TOPICS > World

Sudan’s Troubles

July 30, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CHARLES KRAUSE: We get three views now: Elfatih Erwa is Sudan’s Ambassador to the United Nations. He previously served as national security adviser to Sudan’s president, Omar Bashir. Francis Deng is Sudan’s former Ambassador to Washington. He resigned from the government in 1983 in protest against policies in the south. He’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Kate Almquist, Sudan policy adviser for World Vision, one of the number of international agencies currently involved in relief operations in Sudan. Thank you all for joining us. Kate Almquist, tell me—you’ve just come back from the Sudan—did you see pictures and situations like what we’ve just seen here?

KATE ALMQUIST, World Vision: Yes, I did. The situation in Sudan really is desperate right now, and there are a number of people, not just the women and children but a surprising number of elderly men and even middle aged and younger men who are suffering from starvation right now—and we’re seeing more and more of it come into our feeding centers and to the general food distribution centers—people in desperate need of food. And some of them weigh less than half of what their normal body weight should be. It’s really quite heartbreaking to see.

CHARLES KRAUSE: What are relief organizations like yours doing to try to alleviate this crisis?

KATE ALMQUIST: Well, we have a number of interventions underway right now. For the most severely malnourished children and adults, we have therapeutic feeding centers established that non-governmental organizations, such as World Vision and others, are operating in southern Sudan right now. Those try and provide a series of therapeutic feedings, intensive feedings, and antibiotics, drugs to combat disease for the most severely malnourished. Then for the general population we try and keep people from needing to get into the therapeutic feeding centers by distributing food to the general population, and so the beneficiaries are identified in conjunction with the local authorities and based on those who need it most.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Is the government in Khartoum cooperating with these international efforts?

KATE ALMQUIST: Presently, the government is allowing relief flights to fly into southern Sudan. They’ve just increased the number of airplanes that are allowed to fly in as well. Usually, we have to get permission from the government for both one in where we can land—and the type of aircraft that we can fly in. And that’s been one of the constraints to our getting a speedier response to the situation, but we are now close to being able to move the capacity that we need to move in monthly.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Ambassador Erwa, why has it taken your government this much time to allow the relief efforts to get underway?

ELFATIH ERWA, UN Ambassador, Sudan: In fact, it did not take that much time. Before last May or late in February that we used to put some restriction—it was not true. It was only some restrictions on certain areas where we feel that there is some security danger for those people who are working in this field, because there were some military operations going around. And it were only just a few places where we disallowed the flights for a certain period. Otherwise, we usually give all the permissions, and because the Operation Sudan Lifeline—it’s an operation which is unique itself in the world. What the government has approved for the food to go to the areas which are controlled by the rebels–and because the government feels that the citizens in the rebel area—also is their responsibility, citizens of Sudan. Now all the restrictions have been—till the situation got worse—there were no restrictions. All the flights were approved, regardless of their number or size or the type of airplane. Unfortunately, the international community did not cope with this, and they couldn’t provide enough food, and they couldn’t provide enough logistics to carry out the food to those areas.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Deng, you’ve been a critic of the government. Do you think what the ambassador says is correct, the government is doing what it can to aid people in the rebel-held areas?

FRANCIS DENG, Brookings Institution: Well, I think the first thing that we must recognize is that for the crisis to get to the magnitude that we see in the pictures, it doesn’t happen overnight. Besides, it’s not happening simply because of the drought. It is something that has been building up and building up in a way that has compounded a number of causes—for instance, the attacks by the militias and the popular defense forces, which actually have devastated the country, looted the cattle of these people, destroyed their villages, created conditions of insecurity where people cannot cultivate. And this has been happening over years. Then, of course it’s compounded by the drought. This has caused this tragedy. If people had responded in a timely way, clearly we would not have gone to the level we have gone, and why has reform not been speedy. Now, what the ambassador is saying is, of course, understandable, in that now food is going in, as Kate also said, now there’s a degree of cooperation. OLS was, indeed, a unique arrangement where food was relief in general.

CHARLES KRAUSE: OLS being the UN–

FRANCIS DENG: The UN Operation Lifeline Sudan–when it was established in 1989. But, mind you, it was established because of the level of devastation and famine that had killed a quarter of a million people. And it was a situation where the international community was pressing the Sudan to do something dramatic. Now, I think it is important for us to ask the question why does this happen and why don’t people respond in a timely way? I would say that there’s a crisis of national identity in which people who are normally seen as citizens, as nationals to be protected, are divided in a way that makes them be seen as enemies or part of the enemy. If you are seen as falling in the areas that the rebels control and you are ethnically or racially or religiously identified with a movement, there is that tendency to see them not as our citizens who should be protected and assisted but as part of the enemy. If you are on the part of the government and therefore seem to be sympathetic to the policies of the government, then the rebels also see you as a traitor. And so these people form into a vacuum of moral responsibility, where there is nobody to turn to, except the international community.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Let me go to the ambassador. You’ve heard what Mr. Deng has said. Does your government view the south, the part of Sudan that is Christian, that is being contested, as part of your nation, as part of your country?

