The Magazine

THE WORLD'S MOST BRUTAL, LEAST-KNOWN WAR

Jun 28, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 39 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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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."