Tales of slavery contradicted by Sudan diplomat Ambassador: "There are no slaves.... There is a vicious portrayal about Sudan," Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed insists

June 18, 1996|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE AND GREGORY KANE SO SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON — Soon after our return from Sudan, we meet with Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, Sudan's ambassador to the United States.

Over soft drinks in the lobby cafe of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, he flatly denies that the government in Khartoum sponsors or condones slavery.

"Slavery is not a practice of the government of Sudan," he asserts. "It is contrary to the value of the people of Sudan and the declared policy of Sudan."

He acknowledges that the warring tribes often take captives for ransom but disputes that this is slavery. He describes it more as the abduction of hostages than enslavement.

"There are no slaves. There are ransoms. Any tribes in Sudan can do that," he says. "In many cases conflicts arise between the different tribes over rights to grazing areas or water resources. .. Sometimes they fight each other fiercely. The triumphant one, or maybe both, may take ransom from each other. They could be men or women, young or old.

"Sometimes they may burn the houses of each other. The traditional way of resolving it is to contact the chieftains of the neighboring tribes and establish a mediation which will conclude in agreement to exchange the people who have been taken by each party."

His account differs little from the testimony we have heard of Muslim militia raids on African tribal villages except on one crucial issue ` the complicity of the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum in the slave raids. All the witnesses we interviewed, including former slaves, families that lost members to slavery and two Arab militia officers, implicated the government in sponsoring and supporting the slave raids.

Slavery is one of the major issues straining U.S.-Sudanese relations. The other is Sudan's support for international terrorism.

In May the State Department expelled the Sudanese Embassy's information attache in Washington in reprisal for Sudan's failure to obey a U.S. Security Council demand for extradition to Ethiopia of three Sudanese suspects in an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This year the United States, citing "security concerns," closed its embassy in Khartoum and moved its diplomats to Nairobi in neighboring Kenya.

The State Department's 1995 human rights report on Sudan says: "All the reports and information received indicates the direct and general involvement of the SPAF [army], the PDF [militia] ... and mujahidin groups backed by the government in the abduction and deportation of civilians from the conflict zones to the north."

But the ambassador insists that the Khartoum government is not directly involved. Sudan, he says, is a vast country. It has poor communications and is suffering from the disruption of civil war between Islamic government forces and rebels in the south. Under these circumstances, the government has difficulty exercising central control in some areas.

"Most generally these incidents occur in the rebel-controlled areas," he says. This is accurate inasmuch as the raids mainly occur in rebel territory, but most of those captured appear to be taken to government-controlled areas.

To emphasize his point, the ambassador notes that the United States, for all its sophisticated communications network and intense media coverage, is still wracked by police violence and sweatshop labor conditions, both of which are against federal policy.

"It has been seen here in this country," he says. "Rodney King ... he was mistreated. That cruel practice doesn't show it is a government practice or something that was condoned by the government.

"There is [in Sudan] a huge displacement, a huge number of refugees, a no-man's land. You are dealing with a very complex )) TC case. People who come from Europe and the United States, with very limited knowledge about the background of Africa, the tribal element and the displacement made by war, sometimes the business of government control ... they interpret things in a manner which is not factual, which is not close to reality in Africa.

"The media, at times, is very selective in what it chooses. It perpetuates the image which it creates. It will create an image about all Africa, or a country in Africa, in a manner which is very difficult to [escape]. There is a vicious portrayal about Sudan.

"I know these practices [of slavery] are not there, but I will not guarantee that someone in the very difficult places might misbehave. That is to be expected."

He says the evidence we collected in Sudan could be "extremely valuable to the government," adding: "First of all, I have to appreciate your concern about what you characterize as the practice of slavery, and your desire to look for reality, and your attempt to bring it to the attention of someone who is in charge."

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