AMBASSADOR ERWA: Unfortunately, I beg to differ with Dr. Francis Deng regarding this matter, because the problem of Sudan is an old problem. It’s not created with this government which people tried to portray as an Islamic government because the problem started in 1955 and then later in 1983, before this government came, which could be portrayed as Islamic government. And the old way is to try to identify the south as a Christian south and the Muslim north I think is also wrong. The problem is a political problem. In the south there are many Muslims and the majority are Animus. You could say that Muslims and Christians barely equal in number to each other, and the rest are enemies. The government if not considering those citizens as citizens of Sudan, they wouldn’t have agreed to do this Lifeline Operation to us since 1989. CHARLES KRAUSE: Is there anything the government is doing now or is proposing to do that might end this crisis and begin to allow your citizens to live in a better way?

AMBASSADOR ERWA: First of all, as I said, this problem is a political problem. And the government is seeking a peaceful solution through negotiations. The government has offered cease-fire to allow the humanitarian assistance to go to the south before this late agreement, and this was even last May the government offered and the rebels refused to do that. Now, when this has come through an initiative from the Kenyan president, the rebels accepted it, Sudan, the Sudanese government accepted it willingly, and we’re ready to extend at any time. Over and above, we are offering now a permanent cease-fire until we finish the peace talks where the peace talks we agreed and we offered that they should be a self-determination from the south. If the southerners, they want independence, they can go as independent state, if they want one united Sudan, it’s their own will and free will to do that. This was our government’s policy, and we are ready even today for a permanent cease-fire until we finish the peace negotiations.

CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Deng, is that a sincere offer? Is it a genuine offer? Is it going to lead to anything?

FRANCIS DENG: Well, I think the ambassador—excuse me—the ambassador made a number of valid points. One of them is that the war is old. It started in 1955. He’s right that it didn’t happen with this government. He’s also right in saying that the people of the south and the north are not as clearly divided by race and religion as it appears. But I have to tell him and you that the war goes back that length, the length of time, because these deep-rooted divisions within the country, which on the superficial level does not appear that serious—because if you look in the north, the people of the north superficially look just like another African people. And, in fact, you would say–

CHARLES KRAUSE: But what about the offer of a referendum and the offer to allow the southern part of the country to secede, if it wants to?

FRANCIS DENG: Well, you see, if you get to the point that the country is so seriously divided and that we are fighting over visions of the nation, with the north trying to create a country that is based on Islam and Arabism—and understandably so because they feel very strongly about these levels of identity—and the south wanting a country that is secular and that in a sense emphasizes the African dimension, you have these conflicting concepts of identity and, in fact, the national Islamic government emerged as a reaction to what they saw as a threat from the south to this Arab/Islamic identity. I think the government is sincere about peace. There is no question about that. But the question of whether the two regions from the south and north are reconcilable is a problem. The southern movement—once–they say anyway that they want a united Sudan. It would be free from religious persecution or discrimination. The government in Khartoum does want an Islamic system, which is compatible with unity with the south. So, yes, both sides want unity, but they have not yet agreed on the parameters of unity. Yes, they want peace, but they have not yet agreed on how to bring that peace about and how seriously self-determination should be taken.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And let me go back to Kate Almquist just for a moment. You’ve heard the two gentlemen talking about the prospects for some sort of peace in Sudan. Meanwhile, to what extent is the danger—to what extent do you have the resources or do you need more resources—the international community–to avert a major crisis–famine in that country?

KATE ALMQUIST: Well, we’re already behind the game because we lost two months in February and March when the government denied access to the entire province of Bahr El Ghazal, which is the worst hit by the famine right now. So we have a lot of catch-up to do. And it is the rainy season. Logistics are very difficult. Capacity-wise their resources—I think we’re still going to find that needs are rising—UNICEF has just released a survey in the last week stating that over 50 percent of the children in Bahr El Ghazal are malnourished. And I think we’re going to continue to see malnutrition rates and mortality rates rise for some time. Unfortunately, as the video clip showed, the rains have come too late, and the harvest for August/September is not anticipated to be as good as it needs to be to prevent the famine from continuing into 1999. So we need a massive relief effort, and we need it to continue well into next year. So we are going to need more resources in terms of food, cash, and airplanes—fuel–to get the resources into the needy areas of Sudan

CHARLES KRAUSE: Thank you. I think we’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you all very much for joining us.