For Danforth, 2 Tales in Sudan
Envoy Attempting to Find a Role for U.S. in War-Torn Country

By Karl Vick, Washington Post
Sunday, November 18, 2001

KAUDA, Sudan

On his inaugural trip to the country where he is to search for peace, former senator John C. Danforth stopped first in Khartoum, Sudan's sun-blasted capital. Over cups of tea in air-conditioned ministries, President Bush's special envoy heard the government's side of the nation's civil war, a spasmodic but extraordinarily lethal conflict that in its current phase has lasted 18 years.

Then a small plane carried Danforth south, across the front line to this isolated village in the rebel-held Nuba Mountains. The local commander offered a quick lesson in how a war can drag on so long.

"What did those liars in Khartoum tell you?" asked Commander Abdalaziz Adam, after the formalities were done with and the Missouri Republican had observed local custom with a sprightly leap over a cow slain in his honor.

"People who don't know them might trust them," the commander said, smiling knowingly to a member of the envoy's entourage. "We know they lie."

So it goes in Sudan, where the battle between north and south has claimed an estimated 2 million lives since 1983 and neither side's leaders show much sign of letting up simply because an American is paying attention.

"Am I pessimistic?" Danforth said, repeating a question at a news conference yesterday in Nairobi, at the close of his five-day tour. He paused.

"I wouldn't bet much on this," he said. "They've been at it for a long, long time, and there's a great deal of distrust between the parties. So I wouldn't bet much on it."

Bush appointed Danforth, an Episcopal priest who also served 18 years in the Senate, as his envoy in September amid surging public interest in Sudan's war. That interest was stoked chiefly by church groups appalled by charges of religious persecution at the hands of the north, which is mostly Arab and Muslim, and by reports that northern militias were abducting and selling slaves.

Danforth's first visit to the region was delayed for weeks by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He finally got underway last week, but at each stop on the one-city, four-village tour, the envoy emphasized that he carried no U.S. plan to end the war. Over the years, so many such plans have sprung up and died that "it's mind-numbing," he said.

Danforth said his mission "is to find out if the United States can do anything useful" to prepare the way for peace. The answer, he said, will come not through words -- "words are cheap" -- but through action on four proposals he dubbed a test of the two sides' willingness to pursue peace:

Humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains, an isolated rebel territory surrounded by government forces, which until this week had never allowed in the U.N. relief planes that have routinely served other rebel areas since 1989.

Cease-fires to allow humanitarian access to other "zones of tranquillity," especially for immunization campaigns.

An end to the bombardment of civilians, by shelling, aircraft or helicopter gunship.

An end to the abduction and enslavement of civilians.

"If any party says [its] response is directed to its people, 'Drop dead, literally,' I don't think it's possible to have a warm and fuzzy relationship with that country," Danforth said. He repeated a deadline of mid-January for positive action on all four points.

In Nairobi yesterday, Danforth met with John Garang, the longtime leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the main southern rebel group. The envoy declined to describe Garang's response to the proposals, but another U.S. official called Garang "cagey."

"He said he'd play the game, which is all we're asking of either side," the official said.

In Khartoum, officials also promised to act in good faith.

"We are also keen and really in a hurry to end this war," Eltgani S. Fidail, Sudan's state minister for foreign affairs, said in an interview.

The proposals demand far more of Sudan's government than of the SPLA. The government armed the tribal militias that have abducted thousands of southerners near the border between north and south; many are forced to work with little or no pay.

Aid officials in Khartoum say the government is working to end the practice, which has badly sullied its international reputation. Danforth did his part to keep the pressure on by strolling through Turlei, a border hamlet that has been raided repeatedly by the neighboring Arabs.

"Myself, I'm still missing 10 children," said John Manyok, an SPLA official there.

Uniformed government forces also are notorious for attacking civilians. The United Nations has documented scores of crude airstrikes on southern villages over the past two years, and revenues from newly tapped oil fields pay for the Russian-made helicopter gunships that Khartoum appears to use to clear southerners from new petroleum concessions.

Danforth underscored the bombardment issue by coming to Kauda in the Nuba Mountains. It was here that four children died on Feb. 8, 2000, when a government plane dropped a bomb on an open-air school.

More recently, the first officially sanctioned U.N. relief flight was shelled as it landed here at Kauda last week, after being approved by Khartoum. U.S. officials expressed skepticism at the government's claim that the attack came from the rebel side.

"Nuba can be a model for the whole country" if a four-week-old cease-fire holds, Danforth told civilian leaders in Rumbeck, the seat of relief operations in the rebel-held south.

Any formal cease-fire represents a test for the SPLA, which had consistently refused to lay down arms until larger issues have been settled. Southerners complain of a long history of being marginalized and exploited; their region has not a single paved road, for instance. But rebel leaders have been vague about whether the rallying cry of "self-determination for the south" is code for outright secession.

"We are very different people. Sudan is very big. Separate us, please," said Lewis Anei Kundit, headmaster at the secondary school in the village of Wuncuei. Danforth stopped there briefly to chat with the refugees who had fled the fighting around the oil fields, which straddle north and south.

"It was the Arabs fighting the black people, and I ran away because I am a black person," one woman told him.

U.S. officials noted that Khartoum may have found fresh incentive for peacemaking in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Sudan is on the U.S. list of states that sponsor or harbor terrorists, and since Bush declared nations are either "for us or against us" in the war on terrorism, nervous Sudanese officials have given reams of intelligence to U.S. investigators. Osama bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the attacks, lived in Khartoum for five years in the 1990s.