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Getting Arrested & Detained In the Newest Country In The World

in South Sudan Travel Blog, Travel Blogs

You read that right, arrested and detained in the newest country in the world, South Sudan.

I should have known when the South Sudan Embassy in Ethiopia asked for a written letter in order to take a picture.  I should have known when a group of police officers told me I needed special permission from a random office in order to take a picture.  I should have known not to run from the police in Africa because they run faster… than motorcycles.  I should have remembered to purchase reinforced tank tops in case someone is trying to drag me from a moving motorcycle.

I should have known…..

I think when you’re going to do something, you have to go all out. What would be the point of just getting arrested if I wasn’t detained? And getting detained wouldn’t be any fun if I wasn’t arrested, right? Safe to say it was a terrifying experience that I can go back and laugh at, just like my experience getting kidnapped and shot at in Venezuela.

It started on an overcast day and I decided not to day trade since I left my charger in Ethiopia. I walked through the gate of the new 12 ft high security wall that was being built to protect the property compound.  Apparently they didn’t get the message that the war was over.  As I eagerly walked towards one of my favorite taxis in the entire world the most bizarre thing happened, out of the overgrown grasslands across from the hotel a group of men appeared.

south sudan

South Sudan

It wasn’t just regular men; it was men that seemed 8 ft tall (240 cm) with intricate scar designs on their faces, tribal tattoos,  wearing typical African attire, with bright colored hair.  They were walking out of the heavily packed grasslands across from the hotel.

In other words, they walked out of nowhere.  Picture yourself living in your Disney World suburban home, next to a forest, and a group of men in business suits walk out of the forest.  It was strange yet interesting at the same time:

It seemed like the African version of entourage

I didn’t know who the star or the assistant was, I didn’t want to stare, but I wanted to ask for a photograph at the same time.  I found out later they were from the nearby village and they were coming into town for some supplies.

After gawking like the tourist that I am, I walked to the corner to find my favorite modes of public transportation, the back of a motorcycle.  This was Africa in its rawest form, the capital city of Juba is one of the most underdeveloped areas in the world and I was ready to go to the extreme to explore it.  By extreme I mean being personally walked into an office where men are being whipped into the floor.

No pain, no gain, right?

The young gentlemen that won the auction for my services started by taking me around downtown.  He felt very lucky then, he didn’t feel so lucky when he had to stay at the police station after I was released.  I was taken to all the important parts of the city; the best hotel, the market, the police station, the cell phone station, and even a wedding.  That is not an exaggeration, the cell phone store and best hotel are quite the attraction in South Sudan.

I was lucky to stay at the hotel which happened to be the only licensed tour operator in the country.  He couldn’t operate tours of course because of a misunderstanding with the government, welcome to Africa!

south sudan

The newest sign in South Sudan

A few hours passed, I took tons of pictures, I saw the massive waste of money that is called the American compound, and we fixed a flat tire (in that order).  I finally arrived at a very special location, the actual place where South Sudan proclaimed its independence.  I took a few pictures from the motorcycle and asked my tour guide to stop.

He said he needed to park in the corner because of the military police

Being the kind law abiding tourist that I am, I decided to approach the military police, “what’s up guys” (insert cheezy smile here).  I didn’t wave, we only wave in Europe or America, we don’t wave in Africa.  I asked if I could take a picture of the monument and one of the officers replied in a completely straight face “we saw you taking pictures from the motorcycle”.  (insert cheezy smile) “Great then is it okay if I take a picture of the statue?” I asked.

I was told that I need to go to the minister of internal affairs that specializes in journalism that handles permits for the bla bla bla bla bla.  I honestly stopped listening and asked again if it was okay to take a picture.  He said no and asked to see my camera, I thought to myself I hope he doesn’t see the dirty pictures.  My room was pretty messy, what did you think I was talking about?

I was permitted to delete all of the pictures of the statue in which I decided to do quickly as they watched, I then proceeded to head out of that danger zone and take a picture while driving away.  When there is a will there is a way, I am pretty flexible anyway.  I got my pictures, snapped my fingers, did the Latin women head bob, and I was on my way.

I arrived at the bus station and wanted to take pictures in order to share it on this travel site.  I did mention that I was the first travel blogger to visit South Sudan didn’t I? Just as we were leaving I leaned off the edge of the motorcycle to get a good shot of the bus station and out of nowhere a man starts yelling at the top of his lungs.

Juba South Sudan

Sunset in Juba, South Sudan

He finally approaches my cutting edge modes of transportation and asks what I am doing.  I said I was on my out of the bus station and he asked where my permit was.  He barraged me with a series of questions including:

  • Am I journalist?
  • Where is my permit?
  • Why am I taking pictures of a bus station?
  • Do I have my identification?
  • Where is my permit?

