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Story Publication logo January 16, 2002

Sudanese in Remote Region Embrace Danforth



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 they put on rallies like this back home, John Danforth might still be in politics.

Danforth touched down Tuesday in one of Sudan's most isolated regions, a red-dirt strip in the middle of the Nuba Mountains that Danforth has made a special focus in his role as U.S. special envoy for peace in Sudan.

There's no town here, no road, not even a tukol, a traditional adobe hut. Repeated attacks by government troops have forced the people off their land and on to less fertile but safer plots high in the hills.

Yet on Tuesday they were out in force, several thousand strong, people who had walked for hours -- even days -- to support the peace mission Danforth has undertaken, to show their backing of the rebels, or just to satisfy their curiosity.

Danforth, a former U.S. senator from Missouri, arrived with his team in a 12-person Cessna single-prop plane. He was immediately asked to perform a local ritual: jumping over a freshly slaughtered bull. He did so, blood still pulsing from the bull's slit throat, as the crowd wailed, sang and cheered.

Next came review of the troops, who stood at strict attention in crisp forest green. Danforth stood with Ismael Jallab, commander of the rebel army's fourth front.

The commander wore camouflage, a red beret, a pistol at his waist and, over his chest, a plastic name tag. Danforth, in khaki pants, an open blue shirt and comfort shoes, didn't look martial at all.

The soldiers and residents walked up a slight hill to a dusty clearing with a shaded hut and a loudspeaker hooked up to a solar generator. Several dozen onlookers climbed every available tree, craning for a glimpse of Danforth as he explained, through a translator, what had brought him to Sudan.

"I am here because the president of the United States, George W. Bush, ordered me to come," Danforth said. "He asked me to find out if the people of Sudan want peace.

"Maybe there are some people who benefit from fighting," he added. "But your message today is very clear: You've had enough of fighting. You want peace for yourself and for your families."

Cheers for Danforth

Everyone cheered and then two women, bare-breasted and covered with white body paint in bold geometric designs, presented Danforth with an enormous pumpkin gourd on which scenes of war destruction had been painted. It was a gift, they told Danforth, for President Bush.

The distance between Karkar and places like Missouri and Washington was apparent as a reporter asked 20 or so of those in the audience what they thought of Bush. No one knew who he was. Only one, a middle-aged woman, claimed familiarity with a place called America.

So what about all the excitement at the airstrip? Who were these strangers who had just dropped down from the sky?

Sena, a shy girl with tightly braided hair who was wearing a flowery blue and white dress, acknowledged she was stumped. "It's white people?" she ventured, although two of the diplomats on Danforth's mission are African-American.

Ahmed Saeed, an aid coordinator with the rebel movement's relief arm, said it was difficult for outsiders to appreciate just how remote these rolling, sparsely vegetated mountains are. Getting to Karkar meant a nine-hour walk for him, Saeed said, adding that he knew of many people who had walked for several days to get there.

As Danforth walked back to the plane, he made his way through crowds that included men performing a traditional stick-fighting dance. The crowd cheered as he re-entered the plane, then made way so the Cessna could take off.

Sending a message

The large crowds that turned out weren't just welcoming Danforth. They were also sending a message to Sudan's government that in these hills, support still runs high for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA rebels.

Earlier Tuesday, Danforth received a contrary message when he stopped for meetings in Kadugli, capital of the state of South Kordofan and a government stronghold.

The U.S. team received a rousing welcome there as well. Hundreds turned out in the town center, singing and dancing as Danforth made his way around the square.

Majzoub Yousif Babikir, the state governor, told the U.S. group that supporters of the SPLA had dropped to fewer than 30,000, in a state whose population he estimated at 1.5 million. He also claimed that 50,000 villagers had shifted sides over the past year, coming down from SPLA strongholds in the hills and returning to their original villages.

Government officials also accused the SPLA of breaking the cease-fire that Danforth's team negotiated in November. They said a land mine had gone off Monday just a few miles from Kadugli, killing two and wounding three. The SPLA has accused the government of similar violations, most recently last week.

U.S. officials traveling with Danforth voiced skepticism about the government claim. The local officials did not offer interviews with any of the so-called returnees. Outside human rights groups refer to them as displaced persons -- people forced by fighting and hunger to relocate in government "peace camps" throughout Sudan.

Danforth's day finished in Rumbeck, the SPLA rebel stronghold in southern Sudan and a main distribution point for United Nations humanitarian aid. The U.S. team was meeting there with John Garang, leader of the SPLA and the key player on the rebel side in terms of forging a deal for peace.

Representatives of Garang's organization and the government are meeting this week in Switzerland for face-to-face discussions on how to make permanent the shaky cease-fire for the Nuba Mountains that has been in force, more or less, since November.

While Sudanese on both sides of the war hailed Danforth's visit, his appearance meant nothing but trouble for the bulls of Sudan.

Making his way from the Rumbeck airport to the UNICEF compound, Danforth stopped twice more to leap over freshly dead bulls in the ritual said to bring good luck to visitors. He made a previous bull leap on his first trip to the Nuba Mountains in November.

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