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Story Publication logo January 20, 2002

Country Sends Mixed Signals On Peace



The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 16-February 6, 2002.

If peace comes to Sudan,perhaps children like Awein Mayan will get help in time.

Awein, 5, developed an eye infection last November in her village, a five-hour walk from Mapel. Doctors were unable to get her out to save her eye, and a secondary infection set in, threatening her life.

Until last week, her prospects were grim because the government had prohibited relief agencies from landing airplanes in Mapel.

But Wednesday morning, Awein and her mother, Yar Dor, climbed aboard one of two planes that had touched down on this remote airstrip in southern Sudanas part of the visit here by special envoy John Danforth. The second aircraft was returning to Kenya, where doctors could remove Awein's eye and try to cure the infection.

"We're taking advantage of Danforth's visit to get her out," said Maria Bleckert, a doctor from Sweden who is spending six months at Mapel. "It would be very nice," she adds, "if we could get the flight ban lifted for good."

Awein's story is one of many that demonstrate how elusive real peace remains in this, Africa's largest country.

Until December 2000, Mapel was a beehive of international humanitarian help. Half a dozen relief agencies were making flights here almost daily, to a region that is one of the few in the world still reporting cases of polio.

But then the government of Sudanshut down access, declaring that the agencies operating here under the United Nations umbrella of Operation Lifeline Sudancould no longer land at Mapel.

The government said it could not guarantee safe access. Agency workers say the real motive, here and in other places similarly blocked, was to deny help to regions sympathetic to the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement. That is the rebel group that controls much of Sudan'ssouthern third, an area that includes many Christians and practitioners of traditional African religions. The rebels' war with the Muslim-dominated government has dragged on for nearly 19 years.

The victims of the government's no-landing policy are Awein and the others who live nearby -- the estimated 41,000 people who would have received polio vaccinations and the untold numbers denied access to the health and nutrition programs that the agencies here had previously provided.

Turning words to deeds

A commitment by Sudan'sgovernment to end the flight ban is one of the tangible results Danforth has achieved since President George W. Bush named him last September as special envoy for peace in Sudan.

There have been other achievements, among them agreement on an independent investigation of allegations of slavery and a regional cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains region. Negotiators for the two sides reached agreement Saturday in Switzerland on plans for extending the cease-fire for an additional six months, with international monitors from Western Europe and the United States.

Yet Danforth's tour of the region this past week produced mixed signals.

Sudan'sgovernment balked at pledging an end to intentional attacks on civilians, declaring that it wanted more details on the monitoring Danforth seeks.

Kenyan President Daniel Moi pledged to work with Egypt on a common approach for peace in Sudan,but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak snubbed Danforth, canceling a meeting planned for Thursday in Cairo.

On Sunday, the team's first full day in Sudan,the lead story in the English-language Khartoum Monitor assailed the government for complicity in slave raids on the tribes of southern Sudan.Members of Danforth's delegation said the article showed the complexity of Sudanese society -- that a government identified as Muslim extremist and engaged in civil war could nonetheless tolerate a press freer than that of most of the countries in Africa.

That was Sunday.

On Tuesday, the Monitor's managing editor, Nihal Bol, was arrested and charged with printing lies. He was held two days and released after payment of a $1,953 fine, following a closed trial at which Bol was denied legal representation.

The newspaper itself was fined $5,860 for last Sunday's article and goes to trial this weekend on similar charges from earlier editions. If the fines are enforced, said Alfred Taban, chairman of the newspaper's board, "then that's it. We don't have the money to pay the fines and if they confiscate our computers, that will shut us down.

"Incidents like that fuel skepticism about the ultimate success of Danforth's mission, even at a place like Mapel -- which Danforth visited for the express purpose of demonstrating that there is no reason to block routine access by relief agencies.

Will the other relief groups now be allowed to return? Zedek Malile, a Kenyan working on a project for Doctors Without Borders, said it was too soon to tell.

"We'll have to wait and see," he said. "Maybe what is spoken and what happens in practice are two different things."

Conflicting signals

Danforth's itinerary Wednesday, his last day in the country, was a case study in why making peace in Sudanis such a challenging, often frustrating, task.

He began the day in Rumbeck, the southern Sudanheadquarters of rebel leader John Garang. Danforth has been saying publicly for weeks that a politically viable end to Sudan'scivil war must include a commitment by both parties to maintaining a unified state.Garang wasn't buying. Over an outdoor dinner with Danforth's team, he clung instead to his own mantra: "one country, two systems" -- meaning a transitional "confederation" that reserves the right for southerners to go for full independence if they are dissatisfied with the results.

"That's a negotiating position, not a serious offer," Danforth said later. "It's not going to happen -- and wishing isn't going to make it happen."

After the stop in Mapel, Danforth's plane touched down to refuel at El Obeid, 250 miles southwest of Khartoum, a staging area for food shipments by the U.N.'s World Food Program.

El Obeid is also one of many landing strips that the Sudanese government uses for bombing runs against the rebels -- bombing that has hit food-drop zones, village markets and other places where the victims have been mostly civilians.

As Danforth's Cessna Caravan taxied up the refueling zone, government soldiers were busy loading 200-pound bombs on to a Russian-made Antonov cargo plane.

The Antonov was specially fitted with a pair of bomb racks below the fuselage. The racks represent a step up in sophistication for an army that has often simply rolled barrels of explosives off the loading ramp of an Antonov in flight.

When an aide traveling with Danforth snapped a photograph of the scene, he was immediately surrounded by security guards saying that no pictures were allowed. Another U.S. aide called the incident a good experience for Danforth. "The senator's getting a look at the big picture," he said -- the fact that Sudan'sgovernment is pressing the war even as it talks peace.

A United Nations worker at El Obeid makes a similar point."

We load the food," he says, "while they load the bombs."

Danforth's day and trip ended on a more hopeful note -- a lavish dinner in Khartoum at the Nile River palace of Ahmed al-Mahdi, leader of Sudan'sAnsar sect and grandson of Muhammad Ahmad, the religious leader who liberated Sudanfrom Egyptian-Turkish rule in 1885.Al-Mahdi leads one of several Muslim groups that favor reconciliation with the south and replacement of Sudan'sgovernment with a more moderate regime. That several dozen such Muslim leaders could mingle freely with Danforth's team was itself evidence that Sudanis not the monolithic dictatorship that western critics assail.

Danforth and al-Mahdi traded tributes (but not toasts, in this teetotaling society) on an uncovered veranda filled with oriental rugs and enough upholstered couches and easy chairs to easily accommodate some 100 guests."

You and I both see problems as well as solutions through the eyes of faith," Danforth told al-Mahdi. "In the United States, the job of reconciliation is a work that's never ended," he said, adding that in Sudantoo "there's a tremendous role to be played by people of religious faith."

Al-Mahdi noted that among the dinner guests Wednesday was the British ambassador, Richard Makepeace.

"It's not a coincidence that the British sent an ambassador with the name of Makepeace," al-Mahdi said. "It is a name that gives us hope that peace is near."

And to Mr. Danforth we say," al-Mahdi added, "that we won't allow you to leave Sudanuntil you make peace, too."


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