U.S. Envoy Looks for Change in Sudan

By Marc Lacey
The New York Times, November 18, 2001

KAUDA, Sudan, Nov. 16

Nobody ran, as they usually do, when an airplane swept in low over the Nuba Mountains in Sudan the other day. For a change, it was food aid and not government bombs showering down on the people of Nuba, one of the most remote and wretched areas of a vast country at war with itself for 18 years.

In the first sustained aid effort in a decade to reach these mountains, planes allowed in by Sudan's government ferried food to about 150,000 people caught here in determined rebellion against the rulers of the north, and the capital, Khartoum.

Corn, lentils and salt, in 55-pound sacks, are plummeting down several times each day from the cargo holds of C-130 supply planes. In allowing these shipments to people it has repeatedly bombed, the Sudanese government is seeking to present a new, more moderate face to the United States.

Just three years ago, Khartoum was on the receiving end of American missile attacks, a response to the bombings of American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 for which Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were blamed.

Writing Sudan off as a terrorist menace that played host to Mr. bin Laden until he was expelled under American pressure in 1996, the Clinton administration slapped sanctions on the country and sought to isolate it.

Interest in Sudan revived this year in part because the country is involved with two of the Bush administration's most important constituencies: oil and religion.

Oil began flowing in 1998, much to the ire of American Christians who saw the revenue as enriching the Muslim government, enabling it to buy arms and continue killing Christians in the country's south.

The civil war and war-related famine have claimed an estimated two million lives since the early 1980's. Religious leaders in the United States and other critics of the Khartoum government have pressured the White House to work for an end to the war, some of them pushing for the southern rebels to be supplied with weapons to counter government attacks.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Sudan has sought mightily to change its image as a rogue state. The government has turned over the names of suspected bin Laden allies to Washington and granted the Pentagon permission to send military flights over Sudan's air space.

While the White House has welcomed those moves, President Bush recently extended sanctions imposed in 1997 to encourage the country to sever its links to terrorists and to end human rights abuses including the enslavement of Christians in southern Sudan, which has drawn wide criticism, particularly on Capitol Hill.

For the Bush administration, the test of whether Sudan has really changed its ways will begin here. The White House's newly appointed special envoy for Sudan, John C. Danforth, was permitted this week to visit the rebel-held areas, an about-face for a government that has repeatedly objected to past American delegations in the south.

Still, the Sudanese government sent mixed signals. Several days before Mr. Danforth landed at the airport here, relief workers reported shelling that was believed to have come from a government army garrison.

Some American officials viewed the attacks as an attempt to scare off Mr. Danforth, and there were recommendations that the trip be scrapped. When Mr. Danforth raised the issue of the shelling with Sudanese leaders in Khartoum, they denied involvement.

Also, the government has permitted the relief flights to the Nuba Mountains for only a month fearful, it says, that a longer program would be used to carry arms to the southern rebels.

After watching bags of food tumble from the sky this week, the American entourage moved through the southern towns of Rumbek, Wancuei and Turali, all controlled by the rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

In Rumbek and elsewhere, Mr. Danforth encountered fierce criticism of the Sudanese government. He heard Christians complain that they were persecuted by the Islamic north. "We don't want to be Islamics," said Gabriel Kuc Abiei, the headmaster of a school. "We want to exist as ourselves."

In Wancuei, residents showed Mr. Danforth bombed-out buildings that they said had been leveled by government troops. "Unless you help us, you will not find us here for long," said Peter Fan Nyal, leaning on a staff in the shade under a tree.

In Turali, a woman stopped in the center of a crowded market to recount for Mr. Danforth how she had been abducted by government- backed militiamen, who she said raped her and forced her to work for no pay. "I escaped but my children are still there," said Nyandt Deng Del.

As he moved through the mountains this week, Mr. Danforth, who has said he seeks to end the war, not apportion blame for its many atrocities, expressed surprise at this region's extreme poverty and reports of disease.

Mr. Danforth, an Episcopalian minister, repeatedly asked people about their religious background and their freedom to pray without interference. "We know that there will be no peace in this country or any country if people feel they are being oppressed, mistreated or prevented from practicing their religion," he said.

Mr. Danforth said he arrived with no detailed peace plan, but he called for an end to the bombing of civilians, a halt in abductions and slavery and an agreement to allow immunizations to go forward.

He also called for a permanent cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains.

The Sudanese government responded coolly to the proposals, American officials said. Some of the rebel leaders pleaded with Mr. Danforth for American military support. Others argued for a divided Sudan, with the northerners segregated from those in the south.

"Separate us, please," insisted Lewis Ane Kuendit, a teacher. "We are different people. There is no other way to bring peace."

Concluding his visit, Mr. Danforth acknowledged that conditions were grimmer and the prospects for peace less likely than he had imagined. "Am I pessimistic?" he said. "I wouldn't bet much on this. They've been at it for a long time and there's a great deal of mistrust between the parties.

"But, on the other hand, what is this fighting accomplishing? It may be that people will say, `Enough is enough.' "