I said of course I am a journalist, he screams in my face showing me his fancy official ID card so I handed him my fancy business card, I thought that will surely impress him, it is from America.  Africa is one of the few places where Americans are still looked up to.  The cowboy hat that the current South Sudanese president refuses to take off was give to him as a gift by president Bush.

 He clearly wasn’t impressed and asked to see my permit, I said that is my permit. He gets distracted and I do what any sane white person within a 20 mile radius would do, I tell the motorcycle driver to get the hell out of there!

He starts to drive and we turn on the main drag out of the bus station, I should have known that it would have been a dirt road filled with pot holes.  We get up to a good speed and all of the sudden I hear the same yelling voice I heard at the bus station.  Stop! Stop white boy stop! I made up the white boy part but that’s what it sounded like.

South Sudan Independance

Lets Celebrate!

He catches us, grabs my shoulder, and rips my tank top.  We pick up speed but it is no match for the 7 foot Sudanese official dressed in a suit.  I was told in Kenya that If I was ever getting robbed not to run, they are faster than you, and motorcycles apparently.

I thought I had better odds on a motorcycle.

We pick up speed and the official catches us again.  This time I decide to take my chances and walk back to the office with the official.  I should have known I would have to make the walk of shame back to bus station police office.  We walk back and he takes a look at my pictures and he treats me like 3 year old that doesn’t share his toys with other kids.  He does the tisk tisk sound with his lips and we arrive at the office/police station.  It was a very impressive office to be honest, it looked like a high school bathroom.

We entered and I was reassured that I would be okay when I saw a man getting beat with a whip on the floor.  This was my “holy shet moment”, definitely shouldn’t have ran from the cops.  As soon as I walk in I immediately turn around to see the man getting whipped and he is gone.  The only thing I see left are the whips on the floor, definitely reassured now.

Every man in unofficial t-shirts and suits are paying attention to me, my camera, and my ripped t-shirt

They all look at the pictures on my camera and give a disapproving face.  Apparently I killed someone with the looks on their faces, they explain that I need a special permit in order to take picture.  I wanted to let them know that we aren’t in a Muslim country anymore, it is a predominately Christian country now after independance! Northern Sudan, and many other Muslim countries, are very strict about pictures.

You should never take pictures of women, even if they are flirting with you, and in Northern Sudan everyone needs special permission to take pictures inside of the country and especially inside the Khartoum city limits.  I play the fool and explain how I am a travel writer and have a travel site.

I was on the edge of my seat considering all of my options and they tell me that everything is going to be okay.  I almost forgot the young gentlemen that was getting whipped on the floor, of course everything was going to be okay.  Have a look at the report on prisons in South Sudan, I could have ended up here:

I finally decide to show my US Passport and the entire mood of the room changes.  They go from belittling me to saying it’s okay, everything will be okay.  I have citizenship in a few different countries, I don’t think I have ever been that happy to have my American passport on me.

The fastest man in South Sudan that decided to chase me makes sure the entire room understands that I wasn’t hurt.

I explain that my shoulder hurts a little, I think you sprained it I said.  He explains again in English that he didn’t hit me directly, we played charades since I wanted to make him look like a fool in front of his friends.  The motorcycle driver smiles, covers his lips, because he notices what I was doing.

I finally agree to the fact that he didn’t beat me and reassures everyone that I am okay.  He comes over and ties my ripped tank top so it looks presentable, awww, we are bonding.  Apparently they called a big wig from downtown to have a chat with me, try to confiscate my camera, and see what the fuss was about.

They clearly couldn’t tell me themselves to delete the pictures and needed someone in a fancier suit to do that.  While waiting for the big wig we have a great time; they tell me about the cowboy hat that was given to the current president of South Sudan by president Bush, they explain a little about their customs and why they have the intricate scars on their faces, we even joke around a bit about how I ran and he caught me.  He even jokes around and says “don’t you know never to run from an African man?” I said I didn’t have a big enough motorcycle.

We call each other my first names, he asks what I do for a living, we are friends now

Not. The big wig enters the room and tells me that he has to keep my camera until Monday.  It was a Friday afternoon and I quickly respond that I am leaving on Saturday.  They tell me to the delete all the pictures, I comply, they verify it, and I am on my way.  I asked if the motorcycle driver could take me back home and they said oh no, he is staying with us for a while.

I don’t know what happened to the motorcycle driver but I can only imagine that it was something horrible.  When I arrived back at my hotel I was told by the manager that he should have explained the situation with pictures.  South Sudan while underdeveloped has money, lots of oil money, and they don’t care if you are white, brown, or purple.  In the justice system you are guilty until proven innocent.

