The Washington Diplomat / November 2004
By Larry Luxner
Khidir Haroun Ahmed is very much on the defensive these days.
As Sudan's highest-ranking official in Washington, Ahmed is in the awkward position of having to justify his government's continuing war against rebels in western Darfur province — a war that has led to human suffering on a scale unmatched anywhere else in Africa, or the world for that matter.
"This is genocide, and according to USAID [Agency for International Development], worse is coming," said Peter Kranstover, an official of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. He told the Washington Diplomat that 2.5 million people "are in desperate need of aid," but that only half that number are receiving it.
"The government has to be taken to task for what has transpired," said Kranstover. "There's good evidence from a number of different sources that they encouraged and armed irregular forces in order to put down any type of dissent, and any group that happens to be against their very strong, centralized government policy. There's well-documented coordination between the Janjaweed and the Sudanese Air Force in bombing villages, poisoning wells and destroying infrastructure."
Yet Ahmed said it's not fair to blame the Sudanese government, when the real culprits are two rebel groups — the Justice and Equality Movement, affiliated with the Sudan Liberation Army, and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, formed in 1983 and backed by Eritrea.
"Rebellion is the major cause of this problem. The government did not go on a rampage to get rid of these people," he said. "In February 2003, these two rebel movements launched their attacks, in their own words, to get attention. They destroyed nearly all the police stations in Darfur and killed hundreds of police officers. That created a security vaccum, with no law enforcement in an area the size of Texas."
Measuring more than 900,000 square miles, Sudan is the largest country in Africa. It's the same size as the United States east of the Mississippi River, and is a potentially wealthy country, with vast reserves of precious metals and possibly petroleum.
Between 32 million and 35 million people live in Sudan; Ahmed isn't quite sure how many, since no reliable census has been conducted in years.
Yet other statistics tell the real story. A punishing civil war between the predominantly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south has raged since 1955, killing more than a million people, creating 4.5 million internal refugees and boosting Khartoum's capital to 6 million. Starvation is rampant, especially in the south, and Sudan remains on the United Nations list of the world's 48 least developed countries.
In Darfur, the situation is especially critical, with the number of displaced persons likely to rise by 500,000, according to the United Nations.
"Today, still increasing numbers of the population of Darfur are exposed, without any protection from their government to hunger, fear and violence," says an Oct. 4 report by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the UN Security Council. "The numbers affected by the conflict are growing and their suffering is being prolonged by inaction. In a significant proportion of the territory, security conditions have worsened."
Between five and six million people live in Darfur, and they're composed of 83 different tribes. But the rebels groups are drawn from only three of these tribes, the Zargawa, Malai and Fur peoples.
"You had a breakdown of law enforcement, so there was a chaotic situation where people turned against each other, burning, looting and committing all kinds of atrocities. But the government has never been in a position to commit atrocities against its own people," Ahmed claims. "That makes no sense."
Kranstover, who spent a great deal of time visiting Sudanese refugee camps in neighboring Chad, doesn't buy that argument for a minute.
"From what I was able to gather by speaking with a number of Sudanese refugees both in camps as well as refugees in villages along the border with Chad, they told me that the Janjaweed visit every day, shooting their guns in the air to let the Sudanese know they shouldn't come back. This is clearly an indication that an insecure situation continues to prevail."
Amnesty International and other human-rights groups have reported that women and girls have suffered multiple forms of violence during attacks on their villages, including rape, killings, the burning of homes and the pillaging of livestock. Women have also been reportedly tortured during interrogation by security forces for being relatives of suspected rebels.
The UN World Food Program recently admitted that the crisis in Darfur isn't going away anytime soon.
"The aid crisis is going to continue at least until the end of next year," said WFP spokesman Greg Barrow, adding that this year's intense media focus on Darfur and a stream of high-level foreign visitors had helped, but that the world must not forget the crisis when attention fades. "This is a very, very precarious situation. The levels of humanitarian aid will need to be sustained at or above the same level as this year."
Ahmed, who with his wife Howaida Abdulkarim Mahmoud has six children, said that the international community contributes only 50% of the necessary aid, and of that 50%, around 85%, or about $100 million, is coming from the United States, specifically USAID.
"I am amazed that despite this outcry over Darfur, the other rich countires do not help our people," he said. "We are very grateful to the Bush administration for its engagement and approach to the Sudan issue through constructive engagement, contrary to the previous [Clinton] administration, which was working for regime change."
Ahmed wouldn't say which candidate he prefers, only that "whoever wins this election, we are hopeful that he builds upon what we have achieved together, in terms of peace, cooperation and combating international terrorism."
Because the United States doesn't have full diplomatic relations with Khartoum, Ahmed, 52, still holds the rank of chargé d'affaires rather than ambassador. He presides over 20 staffers working at Sudan's modest three-story embassy on Massachusetts Avenue — the site of many recent demonstrations calling for an end to the atrocities.
Ahmed said it's ironic that both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have used the word "genocide" to describe Sudan's actions against the people of Darfur, but that "nobody else at all, including the African Union, the European Union, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference" has done so.
Asked why, the Sudanese diplomat said it's a matter of election-year politics.
"Kerry brought it up two months ago, and then unfortunately both candidates were trying to show which one is more humane. One candidate is accusing the other of not doing enough to stop this so-called genocide in the making. So the other side has to respond, saying no, we're doing our job."
He added: "I'm not denying that there's a human tragedy, but we have to be frank. For some time, Sudan has become a domestic issue with respect to the North-South civil war. You have a coalition of opposing groups, with the religious right perceiving the war as between Muslims and Christians, and the African-American community perceiving it as similar to apartheid, i.e. Arabs versus black people. So this coalition is back in business."
Kranstover said such accusations are "absolutely untrue" and "a reflection of the conspiratorial" mentality of the Sudanese regime, which he says consisently obscures the truth about Darfur.
Last month, the Sudanese Embassy was closed for a three-week period, presumably because of the Riggs Bank scandal. Ahmed said the closure had nothing to do with the demonstrations, which sometimes attracted 10 or 15 people and other days several hundred, including well-known personalities like actor Danny Glover.
"I invited the protesters to come and talk to me, but very few of them did," he said, noting with a visible sigh of relief that the protests have since stopped. "Maybe they felt they achieved their goal by making the administration characterize the situation as genocide."
Perhaps it's no surprise that Ahmed finds himself constantly explaining his government's actions to newspaper reporters and before TV cameras.
"The issue is in the media now, almost every day. Frankly, we're having a very tough time. And what we are very surprised is that nobody has raised a finger against the people who should be treated as terrorists, those who perpretrated this in the first place, who killed tribal chiefs and contributed to the collapse of law and order in that region."