The horse Osama bin Laden used to ride now lives in the run-down stables of a colonial-era racetrack on the edge of Khartoum.
KHARTOUM, Sudan The horse Osama bin Laden used to ride now lives in the run-down stables of a colonial-era racetrack on the edge of Khartoum.
Her name is Swift Like the Wind, but a more appropriate one might be Victim of Circumstance. At 12, she’s too old to race. Last year she almost starved to death. Now she spends her days in a small caged area, next to a grimy pool of water turtles.
There was a time when the spirited white mare, dusted with gray spots, was one of a dozen prized horses that galloped in glory along the dusty stretch of track. In bin Laden’s heyday here, as a wealthy Saudi exile in the mid-1990s, Swift ran in Sudan’s most prestigious races.
But in May 1996, bin Laden was driven out of Sudan by pressure from the Clinton administration, and the horse was left behind, abandoned property of the fugitive now wanted for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Along with Swift and three other racehorses, the government confiscated bin Laden’s other properties: a high-walled house in Khartoum’s Riyad neighborhood, a construction company that built most of a highway from Khartoum to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, a tannery and acres of farmland in an area south of Khartoum called Soba.
Two of the horses died in government custody. Swift and the fourth horse might be dead, too, if Issam Turabi had not taken an interest in them. He is the son of an old friend of bin Laden’s, a jailed Sudanese opposition leader named Hassan Turabi who favors the creation of an Islamic state.
“Osama liked to jump on his horses and take them riding,” said Issam Turabi, a wiry man with a trim, dark beard.
“This one ended up with a bunch of young owners who didn’t care at all,” said Turabi, as he petted Swift’s mane inside her stable. “They didn’t even feed her and she grew very scrawny with her ribs showing.” Turabi later regained custody of the mare, and now is her benefactor.
Turabi, a flamboyant character, is known as Sudan’s first cowboy. He enjoys driving overland to hunting areas in Nigeria, where he chases lions. He often launches into long monologues about the horse, the meaning of life and the nature of mankind. The fate of bin Laden and the horses, he mused, seemed tied.
Bin Laden came to Sudan in the early 1990s at a time when it was a beacon to fundamentalist Muslims and bin Laden was under pressure from his native Saudi Arabia to leave.
If the United States had not pressed Sudan to expel bin Laden, where he spent five largely quiet years, he never would have gone to Afghanistan, where he became increasingly radical, Turabi said.
“He would have been left here to grow big and fat like many Sudanese rich men. How would history have been?” he asked.
He remembered bin Laden “as a very shy and humble person, really. But also a determined person, I guess.”
Bin Laden was meticulous about his horses and bred Swift himself, mixing an imported Arabian horse with a Sudanese Thoroughbred. Turabi said the resulting mare had problems because “she’s not really Arabian and not really a Thoroughbred, but more of a retarded breed.”
He laughed when asked if that problem was like Sudan’s, not really an Arab nation and not really African, but somewhere in between. “Maybe so,” he said.
Turabi, walking the mare near the turtle pond, said he preferred animals to humans. “Man is the only animal I know that kills for no reason,” he said. “I know all animals: leopards, lions, goats, elephants, crocodiles. … None of them act like that.”
Below a skyline pierced with green-and-white mosques, the dusty track sprawled on the edge of town. Turabi pointed out the stables built by British colonialists, and a vacant thatched hut where race fans once placed bets before that activity was made illegal in 1983 under Islamic law.
And then he put Swift to bed, shutting the large metal doors behind him.