What did I learn from this story?  Only run from police officers that can’t catch you… while you’re on a motorcycle.  The highlight is that I was able to get some day trading in while in South Sudan which makes me the first travel blogger and day trader in the newest country in the world.

I honestly would go back to South Sudan just to see the differences between my visits.  It was an unusually interesting country to visit not only because it is the newest country in the world.


{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan Snedden April 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

Stumbled upon your blog via twitter … oh my gosh, what a story! I am glad you made it out okay. I thought I had it bad when I got mugged in Brooklyn once lol. Keep up the good stories, but be careful out there!!


admin April 9, 2012 at 10:31 am

Thanks Megan! You aren’t the only one that is glad that I made it out alive.. I was terrified when I entered that room and saw the man being whipped.


Someday I'll Be There - Mina April 9, 2012 at 10:49 am

Damn man! This is scary! But well, saved by the passpost!! I can only imagine myself in that situation, showing an Egyptian Passport. ANd then everybody laughs their asses off; telling me I’ll get my ass whiped haha :D

Glad nothing serious happened though! All good!


Colette April 14, 2012 at 7:19 am

What a fantastic read! I was spellbound by your story and completely immersed in it. Glad you came out of it unscathed, but I feel sorry for your driver. TIA.


Marcello April 15, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Thanks for the comment Colette!


Erik April 14, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Fascinating story- I hope for their situation to improve so that they will actually attract visitors in the future!


Marcello April 15, 2012 at 3:12 pm

They are still having lots of trouble with Northern Sudan but there will possibilities in the future


Maria (Culture-ist Magazine) April 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Crazy story Marcello! Glad you came out of it without any whippings :)


Marcello July 19, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Your aren’t kidding.. lol. Thanks for the comment Maria


Waegook Tom April 29, 2012 at 9:27 am

Wow that’s quite the story!!! Glad you made it out of there alive. And what WERE you doing, taking photos of a bus station?… ;)


Marcello May 28, 2012 at 10:11 pm

YESSSS… can you imagine that? Pictures at a bus station, they still have a lot of laws that are reminiscent of Northern Sudan which is completely backwards as we all know. Thanks of the comment Waegook!


Doc Wends of Journeys and Travels May 6, 2012 at 7:31 am

this is scary if not alarming. I am excited to know from your post that a new country in Africa emerges and its called South Sudan. Darn, I could have passed out with the thoughts of being collared by those men. Scary


Marcello May 28, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Its always scary during the moment but funny after… it was a terrifying experience.. very terrifying to be honest with you


Simon P May 6, 2012 at 7:33 am

Wow, what a crazy story! By the way, you can normally recover photos deleted from your camera’s memory card with some clever programs on the web. I had my computer stolen in Spain after I’d transferred the photos across from my camera (and subsequently deleted them from said camera) but I was able to recover them from the memory card.

And congrats on being the first travel blogger to visit South Sudan! You should be in the Guinness Book of Records!


Marcello May 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm

I think I will look into getting my own record.. would love to have a record


Chad @ Road Dog Travel May 20, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Wow, crazy story! I’ve actually never heard of S. Sudan until reading your post. After doing a little reading about the country it sounds like you were lucky. Some journalists have been held for weeks even though they were not charged with anything. Apparently they strictly sensor any type of media there. Good luck on your travels.


Marcello May 28, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Yes it comes from the customs that were held in the North… you still need permission to take pictures in the country and no one let me know that I needed permission unfortunately.


Bryan Haines May 28, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Wow – what a story!

The best (scariest) experience I’ve ever had is being taken into a back room at the airport with a bunch of Venezuelan soldiers (and their large guns) while they rummaged through my luggage. I was convinced that I was going to get to enjoy more time in Venezuela while my family headed back to Canada without me. In the end, it all worked out. I guess my daughters floaty wings and our dirty laundry flagged something on their x-ray machine, but turned out to be acceptable stuff to leave the country with…

Really enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing your experience…



Marcello May 28, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I always put my disgusting dirty language on the top of all my bags… that face they give when they first open the bag is my joy.. lol


Joselyn Seifer January 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Oh man. That sounds scary. I’m glad you made it out alive, and your story sure made for a great read!


Jonny Blair August 15, 2013 at 8:02 am

Love this story and photos totally epic stuff. Thanks so much for sharing with us. First travel blogger to visit South Sudan eh? Nice claim to fame!! I’ll try and get there someday – was in Ethiopia recently but didnt even consider South Sudan. I’m heading to Nagorno Karabakh soon – think I may well be the first travel blogger to go there and write about it – can’t get any information on any blogs on it. It’s a country most havent even heard of! Safe travels. Jonny


Marcello August 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Yep the first one there before it officially became a country. Enjoy Ethiopia its one of my favorite countries in the world


Christine H. August 29, 2013 at 12:46 pm

I would like to think I wouldn’t run from police under any circumstances, but in a country where I don’t now what they do or how they treat prisoners, especially being a woman, a calculated risk could cause me to do so. One never knows. I am glad your American passport assured your safety, but U can only imagine how horrible the initial experience would have been, especially arriving to a man being whipped. Terrifying!

