The Magazine

THE WORLD'S MOST BRUTAL, LEAST-KNOWN WAR

Jun 28, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 39 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Yei, Southern Sudan


As the chartered Twin Otter carrying an American congressional delegation begins its descent over the lush green scrub-covered plain, the mood on board becomes quiet. The plane has entered a combat zone and is about to land on a narrow dirt strip in Yei, the capital of "New Sudan." Yei was once a humming Sudanese border town rich in customs revenue from trade with neighboring Uganda and the Congo. Today, it is a taut, frightened place, a bombing target for Russian-built Antonov-32 transport planes, sent by the government of Sudan in Khartoum. As the Otter makes its hasty approach, Dan Eiffe, an Irishman who is leading the group, remarks, "If ever there was a moral war, this is it. These people are fighting to protect their own land and their people."


"These people" are not, at first, visible. But as the Otter discharges its passengers and immediately prepares to take off again -- the Antonovs would love to catch an unauthorized visiting aircraft on the ground -- some officers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army appear, ready to take us into town. For 16 years now, the SPLA, a modest-sized military force, has been fighting for survival in this "moral war," the most brutal, destructive, and longest-running civil war of the second half of the twentieth century.


It is little short of scandalous that this catastrophe has been ignored by the civilized world. For 32 of Sudan's 43 years of independence, civil war has ravaged the country. The current war broke out in 1983, when Khartoum abolished autonomy for predominantly Christian southern Sudan, then sought to impose Islamic law, or sharia, on the entire country. The Khartoum government's deliberate policies of food deprivation, ethnic cleansing, and bombing have resulted in the deaths of almost 1.9 million Sudanese, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. An estimated 5 million Sudanese have been displaced from their homes, and thousands more have been raped and tortured. Sudan has a population of only 30 million.


Sudan's civil war turned genocidal in 1989 when the National Islamic Front, led by Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, overthrew the elected government in Khartoum. The NIF has sought to turn Sudan into a base camp for the Islamic radicalization of Africa. Sudan backed Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War in 1991, played host to international terrorists Carlos and Osama bin-Laden in the 1990s, and provided a safe haven for Islamic fanatics who tried to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 1995. The NIF regime currently supports a truly sadistic gang of Ugandan bandits called the Lord's Resistance Army, who have been preying on civilian communities in both Sudan and Uganda. Such affiliations have led Washington to list Sudan as a state that supports terrorism, a status that comes with mandatory trade sanctions. John Garang, the U.S.-educated commander of the SPLA, described the situation: "The governments that have come and gone in Khartoum since 1976 have been fundamentalist and Islamist. The essential difference today is that the National Islamic Front is internationalist."


As the American group bumps and lurches along pitted roads around Yei, there is some nervous speculation about the NIF's "internationalist" involvement. The Antonovs are said to be piloted at times by Libyans and mercenary pilots from the former Soviet Union. They fly at around 25,000 feet and higher, out of range of normal anti-aircraft guns, wreaking havoc with complete impunity.


There is no bombing today, but evidence of the destruction from previous raids is apparent all around. The town's hospital, hit directly three times since 1997, shows clear shrapnel damage on several outside and inside walls. Local staff seem agitated. A nurse looks at her watch, observing that it is close to 10 A.M., a popular time for Antonovs to make bombing runs, frightening those on the ground for several minutes with the noisy drone of their twin turboprops. "If the Antonov comes," warns George Githuka, administrator for Norwegian People's Aid, a non-governmental charity, "go to a bunker and lie flat on the ground." But the bunkers are not impregnable. Last year, nine people were killed and several others injured when the main hospital bunker took a direct hit.


The American delegation is led by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and includes former Congressional Black Caucus chairman and veteran African affairs observer Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado. With anti-Khartoum sentiment growing in the Senate and the House, the delegation is here to gather evidence for toughening U.S. policy toward Sudan. They are being briefed by U.S. embassy officers, food relief experts, SPLA leader John Garang in Nairobi, and by Sudanese officials.


Speaking at an Episcopal church with a thatched roof and mud walls in a southern Sudanese displacement camp, Brownback tells a rapt congregation of 690, "The three of us are members of Congress, and we will be carrying the message of your cause back to the United States. You are not forgotten." Tancredo tells the congregation that it was in a church a year ago that he first heard about the persecution of Christians in their country, leaving him determined to learn more about Sudan.


Food, the delegation learns, is a primary element of the Sudan issue. Dan Eiffe, who directs the Norwegian People's Aid for southern Sudan, describes coming across Dinka civilians who had been driven into the swamps by government-trained militia raiders on horseback, called murahaleen, and reduced to eating water-lily roots. In 1998 some 2.6 million Sudanese were perilously close to starvation.


