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25 June 2001

In Africa’s human game reserve, strangers intrude

President Bush came to power on promises of no US adventures in far-off lands. So why is he taking a

By Martin Buckley

The Cessna plane was carrying just three other passengers, female missionaries from rural Oregon taking Christ to the people of southern Sudan. We took off from an airstrip in Lokichokio, in the Kenyan desert, and headed north. Minutes later, we had crossed into Sudan. “This is a war zone,” the pilot turned to tell me, “but theoretically we’re not in any danger.” He explained that ferrying aid and missionaries made us non-combatants, and our United Nations call sign gave us legitimacy in the eyes of the government in Khartoum. “So we shouldn’t be targeted.” What he did not mention were the instances of aid planes being bombed and shot at in Sudan. In the event, our flight proved safe; it was a different story for the Danish pilot fired on and killed shortly after I left.

The current civil war in Sudan is nearly 20 years old, and UN efforts to stave off famine in the country are unceasing. For security reasons, the UN is based outside Sudan in Lokichokio, a seedy oasis that has mushroomed in northern Kenya to service the airborne relief effort. The town has the surreal atmosphere of M*A*S*H or Catch-22, an air of being contingent on the war, yet not of it.

Everything in Lokichokio costs a fortune; the lawless roads to the south mean that goods get here only in irregular armed convoys. Close to marquees housing mountains of donated maize and vegetable oil are two resort-like hotels, video shops, an (unreliable) cybercafe, discos and innumerable prostitutes. Every few minutes, the sky over Lokichokio rumbles as a transporter takes off to drop food into Sudan. The aid is controversial – the Khartoum government claims it provides succour to the secessionist militias of the south. Western relief agencies argue that the issue is non-political, a humanitarian crisis it is impossible to ignore. An uneasy truce permits dozens of NGOs based in Lokichokio to keep pumping out the aid.

We were flying across a table-flat, baked brown landscape, approaching Liethnom in southern Sudan. Our pilot made a low pass to check for potholes or wandering cows, then brought the Cessna Caravan down on the orange dirt strip.

By “caravan”, Cessna is evoking not the placid working-class pleasures of an English seaside campsite, but the Arabian romance of the camel caravan. Ironic, then, that Sudan is the one place on earth where that idea still strikes terror. A hundred and fifty years ago, before British colonial rule abolished slavery, the Dinka tribespeople, when they wanted to chide their children, would say: “The camels are coming to take you away!” Now, almost 50 years after independence, the caravans are back. Thousands of men, women and teenagers have been abducted and allegedly forced into slavery. Sudan is divided across the middle between the Arab north and black south, but is dominated by an Arab, Islamic regime.

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Three years ago, the US Christian charity World Relief set up a modest healthcare centre in Liethnom. It has had a huge impact, in particular on infant and maternal mortality. There is nothing of strategic value in Liethnom, yet the staff vividly recall the two occasions they have been bombed. “The last one was on a Sunday morning, when we were in church. Suddenly there was the roar of engines, and the sound of explosions, and everyone was diving for cover.” The raid killed no one, but succeeded in its presumed aim of intimidation. “We’ve got to know the sounds of the different aeroplane engines really well now, and we’re always listening out for an Antonov, and getting ready to run.”

In Liethnom, the farmers told me that the war’s disruption to the planting season means that food will soon be running out. In Lokichokio, aid workers predict another famine later this year. They are gearing up for another vast relief effort.

Why is there war in Sudan? The local commander of the breakaway Sudan People’s Liberation Party received some of his education in the UK. For the British, he retains a fondness, mixed with scorn. “You were the colonial power, and supposedly our friends,” he told me. “But you left this country in the grip of an Arab elite. And we in the south – the more fertile part of Sudan, the place where the oil is – we are exploited and abused. What’s our crime? Being Christian? Being black? All we know is that we have no rights, and are forced to fight in order to survive.”

Historically, it is hard to argue with his analysis. The British kept southern Sudan as a sort of human game reserve, almost totally undeveloped. As independence loomed, we dithered for a decade, toying with integrating the black south into Kenya or Uganda, but finally settling in 1956 on the botched Arab/black entity that has been in a state of civil war almost ever since.

But the commander’s diatribe evades one uncomfortable fact: that the south is fighting itself. There is no southern army per se, but rival militias, petty warlords and straightforward bandits who scrap among themselves for land, influence and money, destroying any hope of a concerted resistance to the north. Recently, these internecine conflicts have attained an unprecedented brutality.

There is no question that government-funded militias are waging war on the south. Currently, they are using scorched-earth tactics to force southerners to vacate thousands of square miles of land, so that Canadian, Swedish and Chinese drilling companies can have unimpeded access to the new oilfields. The windfall revenues are being used to buy high-tech weapons hitherto unseen in Sudan.

For an 18-year conflict that has cost an estimated two million lives in Africa’s largest country, the Sudanese civil war is oddly under-reported; which made last month’s intervention by George W Bush doubly surprising. As a presidential candidate, Bush attacked Bill Clinton for irresponsible adventurism in far-off lands, promising to found his own foreign policy on a rock of non-intervention; but, within weeks of taking office, he announced a major policy review on Sudan. The president’s big guns – the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice – have all gone public: Sudan will be a foreign policy priority for the new regime.

Why has Washington suddenly discovered this impoverished African country? The answer lies in an alliance of right-wing senators, Christians and social activists, including the Congressional Black Caucus. It is the allegation of state support for slavery that most exercises them, and a concerted effort is under way to turn Sudan into the sort of cause that South Africa was in the days of apartheid. Furthermore, America is already in Sudan. The Oregon ladies I flew in with are typical of hundreds of aid workers and missionaries operating in the country. It is common to hear black Sudanese claim that the Muslim government in Khartoum is fighting a jihad against them. And such rhetoric does not make the missionaries uncomfortable; theirs is also a crusade – for peace and democracy, yes, for education and healthcare, but not least for conversion to Christianity. The potential harvest of souls is enormous: Sudan is claimed to have the fastest-growing Christian Church in the world. Khartoum threatens that.

The charismatic evangelist Billy Graham has a son, Franklin, who runs an organisation called Samaritan’s Purse that operates a hospital in southern Sudan, and who delivered the prayer at George W Bush’s inauguration. And Rev Graham Sr has urgently lobbied the new president for action on Sudan. Some critics of the church go further, accusing it of actually exploiting the war in Sudan to convert more of the traditionally animist southerners to Christianity.

Most people I spoke to found it hard to see how the United States can intervene; for the more cynical, the issue is why. No one expects to see the US army back on African soil. Surprisingly few people are uncomfortable that it is the Christian right making the play; Christianity is politicised in Sudan, viewed by some as perhaps the one force capable of uniting and strengthening the south against the Muslim north.

Some observers in America expect an early announcement on Sudan – perhaps oil or arms sanctions against the government in Khartoum (the no-fly zone some are pushing for is unthinkable). Any such initiative will involve Bush in one of the messiest conflicts in the world. Many southern Sudanese feel that reconciliation with the north is now impossible. Will Sudan see the casual geometry of British colonial map-making dissolve, at the cost of two million lives? For now, only two things seem certain: war and further famine.