One though I had while reading about you having to delete your pictures, was of the new cameras that now automatically upload to another device, or a cloud account, directly from the camera. Perhaps you should look into investing in such a camera for future trips to South Sudan or countries Ike it. Then, when caught, you could at dumb, graciously delete all the photos to their satisfaction and walk away knowing they are safe and sound in the cloud. ;-)

I haven’t been to Africa yet, and South Sudan is not anywhere near the top of that list, but I have spent about three months in the Middle East. My close friend, who lives in Abu Dhabi and teaches at a national university there told me the Emiratis a sensitive about being photographed and to be careful. I don’t know of any law, but I was very careful where I was pointing my camera.

I go the other way as far as photography, as I myself don’t like to be photographed, in that I feel uncomfortable taking pictures of people when up close, as I want to be respectful and not offend. For years, I have always felt the best pictures I have seen of others’ travels include local people, and I miss those opportunities. This was really reinforced for me after traveling India with a professional photographer as part of our small group. His pictures are all incredible, but some of the pictures he got of people in their colorful clothing, etc. are some of the most incredible pictures I have ever seen. He asks if he can take their pictures first. I think that is something I need to get comfortable with in the future, as that is one compromise to get some great photos without offending or disrespecting anyone.

In your case, you could always go back with a permit. Perhaps you should approach the southern Sudanese government with a press trip, which would give you great access to stories and articles you could meet get just showing up. Granted, the government would be determine what you see, but that is an opportunity to see how they WANT to be seen, future plans and projects, the customs, reasons behind laws such as banning pictures, and their perspective on the war and how their new country came to be. I think that would be amazing! Best of luck when you return!


Joe September 22, 2013 at 9:02 am

As somebody who lives and works in South Sudan, I can only say it’s ignorant clowns like yourself, who think that disrespect for basic rules of conduct in a country that has just emerged from a 30 year civil war is a somehow a “cool adventure,” who make it diificult for serious people who are trying to work with the South Sudanese people on serious issues. But bravo to you for getting a local man detained by the police and most likely in very real trouble – all for the glory of your pre-pubescent backpacker misadventures in foreign lands (and horrible regurgitation of your Pee Wee Herman-esque life on this ridiculous waste of web space. Congratulations to you boy – now step aside and let the adults get back to work. Please don’t come back.


Marcello September 25, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Oh Joe.. if you only understood the post. No one told me that it was illegal to take pictures. It was only after I got back from this ordeal that the manager I was staying at said he should have told me. I in no way state that I enjoy disrespecting anyone’s rules or laws. In fact I am usually the one following them. You really should have read the entire post instead of passing judgement this was no error on my part as this was not written or stated anywhere for tourists. I even sat at the South Sudanese embassy after hours and spoke with them about visiting.


dref October 9, 2013 at 10:25 am

It’s illegal to have more than 2 nationalities. Some country even only accept 1.
The only “country” that accept 3 is the little kingdom inside Australia.


Marcello October 9, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Where is it illegal to have two nationalities? As long as you aren’t a citizen of the country that doesn’t allow it then it really doesn’t matter


James October 14, 2013 at 2:41 pm

American compound a massive waste of money? Sounds about right.


Vinny January 20, 2014 at 1:57 pm

I’m a South African who spent all of 2008 working for the UN in Darfur, Sudan so I have some idea of what a terrifying ordeal you just went through in South Sudan. I was with a large multi national and even we, with all our identification, still had to be wary. Many of the police forces in Africa are very arbitrary and one does walk a very thin line of just getting it right in how you talk to them, or face the consequences. I’d like to say upholding the Rule of Law ought to be the main focus, but in many countries it is more a question of Holding out a Hand for a bribe.
However, from many of your postings that I’ve read so far, not all of your experiences in Africa have been bad, you gotta just chalk this one up to a really good camp side story. And as we say in South Africa, “Africa isn’t for sissies (wimps)”! Good on you for keeping your cool, you handled it very well.


Jeannie Cannon June 9, 2014 at 11:27 am

Wow Marcello! I am so glad to hear that you made it out of there! Could have gone way worse!
I love the way you write! I hope you are writing a book about your adventures! I would buy it!
Take care and lots of love to you my friend!


Deborah Peter July 3, 2014 at 1:54 am

Its also a shame you had to delete
the pictures. I would have loved to see some
pictures of our new nation. :(
But I guess I’ll have to go myself to see! :)


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