green. Citrus and mango groves interlace plots of vegetables: tomatoes, watercress, onions, and maize. All are fed by the waters of the Gash River. Although it appears bone dry most of the year, like many African rivers it continues to flow underground.
Clumps of date trees with sacred ibises silhouetted against the sky mark the deep, open wells from which generations of farmers have tirelessly irrigated the land.
The oasis's most distinctive feature, however, is the bizarre, camel-humped jebels that dominate the landscape. These are enormous protrusions of granite that can be as much as 2,800 feet high. On one side of the granite lies Kassala and its gardens; on the other, just 12 miles from the Ethiopian border, is Sudan's largest refugee camp, Wad Sherife.
To reach Kassala we caught the ``Sunshine Express,'' one of several so-called ``super deluxe'' bus companies plying the Port Sudan-Khartoum route. At the Port Sudan ticket office (a wooden shack with a tea shop attached), a crudely painted billboard heralds great things to come. Under the words ``Sunshine Express,'' it depicts a young man, suitcase in hand, walking into a sun rising (or setting) over the Kassala jebels.
The journey by road takes roughly eight hours. We left at 6:30 a.m. accompanied mainly by Sudanese returning from Saudi Arabia but also by three hapless European tourists who had been turned back at the Egyptian border because of currency difficulties. They were heading overland to Khartoum in the hope that their embassies would repatriate them by plane.
The bus at first followed the asphalt coastal highway, then headed directly south through the barren Red Sea mountains at Suakin. In the early morning light the crumbling ruins of the deserted port appeared to hover like some mystical island against the glistening backdrop of the sea. When the British built Port Sudan as the region's new entrance to the sea in 1906, Suakin was abandoned by its inhabitants, leaving its once beautiful Arab-style coral stone buildings to decay in the sun and wind.
We also passed groups of Rashaida nomads whose veiled women, dressed in striking red and black robes and adorned with spectacular silver jewelry, clustered around their tents just off the road. Nearby, herds of camels grazed among the sparse thorn bushes.
An Arab-featured people who crossed into Sudan from the Arabian peninsula during the 19th century, the Rashaida are, despite appearances, well-to-do. Specializing in camel breeding, some of them have made fortunes selling their animals for racing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, where choice ``steeds'' go for as much as $50,000 each.
The ``stewardess,'' a regular feature on these buses, served water from large picnic thermoses. There were 50 of us aboard the bus, and we shared our water ration from the two plastic serving cups available. The bus raced over mile upon mile of baking jebels and desert. Occasionally we passed desolate-looking towns that had sprung up around the watering stations of the single-track railway line the British built in the early 1900s.
Less than a century ago, much of this region was wooded. There was wildlife, including lions. There are still patches of shrub, notably where there is a water cache. Leafless acacias cling precariously to life. But no one has bothered to reforest and the animals, save for the hyenas, baboons, and the occasional Nubian ibex, have long since gone. As for the lions, they can now be found only well south of Khartoum near the Ethiopian frontier.
To a certain extent drought is responsible, but overgrazing and man's perpetual need for firewood have wrought most of the damage.
``There are ample supplies of water in these parts for drilling, and with proper livestock management and re-forestation there is nothing preventing this region from sustaining more life,'' said Graham Miller, an Australian geologist I met in Kassala.
At about 10:30, the bus halted at a scattered array of wood and palm thatch structures which proved to be a roadside truck stop. Here we had ``fatur,'' the Sudanese late morning breakfast.
The passengers crowded out to eat kebabs, ful (field beans), and addis (lentils) washed down with heavily sweetened tea or a syrupy local cola. (The Sudanese penchant for sugar has caused riots when shortages arose, not surprising where a family of four consumes as much as a pound and a half each day.)
Numerous beggars, a few old-timers evidently well acquainted with truckstop habits, children, and drought victims, hang around the entrances for handouts. Sometimes one of them ventures inside to grab a piece of bread or hold out his hand for coins before being chased out by a shouting, stick-waving waiter.
In Kassala I got a room at the Bashair Hotel, a rather ugly, four-story concrete affair typical of modern Sudanese architecture. It cost me $l.71 per night.
Included in that fee were my roommates: Graham Miller and his drillers from the Australian relief agency, Community Aid Abroad. Miller was waiting to go across the border into Tigre to drill wells in drought areas, but he was held up because of Ethiopian military operations.
Kassala has long been an operational base for officials involved in refugee and cross-border humanitarian work. But since last November, when tens of thousands more Eritrean refugees fled here from war and drought, the town has been inundated by ``Kawajas'' (foreigners) from Europe, North America, and elsewhere.
In the eyes of many Sudanese, all this attention showered on refugees is baffling. Many feel that the refugees are receiving benefits -- such as food or health care -- unavailable to themselves.
Some Western relief officials warn that unless more is done for Sudanese nationals, a powderkeg could develop. The government shares their concern.
``We feel that all assistance should be shared between the refugees and the nationals themselves,'' stressed Muhammad Habib, director of the Commissioner for Refugees office for the Kassala region. ``What we have to avoid is the creation of a privileged refugee community.''
But that is easier said than done. Efforts to establish integrated services have often foundered. When water engineers began prospecting potential drilling operations on the outskirts of Wad Sherife, local farmers protested.
When it was pointed out that they would have use of the facilities once the refugees left, one man, a Nigerian, exclaimed: ``Look, I used to be a refugee and I've been here for 15 years. I haven't left!''