The Forgotten War

Peace talks to end one of the world’s oldest civil wars collapsed in Nairobi, Kenya, last July. On the same day,
rebels and aid workers in southern Sudan reported that the Government’s sole bomber had dropped a shell
that spewed a green gas. Within a week, doctors said, hundreds of people were seriously ill. Elsewhere in
southern Sudan, fighting between the northern Islamic Government and Christian and animist southerners had
cut off more than 160,000 refugees from the foreign aid they needed to survive.

There was no international debate on what to do, or any urgent message from the Oval Office. Unlike the
refugees of Kosovo, the four million people driven from their homes in Sudan receive only marginal world
attention. The deaths of 1.9 million southern Sudanese since 1983 remain a little-known statistic.
News reporting from Sudan has long been difficult. Government and rebel restrictions make covering the
country practically impossible. Reporters are usually able to get in only by accompanying aid workers, and see
only those areas where aid agencies can operate.

If there is little daily journalism coming from Sudan, there are even fewer books, and like most news
dispatches they have focused on the humanitarian catastrophe. Bringing a veteran diplomat’s perspective,
”Inside Sudan,” by Donald Petterson, is a welcome addition to the limited number of publications on 20thcentury

Petterson became the United States Ambassador to Sudan in 1992, four years after the military coup that
brought the current Government to power. He left in 1995, before conditions in Khartoum had become so
tenuous that the United States Embassy was closed and moved to Nairobi. Petterson’s tenure is an important
chapter in American relations with Sudan.

A veteran diplomat specializing in Africa, Petterson had served in Zanzibar, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa,
Somalia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Even though he acknowledges that Khartoum was one of the least desirable
assignments in the Foreign Service, he welcomed the challenge of engaging a government that was at odds
with Washington on almost everything.

Sudan and the United States have never been on very good terms. Political and economic chaos began in
Sudan with independence in 1956. Two years later, Sudan’s military took power in the first of four coups. But
the mostly black, animist or Christian southerners, forever fearful of Arab and Muslim dominance in the north,
had already taken up arms in 1955, and except for a hiatus from 1972 to 1982, they have fought steadily for
an independent nation.

The Sudanese Government refused to join the United States in opposing the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and
broke off diplomatic relations with Washington from 1967 to 1972 to protest American support for Israel. From
1972 to 1983 relations improved, but Washington reduced aid in 1985, after the war in the south reignited and
the Government proved increasingly dictatorial. The coup in 1989 activated an American law that cut off all
assistance except for food and medicine.

So Petterson started out with little diplomatic leverage. As he explains here, he also learned upon his arrival
that the embassy had lost radio contact with the United States Agency for International Development office in
the southern town of Juba. A month later, a military officer reported that four Sudanese employees of the
embassy had been executed for treason.

Petterson protested the executions, but in what he describes as an amazing lack of concern for human rights,
Hasan al-Turabi, the head of the National Islamic Front and the real power in Sudan, replied that the men
were unimportant and that Washington would soon forget about its dead employees. Turabi would be proven
wrong. Three years later the Government nominated a general who was involved in the executions to be
Sudan’s Ambassador to the United States. Washington and Petterson rejected the nominee, setting off another

Petterson recounts his meetings with government and rebel leaders, always saying the encounters ended
cordially despite an inability to agree on anything. Ever the diplomat, he splits the blame for the war evenly
between the warring sides. The southerners want independence and an end to Islamic law. The Government
believes in unity and political Islam.

Aid workers are the heroes in the book, struggling to stave off starvation in huge refugee camps that often
come under attack. But Petterson glides over how both rebel and Government troops siphon off aid for their
war effort.

And, unfortunately, his book leaves out volumes. He doesn’t tell us where the Government or the rebels in
such an impoverished country get the money for a 16-year civil war. He doesn’t discuss the extensive and
highly prized oil fields discovered by an American oil company along the line where Sudan could logically be

While Petterson describes regional peace efforts, he offers only a few sentences on the geopolitics. He briefly
mentions Ugandan and Eritrean support for the rebels, but does not note Sudanese backing for the renegade
Lord’s Resistance Army, which raids elementary schools in northern Uganda, kidnapping hundreds of children
and turning them into soldiers or sex servants. There is also no mention of the chattel slavery still practiced by
Arab tribes.

Finally, ”Inside Sudan” fails to deliver any revelations on United States policy. Petterson states over and over
again that Sudan aids terrorists and commits human rights violations, but he doesn’t provide any details that
have not already been reported in the news media. Similarly, he repeatedly says that there was no support for
any greater American role in Sudan than diplomatic engagement and nonmilitary aid, but he doesn’t lay out
what other options were discussed.

At one point Petterson encounters Sudanese opposition leaders who had hoped that following its victory in the
gulf war, the United States would turn its attention to Sudan. Petterson soberly convinces them that this was
not about to happen. Now that the United States has, after Kosovo, established a doctrine of using military
intervention for human rights purposes, one wonders if those same men are fruitlessly getting their hopes up

If there is little daily journalism coming from Sudan, there are even fewer books, and like most news
dispatches they have focused on the humanitarian catastrophe. Bringing a veteran diplomat's perspective,
''Inside Sudan,'' by Donald Petterson, is a welcome addition to the limited number of publications on 20thcentury

October 31, 1999
Associated Press