Operation Lifeline Sudan, set in place after 260,000 Sudanese died of famine in 1988 and 1989, has enabled non-governmental organizations to fly food into rebel-held areas of southern Sudan. Yet the 1998 airlift, the largest food supply operation since the Berlin Airlift, which cost $ 1 million a day and helped prevent starvation for millions of Sudanese, almost didn't happen. For two months in early 1998, Khartoum suspended overflight permission for all relief agencies. Even today, permission is not guaranteed. "We are a little nervous at the beginning of each month," a United Nations security officer admits, "because we never know what the flight clearance is going to be."


Of even greater concern is the issue of slavery. The NIF regime permits murahaleen to abduct at will the women and children they come across in their raids, to be used for their own pleasure and sold as chattel slaves. This policy is booty payment to the tribal militias who do Khartoum's dirty work of pillaging and ethnic cleansing. Non-governmental organizations like the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International have energetically raised funds to buy the freedom of abducted southerners. A Colorado middle school in Rep. Tancredo's district has raised $ 50,000 for the same purpose.


Not surprisingly, this practice is controversial. UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy has argued that "to pay cash for a slave is to encourage a vicious circle," since it is still "trafficking" in human beings. During a discussion with U.N. officials on this point, Brownback says with some annoyance that it misses the point of how abhorrent slavery is to criticize people for purchasing the freedom of slaves wherever this is possible. He says to one U.N. official in Nairobi, "If you spent more time criticizing the government of Sudan for limiting flights into Bahr el-Ghazal than criticizing Christian Solidarity International, it would do more good." Christian Solidarity International, the most respected of the foreign slave-redeeming organizations, claims that it has freed 5,000 slaves since it began the process in 1995.


Slavery is high on the list of Rep. Payne's concerns. A veteran of three trips into the forbidden areas held by the SPLA, Payne is a driving force behind a House resolution that condemns the NIF regime in Khartoum "for its genocidal war in southern Sudan, support for terrorism, and continued human rights violations." The resolution, which passed 410 to 1 last week, urges the White House to provide food directly to the SPLA and report every three months on what it is doing to end the slavery. Brownback, Payne, and Tancredo have requested a meeting with President Clinton as soon as possible.


Brownback would also like the United States to provide assistance. In fact, his encounter with Sudan's civil war left him open to military aid to the SPLA. Again and again, southern Sudanese officials asked him if the administration could provide any equipment that might rid them of the Antonovs. "This trip has certainly upped the ante for me," Brownback said on returning to Kenya, "and it has intensified my desire to push our government more than I was contemplating."


How far can Washington be pushed? The current sanctions regime has a convenient loophole for the purchase of gum arabic from Sudan, apparently an essential ingredient in some soft drinks and candy. Payne would like to end this exemption. Before ethnic cleansing and slavery and support for international terrorism can end in Sudan, the congressman believes, the Khartoum regime itself must come down.


Non-governmental organizations concentrate simply on ending the war. World Vision and other groups support strengthening the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an African committee formed in 1993. Consisting of representatives of Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda, IGAD has held several rounds of talks between representatives of the SPLA and the NIF regime. The NIF has agreed, in theory, to self-determination for southern Sudan, but no one's holding his breath.


In 1992 the NIF formally declared a jihad, or holy war, against the inhabitants of the Nuba mountains in central southern Sudan. Access to the mountains is denied by the Khartoum regime, even for U.N. agencies, but human rights workers say there is clear evidence that genocide is being carried out there. More recently, the NIF's top ideologist, Hassan al-Turabi, said flatly that Khartoum urgently needs revenue from the south's oil wells. Furthermore, the regime has developed a cooperative venture in Bentiu with Talisman Inc. of Canada, Petronas of Indonesia, and a third, Chinese, corporation. According to Western diplomats and U.N. officials, Beijing's role in the Bentiu venture includes bringing Chinese prison laborers, or victims of the Laogai, into Sudan in order to have the pipeline up and running this summer.


"Believe me," says the senior SPLA military officer in Yei, Commander Geir, "there is nothing to be achieved in the peace talks. The government is saying that it can finish the war because it has oil. We are prepared to fight another 30 years." Adds Commander Deng, another top SPLA leader in Yei, "If we can overthrow the government of Sudan, we know the war will end."


That happy eventuality, however, doesn't seem imminent. The NIF has proven deft at exploiting weakness in the alliance the SPLA has tried to cobble together with the Democratic People's Alliance, a group of northern Arabs who came together shortly after the coup of 1989. Bickering within the SPLA has also bedeviled efforts at a united front. Washington, moreover, squandered whatever leverage it might have had with the NIF after its August 1998 cruise missile attack on a Khartoum factory.


And yet, there is much the United States can do: provide weapons that the SPLA can use against the Antonovs; try to dissuade the Canadians and the Chinese from developing Sudan's oil resources; and raise international awareness of how wicked the Khartoum regime really is. Sudan's neighbors have already noticed. The NIF has shown a ready tendency to conspire against them, and it is seeking to spread Islamist radicalism throughout Africa. Sudan is a place where simple actions by the United States could significantly help defend the weak against the strong and the forces of democracy against tyrants.




David Aikman is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former senior foreign correspondent for Time magazine.