Leaders of bankrupt, ostracized Sudan blame West for making it a scapegoat

April 21, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Sudan is dogged by famine and civil war, the distrust of the world and an economy that is bankrupt. And this month it ran out of gas.

So why is the leader of this country smiling, describing Sudan as an "inspiration" for other Islamic countries?

Hassan al-Turabi, a 60-year-old Muslim philosopher educated in London and Paris, clearly relishes thumbing his nose at the West, which he blames for spreading lies about Sudan.

"The problems are exaggerated," says Mr. Turabi, a slight man swathed in white, gauzy robes and headdress, with a short-cropped gray beard.

The empty streets of the capital, filled only with the drifting desert sand and the few overloaded buses that still had fuel, belie his claim. People here do not believe it.

"Our stupid government has made Sudan into an island," said an angry Khartoum resident, willing to speak out but too wary to give his name.

For a decade, Sudan has squandered its sustenance on fighting. A long civil war and tribal attacks have bred such chaos that the huge country, once viewed as a breadbasket for Africa, now depends on the world's conscience to relieve widespread starvation.

Sudan has no credit and few friends. Its only allies, Iran, Iraq and Libya, give Sudan weapons for its soldiers but not gasoline or food.

While its people starve in the south, the government pursues Islamic politics that further earn the enmity of the world. It is accused of encouraging terrorism, trampling human rights, and -- until recently -- frustrating attempts to combat the famine in the non-Muslim south.

The United States has warned Sudan against allowing itself to be a base for terrorists. Sudan's neighbors are equally wary: Algeria and Egypt have accused it of fomenting unrest in their countries.

And the United Nations voted overwhelmingly in December to condemn Sudan's human rights record, which includes alleged atrocities, torture and political imprisonment.

"They have made no bones about their belief that their brand of Islam is going to triumph," a Western diplomat in Khartoum said. "There are a lot of unsavory people here who are up to no good."

Sudan's government contends it is a scapegoat for the West's fear of Islam.

"The West is trying to victimize Sudan and ostracize it," said Ghazi Salahuddin al-Atabani, a top government minister. "Our ideas are not very likable to the West. Sudan represents a model of a rebel country."

But Sudan is really two very different places: Southern Sudan, where men still practice ritualized scarring of their faces and greet each other in the round, friendly vowels of Swahili, is African. Many have accepted Christianity from missionaries; others practice traditional animist religions.

The north, including Khartoum, is Arab. Its daily language and rituals are Arabic, and its attention is drawn more to the Middle East than to other countries on its own continent. It is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Since independence in 1956, six governments ranging from democracies to dictatorships have tried to stitch together the disparate regions.

The current government, which has promised to impose Islamic law, has offered the south some autonomy but is loath to surrender the south's potential oil and agricultural riches to secession.

"We want to maintain the integrity of the country," Mr. al-Atabani said. The British colonialists who lumped north and south into one country "left us with a time bomb," he said. "It is a problem that must be solved by a political solution."

The south has long felt oppressed by the "Arabs" of the north, and it rejects any compromise that leaves Khartoum with control.

"Why should we spill blood for a united Sudan? The north is a different culture, a different religion," John Luk, an official of the rebel movement, said in Nairobi, Kenya.

In recent months, international pressure has prompted the government and the rebels to agree on a temporary cease-fire. But the rebels themselves are split, and the largest faction, controlled by John Garang, has used the lull to attack its opponents in an effort to gain control of territory along the east bank of the White Nile.

This fighting among the rebels has caused frequent interruptions in relief efforts in large sections of the south and increased civilians' misery.

It also has allowed the government to claim the high moral ground. With an exceptionally good sorghum and wheat harvest this year in the north, the government has offered free grain for relief operations and has opened corridors to transport the aid as far south as the rebels will allow.

"The government is more cooperative now than ever before," said Georgio Maragliano, who heads the U.N. World Food Program in Khartoum.

Donald Petterson, the U.S. ambassador in Khartoum, agrees, up to a point. "Things are better," he said. "But certain areas are closed off, and bureaucratic obstacles have been raised."

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