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Darfur Crisis Stokes Anti-U.S. Sentiment

Sudanese express resentment of American pressure on their government as state-run media deny that atrocities are occurring.

September 09, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Umar Mohammed Ahmed traveled with his terrible memories as he sprawled on the top of an overloaded truck rumbling over the corrugated road from Darfur to Khartoum. He escaped fear but not anger.

During that weeklong trip, Ahmed, 38, thought often about his wife and five children left behind, his slain aunt and a 10-year-old girl named Kaltuna who was raped by militia members on her way to fetch water. He thought about people shot down and the taste of smoke from his burning village, Deleij, in remote West Darfur.

Once safe in the capital, Khartoum, he had only to listen to government-controlled radio or watch television to reignite his rage against a government that had betrayed him.

"What I heard on TV is not the reality. I heard on TV that the situation in Darfur is all right, but it's not," he said. "I feel angry when I see the government saying things that aren't true. Most people have got no idea that's going on. They just believe what they hear on the TV."

U.S. pressure on the government of Sudan to act in Darfur has triggered a flurry of anti-American rhetoric from hard-liners in Khartoum, and those feelings have found ready believers in a Muslim society unhappy with the United States because of the Iraq war and fears that it covets Sudan's oil. Western diplomats and human rights groups believe that some of the most strident government officials are responsible for unleashing the Arab militias that have carried out atrocities in Darfur, the nation's vast western region.

The rhetoric hardened after the U.S. Congress described attacks against black tribes in Darfur as genocide and the United Nations Security Council called in July for Sudan to protect people there or face international action.

Students at Khartoum University are some of the most politically active and polarized of Sudanese. The sight of a Western journalist with a notebook conjured an instant crowd of angry students, each with his own opinion on the Darfur situation.

"Really, there's no problem in Darfur," said law student Mohammed Gilal, 27. "If there's any problem, America is behind it," he added, expounding on one current conspiracy theory that America armed the rebels who rose up in Darfur last year, aiming to gain control of Sudan and its oil.

Mohammed Salih, 23, a computer science graduate, said the West should stay out of Darfur.

"We don't want any interference from these countries. I hate America because they put so much pressure on other countries, on Iraq too. I think there will be the same problem with us," he said.

Sudan was once a haven for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but the government's cooperation with the U.S. on terrorism since Sept. 11 ushered in a new relationship.

The U.S. Embassy reopened a year ago after being closed for five years -- though no ambassador has arrived -- and America played an active role in peace talks between the government and rebels to end a 21-year civil war in the south.

Sudan was inching toward being removed from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism after 11 years, and U.S. sanctions, in place since 1997, were about to be lifted. If not for the Darfur crisis, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir and southern rebel leader John Garang probably would have been feted at the White House by now, diplomats said.

After Sudan's army failed quell to a separate rebellion by the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement early last year, the government supported Arab militias, known as janjaweed, to fight the Darfur rebels, who came from black farming tribes. Arab herdsmen had long been their rivals for declining water sources and land for pasture. With the backing of Sudan's military, the militias launched a campaign of terror, killing, raping women, burning villages, stealing livestock and driving the people from their land, using epithets including "slaves."

Given the racial overtones and the government military support for the campaign, which seemed designed to dispossess the Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa tribes, international human rights groups dubbed it "ethnic cleansing." Unlike genocide, there is no international legal definition of ethnic cleansing, nor any legal obligation for other nations to act.

One diplomat in Khartoum said that late last year, when the scale of the Darfur crisis was becoming clear, U.S. and British officials were reluctant to support the idea of a U.N.-sponsored humanitarian assessment for fear of riling the Sudanese government and upsetting the delicate north-south peace talks that seemed poised for resolution.

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