Inside Sudan: Political Islam, Conflict, And Catastropheby Donald Petterson
Sudan, governed by an Islamist dictatorship, became a pariah nation among the global community not because of its religious orientation but because of its record of human-rights abuses and its fostering of notorious international terrorists. As the last American ambassador to complete an assignment in Sudan, Don Petterson provides unduplicated insights into how Sudan became what it is. Petterson recounts the consequences of the execution of four Sudanese employees of the U.S. government by Sudanese security forces in the southern city of Juba. He relates the experiences of Americans in Khartoum after Washington put Sudan on the black list of state sponsors of terrorism. He offers his personal observations on war-devastated southern Sudan. In this newly revised edition of Inside Sudan, Petterson recounts the events in Sudan from 1998 to the present, considers Sudan’s connections to international terrorists, including Carlos the Jackal and Osama bin Laden, and assesses the changes in the relationship between Sudan and the United States after 9/11.
- Basic Books
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Read an Excerpt
Rarely would any Foreign Service Officer not be elated by an offer of an ambassadorship. In the Foreign Service, the cachet of being an ambassador is more or less the same as attaining flag rank in the military. Only a small percentage of career FSOs become ambassadors, and these days those who do, more often than not, do not get a second opportunity to be in charge of their own embassy. As a result, many FSOs would sell at least a part of their soul to get the telephone call or telegram asking if they would like to be put on a list of candidates for Ambassador to Anywhere.
So why did I hesitate when, in the summer of 1991, the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs called me in Zimbabwe, where I was chargé d'affaires of the American embassy, offering to put me on the list of candidates for Sudan? A number of considerations made Khartoum a less than attractive post, but these did not account for my hesitance.
I knew the weather in Khartoum could be brutal, with maximum temperatures sometimes soaring above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Medical facilities were substandard. Dust storms were frequent during part of the year. Electrical outages occurred often. Cultural amenities were few and far between. The Islamist government exercised tight censorship on the print mediasome Western news publications were banned. It usually took hours and sometimes even days to make an international phone call. Satellite-transmitted television was not available to Americans in Sudan in 1992.
However,inconveniences, scarcity Of amenities, and bad weather were not unique to Sudan and did not worry Julie or me; they had not bothered us in our other African posts. We believed, and our belief was confirmed after we got there, that there was much that would be enriching or romantic about an assignment to Khartoum. Its setting at the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile and the physical vestiges of the colonial era and of the 1881-1885 Mahdist uprising are wonderful to see. From Khartoum one can drive out into the desert and north to the fascinating ruins of the 3,000-year-old Nubian civilization. One can go for a boat ride on the Nile or walk or run along its banks in the early morning hours before the intense heat tightens its grip on the city.
Sudan is a fascinating mixture of Africa and the Arab world. Its people inhabit a land that varies from hot, often windswept deserts in the north to lush savanna and forests in the south. The Sudanese are warm and hospitable people, for the most part approachable and friendly to Americans.
For some Westerners, there is a sense of adventure in being in a Third World country and sharing with like-minded people the excitement of living and working in a place where at times life may not be easy but is seldom boring. American Foreign Service staffers who serve in the more difficult posts often have a sense of belonging and exhibit much higher morale than do their colleagues stationed in large embassies in places like London, Rome, or Paris.
But one thing gave us pause about the offer from the African Bureau, a factor that within the American Foreign Service accounted for a widely held belief, justified or not, that Khartoum was one of the least desirable of assignments: The city was a gathering place for Islamic terrorists, whose hatred for Americans is second only to their hatred for Israelis. Although all the Sudanese governments of the past quarter-century had asserted that they would allow no terrorist organizations to commit acts of violence against foreigners in Sudan, terrorists had targeted Westerners in Khartoum and on occasion had killed or injured Americans or other Westerners.
In 1973, the American ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, his deputy, George Curtis Moore, and the Belgian Chargé d'affaires, Guy Eid, were seized by Palestinian terrorists and assassinated. In the late 1970s, discovery of a plot to bomb the American Club averted what could have been a heavy loss of lives. In 1988, Palestinian terrorists threw grenades into the restaurant of the Acropole Hotel, killing a British couple, their children, and a British teacher. (In 1991, just before the Gulf War started, in a demonstration of hostility to the West, the Sudanese government released the five men who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the Acropole murders.) In 1986, an American embassy communicator was seriously wounded when an unknown assailant, believed to have been a terrorist, shot him in the head. No question about it, Khartoum was a place of potential danger for U.S. diplomats, and naturally the ambassador was the most enticing target of all.
After the phone call from Washington, when Julie and I discussed the potential assignment later that day, we considered the negatives and weighed them against our needs and preferences. Neither of us was ready to abandon our foreign service life. We had met in 1961 at the embassy in Mexico City, my first assignment, when she came in for a tourist visa and I was the vice consul who interviewed her. Seven months later, we were married. After we left Mexico in 1962, we set out on an African odyssey that over the next thirty years took us to posts in Zanzibar, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Somalia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Susan, our eldest child, who was born in Mexico, was a year old when we arrived in Zanzibar in 1963; Julianne and John were born during the two and a half years we were there; and Brian came on the scene in 1979 during our posting to Somalia.
Living in Africa had become the norm for us and was the norm for the children throughout their childhood and adolescence. For Julie and me, our service abroad had enriched our lives with extraordinary experiences and many lasting friendships. Sudan held out the prospect of tasting yet another different culture and getting to know a new set of interesting people.
I did not like the idea of what I knew would be strict security procedures governing my movements in Khartoum. At neither of my two previous ambassadorial posts nor during the year I was in charge of the embassy in Zimbabwe did I have bodyguards or need to ride in an armored car. But American ambassadors in a good number of countries have to accept the restrictions imposed by security precautions to counter possible terrorist attacks. If other ambassadors could put up with the restrictions, why couldn't I? I knew, in addition, that although U.S. diplomatic officials had been targeted, their families had not.
Finally, there was the appeal of dealing with the problem of Sudan. The American ambassador in Khartoum has one of the most difficult, and therefore absorbing, jobs in the Foreign Service. The issues arising from political Islam in Sudan, the terrorist presence in Khartoum, the endless civil war in southern Sudan, international aid for millions of people displaced by the war, manifold human rights violations, and the tension between the governments of the United States and Sudan were complex, engrossing, and of interest to some policymakers in the State Department and the White House. From a professional standpoint, I was sure any other job that might be open to me would not be nearly as stimulating.
After looking at all the pros and cons, Julie and I decided to tell the African Bureau to put my name on the list for Sudan, provided there was a good school in Khartoum for Brian. Once we learned that this was the case, I communicated our decision through Jeff Davidow, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the African Bureau. This set in motion the long process, whose outcome is uncertain, of presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.
About a year laterafter we had finished our tour in Zimbabwe, the secretary of state's ambassadorial selection committee had blessed my nomination, the White House had given its assent, I had studied Arabic for six months, security and financial background checks had been completed, the Senate had confirmed the appointment, and I had been sworn inJulie, Brian, and I boarded a flight at Washington's Dulles International Airport and left for Khartoum.
Meet the Author
In thirty-five years with the Foreign Service, Donald Petterson has served as U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Somalia, and Tanzania. After his retirement in 1995, he was called back into the Foreign Service to take over the US embassy in Liberia. His previous books include Inside Sudan: Political Islam, Conflict, and Catastrophe. He lives in New Hampshire.
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