Sudan Still Wary of US

Eleven years after a US missile attack on Khartoum, tensions remain in the capital.

The swimming pool at the Al Salam Rotana Hotel could be any five-star hotel in Africa. Western couples smoke cigarettes and drink Pepsi while waiters in neatly pressed shirts hurry between lounge chairs refilling drinks and emptying ashtrays. Conversations about office politics drift across the water as four Americans noisily play cards and eat club sandwiches.

Most are aid workers, in the country with the UN or other NGOs. Every few minutes the Mariah Carey album playing on the pool’s sound system is drowned out by a plane landing at Khartoum International Airport a few kilometres away.

Leave the air-conditioned confines of the Rotana and the reality of the Sudanese capital hits you. Dust balls swirl up into massive clouds and the six-lane highways are lined with pictures of Omar Al Bashir, one of the world’s most wanted criminals — according to the International Criminal Court at least. Slogans under his picture greet visitors as they leave the airport. “Sudan will not be the victim of foreign plots,” declares one.

The placards dot the city. Sometimes Bashir is in full military garb, sometimes in national dress, but he is always there, unsmiling, omnipresent. Locals say the signs were not there before March this year, when the ICC issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest. While there is no great sense of duty towards their leader, many Sudanese are angry about the West interfering in internal issues.

The warrant has had a huge effect on the country’s economy. Construction projects have been halted, investors pulled out, and some whispered that the country could become another Somalia. As it was, Bashir left the country for a conference in Qatar — something many Sudanese respected him for. When he returned, he was more popular than ever.

Many were relieved. “We can breathe a bit now,” said one Lebanese-American expatriate. Yet more potential problems loom on the horizon, with elections scheduled for February of next year. “I have my bag packed half packed every day,” the Lebanese-American said, “but next February, I will pack it fully.”

These are internal Sudanese issues, yet there is a feeling, or a hope at least, that Obama’s policy of reaching out to the Muslim world, will include letting Bashir off the hook.

Drive 20 minutes north from the Rotana and you will come across another reason why many Sudanese are skeptical about the West. In the early evening of August 20th, 1998, 13 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from a US Navy Destroyer in the Indian Ocean decimated the Al Shifa Pharmaceutical plant. The Clinton Administration — a Democrat one too some here have noted–claimed the plant was being used to manufacture chemical weapons, something the Sudanese still deny. The bombings occurred days after terrorist attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Many Sudanese felt the Americans needed a scapegoat. Al Shifa was it.

Eleven years on and the site is still preserved, a monument to Sudan’s harsh treatment by the West. A woman and her eight-month-old daughter live at the entrance of to the ruins, their hut (made of corrugated iron, wire and reed) is the only structure that has been erected since the attacks. Across the road is a Volkswagen showroom. Parts of the Tomahawk missile engines are still scattered around the site, as are melted medicine bottles and creaking hunks of metal.

The woman, who did not want to be photographed or named, had not seen nor heard Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, but was clear about how the American president could win back her trust. “He needs to say sorry for this,” she said via a translator, waving her arms at the devastation around her. She shared the hut, which had one single bed and no door, with her child and her husband who was at the mosque. They earned some money by letting curious visitors and the occasional journalist in. It was unclear why she and her husband had been chosen for the job, but she claimed she had been there for for years. In one of the few buildings that was not completely flattened someone has scrawled ‘down USA’ on a white wall.

Outside the compound four men gather around. Through a translator they explain that even though they hate Bush, they hate Bill Clinton even more. They are quick to point out they don’t hate Americans. “We know they do not control what happens.” All the men were unemployed, but seemed remarkably cheerful, a trait all the Sudanese I met seemed to share.

The city itself, home to more than two million people, could not be described as beautiful. The streets are half formed, rubbish is everywhere and the traffic is chaotic. Even the city’s showpiece, the Nile, is vast, murky and uninviting. Geopolitically however, Sudan has huge significance. It’s the largest country in Africa [author note: until it split in 2011] and the US is aware that it could slide into anarchy if Bashir is deposed.

The locals seem aware of this fact and hope it will help their reentry into the international community. Clambering through the rubble of the Al Shifa plant, one gets the feeling that trust needs to be won on both sides.

This article first appeared in the June 11th 2009 edition of the Khaleej Times