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Casting light on poverty and death in Sudan


In a world filled, as the song says, with sorrow and woe, few things are sadder than to be ignored or forgotten as life passes by. The beggar on the street will tell you it’s not so much our dime or dollar he craves as our attention. Countries are also like that. A hurting nation hurts more acutely when the world and its media look the other way.

For several years my own vote for most neglected country has gone to Sudan, about which I know little for the very reason that it was ignored by everyone. Rumor had it that there was great poverty, war and death there. But not enough to bring on the TV cameras, as famine and death had earlier brought them, for example, to Somalia.

Now comes a new book one hopes can fill that void: Inside Sudan: Political Islam, Conflict, and Catastrophe, by Donald Petterson (Westview Press, 209 pages, $25). The author was U.S. ambassador in Sudan from 1992 to 1995.

The first thing such a book forces one to do is find the place on a map. Briefly, Sudan is bordered by Egypt and the Red Sea up north, by Zaire, Uganda and Kenya down south. A great river runs through it, the Nile. Its capital city is Khartoum, old enough to have an echo of the fabulous about it.

Sudan, Petterson tells us, is Africa’s biggest country -- a first surprise. It has a population of 30 million comprising 450 ethnic groups that among them speak 132 languages. In other words, a very divided country, history’s legacy, where exotic, half-remembered old enemies won and lost, the Nubians and Hyksos, the Cushites and Assyrians and more. Egypt was the main antagonist, especially in the recent millennium, but the British arrived and ran Sudan until 1956, then went home leaving a basket case behind. By that time the implacable divide was between North and South. In the North, where Khartoum is, nearly all the people are Muslims. In the South they are animists and Christians. The whole country, though rich in potential, is poor, but the South is poorer. Petterson notes that any good done in the South was at the hands of Christian missionaries.

What worried Southerners more than poverty was that the North “intended to Islamize and Arabize the South.” That tension led to hostilities in 1956. Except for a hiatus from 1972-1982, there has been a bitter, deadly civil war until today, as government, of sorts, fluctuated between military and civilian rule.

U.S.-Sudan relations have been a roller coaster ride. During the Cold War our government considered Sudan strategically important, so we gave its most durable strongman, Col. Gaafar Muhammad Numeiry, lots of money. When Numeiry became “a born-again Muslim,” U.S. ardor cooled. Human rights violations grew worse with the years. Sudan became a refuge for terrorists.

Finally, though, this author is a Foreign Service officer. He wanted to make a difference in a place few Foreign Service officers wanted to go -- a U.S. ambassador was assassinated there in 1973 by Palestinian terrorists. His purpose, as he explains in a preface, is to explain U.S. policy. So he gives us page after page of blow-by-blow diplomatic maneuvers and who said what at which meeting.

He is concerned about the war and torture and human rights violations and women and children dying of hunger. But, perhaps through no fault of his own, he is unable to tell us much about Sudan at ground level.

At a certain stage he decides to be more open with journalists. But journalists seldom visit Sudan, and neither do tourists. When some do visit, such as the Los Angeles Times’ Kim Murphy, he seems appreciative and quotes her: “In December last year the rains began -- vicious fighting between rival tribal factions that led to the theft of the rest of the cattle and the slaughter of most of Bor’s remaining men. The women, children and elders remaining there were walking bones, people on the brink of starvation.”

This is not pleasant -- or diplomatic -- writing, but there should be more of it in a book about Sudan.

As time passes, the ambassador gets more resolute, wants to see more of the turmoil for himself. He visits faction leaders, who don’t always fit the stereotype. One warlord, John Garang, has a doctorate from Iowa State University. Petterson blames these Southern strongmen for their willingness to sacrifice their own people for the sake of power. He blames the government in the North for its repression but is cautious about criticizing Islamic fundamentalism, which he calls “political Islam.” In the preface he tries to get the thorny matter out of the way: “I have avoided criticizing political Islam. Nevertheless my portrayal of the personalities, policies and actions of the Islamist government of Sudan reveals a repressive system that survives by force. I believe that, at the very least, the Sudanese experience gives credence to the thesis that any government based on religious fundamentalism and intent on propagating its religious beliefs will by its nature be tyrannical, intolerant of dissent and prepared to use any means, including violence against its own people, to maintain itself in power.”

This book helps cast the light of day on that pitiful place. But it is just a beginning.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000