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The Nation | A TIMES INVESTIGATION

Buffett's stock conflicts with Gates charity aims

Ties to Darfur are in question. The Gateses are assessing their foundation's own Sudan-related investments.

May 04, 2007|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

Omaha — THE janjaweed militia charged into Hayffa Ahmed's village in Darfur on horseback -- rifles raised, swords glinting, kicking up clouds of dust. First they killed her grandfather, the village chief.

Janjaweed warriors, said to be allies of the Sudanese government, "continued to kill everyone," Ahmed, 30, declared in melodic Arabic. Her voice was soft, like a child's. "They used guns, clubs, swords -- anything to be able to kill or hurt human beings. For some people, they tied them behind their horses and pulled them until they died in the road."

In Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have perished in what the United States calls a genocide, the killing has been supported by profits from companies helping the government of Sudan tap its vast reservoirs of oil, according to services that research corporate conduct for investors. The firms include China's Sinopec Corp., Malaysia's Petronas, and Schlumberger, based in the Netherlands Antilles -- whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation's most significant connection to the Sudanese oil industry, however, is through Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Bill Gates is a Berkshire director, and Berkshire's chairman, Warren E. Buffett, is a trustee of the Gates Foundation. Berkshire holds a $3.3-billion stake in PetroChina Co., a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, the biggest player in Sudanese oil.

Buffett has pledged $31 billion worth of Berkshire stock to the Gates Foundation in annual installments, beginning last year with $1.6 billion. In 2009 and afterward, the foundation expects Berkshire's wealth to fund about half of its charitable awards -- which have included more than $34 million for emergency refugee and health services in Sudan, plus a share of at least $167 million more in regional health grants.

But some of Berkshire's wealth comes from PetroChina, whose parent company supplies a large part of the money that underwrites Sudan's military -- as well as the janjaweed, according to the United States and the United Nations. The infusion of Berkshire stock places the Gates Foundation in conflict with its own efforts to help victims of the Sudanese civil war.

Those victims include refugees of the massacre at Hayffa Ahmed's village.

Sudan denies that it supports the janjaweed and accuses Darfur rebels of instigating the violence. But Sudanese officials acknowledge that some militia commanders and government officials might have committed human rights abuses and vow to prosecute such cases. Amid concerns over a possible boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has recently begun to pressure the Sudanese government to resolve the crisis.

In April 2004, the janjaweed, who had gang-raped girls in neighboring villages, torched houses on the north side of Ahmed's hamlet, near Tawila, looting as they moved south. "We had a chance in that time to run," Ahmed said. She, her husband, Abdel Hamid Mohamed, and their three children fled with only the clothes they were wearing.

They found temporary sanctuary in El Fasher, a nearby city in northern Darfur, at a refugee camp teeming with desperate people. That same month, the Gates Foundation began an infusion of funds to CARE, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and other groups that have operated in the El Fasher camp.

The family moved on to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and then bribed its way to Cairo, where the five obtained official refugee status. Last year, they arrived in Omaha, home to about 9,000 Sudanese refugees, more than anywhere else in America.

The commercial hub of Sudanese life here is modest. A small restaurant, a mom-and-pop grocery, a few storefronts and the Sudanese Center, a social club, are packed into the intersection of 25th and Farnam, in a depressed area of downtown.

By coincidence, nine blocks away stands Berkshire Hathaway's headquarters.

On a recent Monday evening, Gabriel Ngong, a refugee and tax accountant, sat in his outer office, which doubles as a store selling colorful African shirts, and voiced a Sudanese axiom: "The Chinese take oil out for the government, then the government kills the people."

When he was told about Berkshire's investment in PetroChina, and that its stake made Berkshire the largest single independent shareholder in the Chinese company, Ngong said he was surprised and sad. "Our people always trust Americans."

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Buffett rejects divestment

In response to questions from The Times about the Gates Foundation's investments in key economic supporters of the Sudanese government, Monica Harrington, a senior policy officer at the foundation, said: "Bill and Melinda have initiated a process to assess the asset trust investments in Sudan."

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